Lives For Sale: Biographers’ Tales ed. Mark Bostridge

Lives For SaleThis was one of the books I picked up in Hay-on-Wye last year, and it’s going to be more or less impossible to write about in detail – so I’ll start with saying that it’s a fantastic book and anybody interested in biography and biographers should hunt down a copy.

It’s a collection of essays written about biography by the great and the good of that world. I won’t list them all, but Lyndall Gordon, Hermione Lee, Margaret Forster, Hilary Spurling, Claire Tomalin, Antonia Fraser, Frances Spalding, John Sutherland, Michael Holroyd, Jenny Uglow, Claire Harman… even, rather surprisingly, Beryl Bainbridge. It’s quite an impressive collection (originally compiled for the launch of a new edition of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography) – I’m not sure how many were written especially for this, but it’s absolutely fascinating.

The essays that work best are those that look at particular issues with the process of biography – whether that be antagonistic relatives, unearthing unexpected manuscripts, or racing against another biographer of the same subject. These glimpses behind the curtain are sometimes gossipy, sometimes moving, and always extremely interesting. #

There are a handful of essays that don’t work so well. The editor, Mark Bostridge, has rather bizarrely given himself 17 pages when everybody else gets around 6 – it feels rather vain, and his chapter isn’t especially interesting – and the essayists (notably Hermione Lee) who write about their subjects rather than writing the biography seem to have missed the point. We don’t need an abridged version of findings from the biography; much more interesting is how they chose the topic or the obstacles they faced.

Luckily, most of the chapters do just this – and whether or not you are particularly interested by the subjects or the authors themselves, I think you’ll find it almost all extremely engrossing. An invaluable accompaniment to any biography bookcase!

3 thoughts on “Lives For Sale: Biographers’ Tales ed. Mark Bostridge

  • July 22, 2017 at 12:23 pm
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    This sounds like an interesting read. It is interesting to find out how the biographers choose thei subject and how they go about researching. I love reading biographies and have severeal from the writers you mention. I will try to see if I can find it. Thank you for the tip.

    Reply
  • July 23, 2017 at 6:54 pm
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    This sounds fascinating and I’ve just popped it on my wish list. How odd about the editor giving himself extra space, though!

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  • July 25, 2017 at 6:33 pm
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    But Mark Bostridge’s is by far the most interesting of the contributions – along with the essays by Fiona MacCarthy and Hilary Spurling. If I remember correctly, many of the essays were broadcast on Radio Four. A treat!

    Reply

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