In the days of my youth, biographies were regarded as the embodiment of middlebrow reading matter: middle-aged ladies queued for the latest life of Mary Queen of Scots, retired colonels liked to get stuck into new biographies of Kitchener or Churchill, and the literati looked on with condescending smiles while envying the sales in Hatchard’s and the acres of review space even the dimmest biography invariably attracts. Things are very different nowadays – so much so that a certain smugness has set in among the more eminent practitioners, who ponder their craft in public and tell us how, in a trance-like state of heightened awareness, they visit the scenes where their subjects lived. Most biographies still sell in modest quantities, and publishers are always best pleased if authors write lives of people who have already been covered in exhaustive detail, but at least the biographer’s labours are taken seriously by those who set the literary agenda. And the morale of those who toil away in overheated archives received a further boost in a recent edition of the TLS when Nicolas Barker, reviewing the new Dictionary of National Biography, wondered if biography might be the literary form that best captures the spirit of our age, like drama in the seventeenth century or the novel in the nineteenth.
As a relative newcomer to writing biographies (I was fifty when, for no good reason, I was asked to write a life of Cyril Connolly), I have mixed feelings about the world I now inhabit. Part of me despises the whole business as second-hand and second-rate: I never read biographies