On Biographies

When FD was a child the local public library had an excellent collection of children’s books, including the Andrew Lang collections of fairy tales (each book bound in a different color) and many others by both US and British authors.  FD has especially fond memories of books by the English writer E. Nesbit.  FD has not dared to revisit these books, for fear that they might not be quite as wonderful as remembered, though it is a positive sign that Gore Vidal approves of them (see his essay in the New York Review of Books).  Less known in the US, Nesbit is still celebrated in England, where there’s even an E. Nesbit Society.

Last December when reading The Children’s Book by A. S. Byatt (not Byatt’s most successful effort, but FD enjoyed it.  See here for one viewpoint with some interesting comments), FD was reminded of having long ago read a a review of a biography of Nesbit.  It was clear that Byatt was drawing on Nesbit’s life for her novel, so FD decided to track down the biography.  It turned out to be Julia Briggs’ A Woman of Passion, originally published in 1987 (FD was amazed to have remembered a review for that long!).  Fortunately, the local University library had a copy.

FD has read a number of biographies of writers (most recently one of Daphne du Maurier), even owns a few (of Cavafy and Seferis, and Virginia Woolf) and yet it seems to FD that biography is never as satisfactory as a good novel.  The most scrupulous biographers, after all, cannot really tell us what the subjects actually felt and thought, and unscrupulous biographers soon lose our trust with assertions that we cannot trust.  So, one finds oneself gazing at the photographs, hoping to see something in them, as one does in the photographs in one’s own family albums.

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