Lifescapes: A Biographer’s Search for the Soul by Ann Wroe - review by Gillian Tindall

Gillian Tindall

Immortal, Invisible

Lifescapes: A Biographer’s Search for the Soul


Jonathan Cape 214pp £18.99 order from our bookshop

Ann Wroe is probably best known as the wide-ranging obituaries editor of The Economist. Fragments from the weekly obituaries page make an appearance in Lifescapes, but this work, extremely compact compared with her previous books (she has written biographies of Shelley and Pontius Pilate, among others), is far more than an exploration of the personalities of specific individuals. It is a fervent investigation into personhood. Of her earlier books, the one nearest to this in kind is Six Facets of Light (2016), a study of the multiform human relationship with light and its meanings.

Starting with her one-off, unforgettable 2009 obituary of an oversized and greedy fish, we soon pass, via the hopeful anglers beside the Hampstead Heath ponds, to the heart of her quest, ‘catching souls’: ‘One day, I suppose, science will announce what life is and how it began – if it began. Until then I have been grappling with a mystery, perhaps the most fundamental of all: the nature of this force, which, as Shelley put it, our bodies “enshrine for a time”.’ Wroe is the product of a Roman Catholic childhood and is alive to the weight of symbolism and perceptions of the soul as ‘another organ’, like the heart and lungs. In non-religious terms, her search is for the unique essence of individuals.

In researching her biographies of both Pontius Pilate and Perkin Warbeck (who just may, or may not, have been one of the lost princes thought to have been killed by Kings Richard III or Henry VII), Wroe was dealing with very small scraps of retrievable information. The impression

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

The Art of Darkness

Cambridge, Shakespeare

Follow Literary Review on Twitter