‘Why do you do this? Write biography?’, asks the character of Benjamin Britten in Alan Bennett’s new play, The Habit of Art, currently at the National Theatre. ‘Why not make your own way in the world instead of hitching a lift on the life of someone else?’ Later in the play, Bennett has W H Auden express a similar viewpoint. A biographer is ‘invariably second-rank even when he or she is first-rate’.
These remarks made a friend of mine, who runs a literary festival, hoot with laughter. She says that, more than any other kind of writer, biographers – especially senior ones – tend to be overflowing with airs and graces, as if they had literally taken on the mantles