Best Account We Have

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Publishing a new biography of W B Yeats was always going to be a risky business. First there is the matter of R F Foster’s opening slice of ‘authorised’ life, which came out as recently as 1997. Then there are the many newish and specific studies that view the silly, grand old man in the […]

Such a Joy to Make Sense of Coleridge

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Richard Holmes ended the first volume of this biography, Coleridge: Early Visions, with a fascinating speculation. ‘Suppose Coleridge had indeed died, as he and his friends clearly expected he would, aged thirty-one, somewhere in the Mediterranean in 1804? Suppose his grave now lay, not in the leafy confines of Highgate Cemetery, but in the remote […]

Too Many Pimples?

Posted on by Tom Fleming

Sir Philip Sidney has always appealed to his fellow poets as the type of what a poet should be. Shelley called him ‘a spirit without spot’ and Browning called him ‘the starry paladin’. His legend bears comparison, in many respects, with that of Rupert Brooke.

Eric Blair: Grocer

Posted on by David Gelber

Busy researching a biography of Cyril Connolly, I was surprised to come across a note from George Orwell to his old school friend suggesting that they should review each other’s most recent books on the familiar grounds of ‘You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.’ Whereas Connolly – idle, greedy, pin-striped, racked with self-pity – […]

The Swan of Odense Had a Taste for the Quality

Posted on by David Gelber

As it turns out, Hans Christian Andersen did look a bit like Danny Kaye, the Hollywood comic prince who portrayed him in the schmaltzy biopic of 1952. Lanky, clown-footed and with eager, mobile features, Andersen grew handsome only in middle age, when accomplishment and celebrity settled a kind of self-confidence upon him. Until then, he […]

Prince of Polemicists

Posted on by David Gelber

The main thesis of this well-written, robust, sympathetic study of Hazlitt and his age is that he was a man both representative of and seriously at odds with the prevailing literary, political and social currents. In particular, he was the greatest quarreller of the early years of the nineteenth century. The characteristic Romantic mode of […]

The Woman Behind the Wheel

Posted on by David Gelber

When considering wives of twentieth-century artists, the line between muse and typist can be hard to find. Ditto chauffeur. Vladimir Nabokov could neither drive nor type, nor remember a telephone number. His beautiful, clever, capable, devoted Véra did it all for him and gave his lectures, too, when he was indisposed. She helped him chase, […]

One of Literature’s Greatest Liars

Posted on by Marketing Manager

In 1881, shortly before his death, Trelawny was visited by the eminent archivist Sir Sidney Colvin. Like others who had beaten a path to Trelawny’s door, Colvin had come to listen to a legendary raconteur. Trelawny’s tales of plucking Shelley’s heart from his funeral pyre or of discovering Byron’s clubbed feet had entertained Victorian drawing-rooms […]

Debt was the Spur

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Rooting around in the basement of a Camden library a couple of decades ago I came across a set of shelves buckling under the weight of the handsome Caxton edition of Balzac’s Comédie humaine, published in 1899 to mark the centenary of the author’s birth. Inserted in the copy of Eugénie Grandet was a note […]

Why did the Bitch Have to Leave Him?

Posted on by David Gelber

This life of George Barker does something every poet’s biography should do: it relates the poems, in knowledgeable and lively detail, to the life. It was a long life, and there were a lot of poems. Robert Fraser has worked hard and lovingly; it must have taken ages. But readers also need independent, responsible, objective […]

No More Respected and More Read than Johnson

Posted on by Tom Fleming

‘I merely attend to the progress of my Life of Johnson’, wrote James Boswell in his journal on the eve of his fiftieth birthday in 1790. Every biographer knows that feeling: when you are in the middle of your work, perhaps at that crucial stage when you lie awake at night, wrestling with a mass […]

Genius in Either Role

Posted on by David Gelber

Because Thackeray was a brave man and a great writer, it is possible to overlook the fact that his life was a tragedy. D J Taylor’s brilliant new biography, however, captures the essence of that tragedy. Let’s hope it will also alert a new generation to Thackeray’s genius. When we think of tragic heroes, we […]

A Selfish Man Condemned to Live in Ireland

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

Why do we always think of Swift as old? The image one has of him is that of a crusty old codger shuffling around the streets of Dublin or London, kicking urchins out of his way while he does his best to avoid the importunings of the various womenfolk with whom he has become entangled. […]

Short, Fierce Life of a Homicidal Cupid

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

The restless, driven, intensely idiosyncratic life of the poet Arthur Rimbaud reads like a biographer’s dream. After a brief and explosive career as the enfant sauvage of French literature, he gives up writing poetry at the age of twenty-one, becomes a drifter, gunrunner and African explorer, and expires painfully and deliriously in a Marseilles hospital […]

He Had So Much to Say

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Alan Sheridan has written a biography of Gide. It is the story of Gide’s life and the history of the many books that Gide published. He writes therefore both as an historian and as a literary critic. Gide was an active man, who travelled a lot, had many friends, had a private life which is […]

Hack with Genius: Full of Fibs and Fantasies

Posted on by David Gelber

A question that has exercised literary pedants down the years is why Robinson Crusoe found only a single footprint on his desert island. A shipwrecked sailor whose other leg had been taken by a shark? A stray member of some strange tribe of hopping cannibals? A persuasive solution is offered by Professor John Sutherland in […]

She May Have Been Mad but Leonard Was Not to Blame

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

The author of this major biography of Virginia Woolf is Professor of English at York University and a distinguished critic and broadcaster. She is also one of my best friends, so do not expect a dispassionate review, though actually I would not have written it differently even if I were unacquainted with her. 

Bang Bang Kiss Kiss

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

In a message to his staff when he left the Sunday Times, Ian Fleming said, ‘In all these years we have had great fun working together’. He had been a great Foreign News Manager; perhaps only Sid Mason of Reuters attracted such devotion from foreign correspondents in the field. With a sense for detail, an […]

A Writer Who Needs to be Saved From His Admirers

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Borges was sixty-two and almost unknown outside Argentina when he won the Prix Formentor in 1962. This prize, – ‘hatched’, according to James Woodall, ‘by six international publishers’ (the British one being Weidenfeld and Nicolson, predictably enough) – was intended to honour ‘an author of any nationality whose existing body of work will, in the […]

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