Sunday, 21 April 2013

Life Writing

Last month I went to beautiful Oxford to hear Paula Byrne talk about her book Jane Austen - A Life in Small Things at The Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival.  The event was held at the Blue Boar lecture theatre at Christ Church.  Paula Byrne spoke very well about Austen, her links with Oxford and also about the nature of biographical writing. 

With many books about Austen already in print and no new cache of letters emerging Byrne spoke about the necessity of finding a new approach to her subject.  Instead of a traditional 'womb to tomb'  biography she chose to focus on meaningful objects in Austen's life including the topaz crosses, a card of lace, an East Indian shawl, vellum notebooks and a bathing machine.

While Byrne's book worked very well I'm not so sure about Jane Dunn's Daphne Du Maurier and her Sisters which I've just finished.  It examines the lives of the three Du Maurier sisters, Angela, Daphne and Jeanne.  Angela wrote novels and Jeanne was an artist and although their lives were interesting I really wanted to read about Daphne.  This book has its moments though and the presentation and photographs are excellent.

I think my favourite literary biographies are Valerie Grove's Dear Dodie (life of Dodie Smith) and Elizabeth Gaskell's The Life of Charlotte Bronte.  What are yours?

13 comments:

Alex said...

I'm not a great reader of literary biographies, but I would have read the du Maurier book. However, this is the second luke warm review of it that I've read so perhaps it isn't going to be a good place to start.

Peggy Ann said...

I have not really read biographies since school. These all sound very interesting and you have inspired me to look for these books. Thanks! Love the cover on this book!

Bellezza said...

I applaud you for reading the biographies of such good writers; I tend to stick to their novels instead, as I'm such a fan of nonfiction. It rather limits my knowledge, though. I like how the speaker addressed important things in Austen's life, not going womb to tomb. :)

Audrey said...

I love literary biographies. It's like picking a favorite child :) I think some of the best, though, are written by excellent writers on subjects I felt less interested in before I started reading - Claire Tomalin's recent biography of Dickens is a perfect example of that!

callmemadam said...

Anything by Richard Holmes, e.g. Dr Johnson and Mr Savage. In Footsteps, he follows Shelley, Robert Louis Stevenson and others around Europe. Plus, his biographies of Coleridge are brilliant.

Lilac In May said...

Not a biography, but I love Justine Picardie's Daphne.

Sunday Taylor said...

I have the Paula Byrne book and want to read it. How lucky you were to hear her speak at Oxford! I have so many favorite literary biographies, but three that come to mind right now are "Savage Beauty" about Edna St. Vincent Millay, "Secrets of the Flesh" about Colette, and "The Biography of Virginia Woolf" by Quentin Bell. They were all excellent.

Belle said...

I am a big fan of E.B.White's and Michael Sims's "The Story of Charlotte's Web" is an affectionate look at Mr. White, his childhood fascination with animals, and the research he undertook to make Charlotte as authentic a spider as possible. A wonderful look at this beloved author.

Cosy Books said...

The Other Elizabeth Taylor by Nicola Beauman! It's the one that stands out for me, Nicola.

Byrne's book has come up for me twice at the library but I've had other things on the go. So many books, so little time...*sigh*.

Darlene

cathy at potterjotter said...

I wish I were called Piffy, Bird or Bing! Born in the wrong era for all that I think. Am ashamed to say I don't think I have actually read a literary biog. Must remedy that! xCathy

Ellen said...

I'm not such a huge fan of biographies, but I enjoyed Andrew Motion's book on Philip Larkin and Claire Tomalin's book on Samuel Pepys was excellent.

Vintage Reading said...

Alex, yes it's a shame but something about this book didn't do it for me.

Peggy Ann, yes good cover!

Bellezza, yes that 'womb to tomb' phrase resonated with me too! I like innovative approaches to biography.

Audrey, I completely agree. Tomalin is a wonderful literary biographer I thought her Austen biography was brilliant.

callmemadam, made a note of Richard Holmes, thank you for that.

LilacinMay, Daphne is on my tbr list - especially if I get to Cornwall this summer!

Sunday, thanks for the recommendations. Savage Beauty intrigues my because I'd like to read the poetry of Edna St Vincent Millay. Hope you enjoy the Byrne.

Belle, I've seen that book in Waterstones. I'm tempted now ...

Darlene, glad you are blogging again! Yes I'd like to read the Beauman. I liked her book about women's middlebrow fiction - can't remember the title now.

Cathy, it seems those aristocratic families loved nicknames like that!

Ellen, Tomalin is wonderful. Her Jane Austen biog is fabulous.






Whispering Gums said...

One of the members of my Jane Austen group has read this and said it was a good read - even though we're not convinced that the portrait she has (did she talk about it?) is Jane Austen!

I enjoy literary biographies though haven't read a lot lately and the last two were of Aussie writers - Mary Durack, and Madeleine St John (who probably saw herself more as English). I've read a few Austen biographies and one I really like, because of the angle she takes, is Carol Shields. She looks at Austen's life through the eyes of a writer and fills in the gaps by thinking in those terms - if that makes sense!