LYTTON Strachey's belief that biography should "shoot a sudden, revealing searchlight into obscure recesses" is credited with beginning the art of modern biography, and in 2009, there seemed to be plenty of "exposés" going on, at least in the world of literary biography.
True to Strachey's recommendation, the word "secret" seemed to be almost obligatory in the title itself for Selina Hastings' The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham (John Murray, 25) and Paula Byrne's Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead (HarperPress, 25).
John Carey's William Golding: The Man Who Wrote 'Lord of the Flies' (Faber, 25) caused a real rumpus when it revealed Golding had raped a girl when he was a boy. For some it was a "revealing searchlight" too far. By contrast, many were relieved to see that Robert Crawford had uncovered final proof of Robert Burns's pro-revolution sympathies in The Bard (Jonathan Cape, 20).
Yet 2009 was also a year when literary biography in particular really seemed to grow as a form, and show how easily it embraces innovation. There was Helen Carr's expansive and superb doorstopper The Verse Revolutionaries: Ezra Pound, H.D. and the Imagists (Jonathan Cape, 30), almost a thousand pages long and not about a single person but a whole world, which left out nothing but retained a sense of selection and priority. Elaine Showalter gave us a mammoth rundown of American women writers in A Jury of Her Peers: American Women writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx (Virago, 22.50), while in the opposite corner were those "mini-biographies", for those of us who like to carry a book around without straining our arms. Edmund White delighted us with a slight but highly personal account in Rimbaud: The Double Life of a Rebel (Atlantic, 16.99), Edna O'Brien took on Byron In Love (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 12.99) and Brenda Maddox endorsed her subject in George Eliot: Novelist, Lover, Wife (HarperPress, 14.99). These short biographies, written by literary stars of the present day, work best, I think, when there is some real personal investment by the biographer in the subject, some attempt to draw parallels or explore connections between the two. Let's face it, it's why White, O'Brien and Maddox would have been invited to write them in the first place.
Another novelist, Lilian Pizzichini, gave us literary biography-as-fiction this year, when her innovative and beautifully written The Blue Hour: A Portrait of Jean Rhys (Bloomsbury, 18.99) used novelistic techniques to get inside her subject's head. Curtis Sittenfeld extended this technique with her novelisation of Laura Bush's life in American Wife (Doubleday, 21.95) although this probably stretches the definition of "biography" a mite too far. And Julie Myerson enraged liberal, middle-class parents everywhere with The Lost Child (Bloomsbury, 14.99), the story of her search for a "lost" Victorian girl who died young, combined with her description of her disintegrating family life when her son began taking drugs. Fact or fiction? Myerson claimed this was a story, implying it had novelistic status, yet she used a photograph of her son on the cover.
More conventionally, elsewhere we learned about Muriel Spark from Martin Stannard (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 25), Charles Dickens from Michael Slater (Yale University Press, 25), Diana Athill in Life Class her autobiography (Granta, 25), and James Lees-Milne from Michael Bloch (John Murray, 25). But both the variety in subject matter, as well as the variety in form, suggest that the literary biography is in a very healthy state.
As is the political auto/biography: this year, Shirley Williams (Climbing the Bookshelves: The Autobiography of Shirley Williams, Virago, 20), Vince Cable (Free Radical: Memoirs, Atlantic, 19.99), the late Alan Clark (Alan Clark: The Biography by Ion Trewin, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 25), Churchill (Finest Years: Churchill as Warlord 1940-45 by Max Hastings, HarperPress, 25) and Tony Benn (Letters to My Grandchildren, Hutchinson, 18.99) all vied for space on the bookshelves after Senator Ted Kennedy died and a rash of Kennedy books appeared. There was even an anarchist in the shape of Ethel MacDonald, whose life as a Scots political activist in Spain during the Civil War of the 1930s was recounted with great verve by Chris Dolan (An Anarchist's Story, Birlinn, 9.99).
Journalists, the politicians' btes noires, enjoyed a little splash with former newspaper editor Harold Evans's My Paper Chase: True Stories of Vanished Times (Little, Brown, 25) and celebrated interviewer Lynn Barber's An Education (Penguin, 8.99pb). From the sublime to the ridiculous: we were also "treated" to the unintentionally hilarious fall-out from newspaper columnist Liz Jones' catty report on her move from the city to the country, which resulted in all sorts of nasty substances finding their way through her letterbox from irate locals, once her book, The Exmoor Files: How I Lost a Husband and Found Rural Bliss (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 12.99) appeared.
Some fascinating diaries and letters volumes also emerged in 2009 (George Orwell, Susan Sontag, TS Eliot, Sofia Tolstoy, Vincent van Gogh), and perhaps the demands made of the reader by such volumes led to the brief flurry of books about reading, like Susan Hill's autobiographical Howards' End is on the Landing: A Year of Reading from Home (Profile, 12.99) and Rick Gekoski's Outside of a Dog: A Bibliomemoir (Constable, 14.99). Reading about people writing about reading: it seems the literary biography in particular came full circle this year, but, remarkably, without limiting itself or smothering innovation. A year, I would cautiously suggest in the midst of uncertain economic times for writers and the publishing industry, for us to celebrate.
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