08 June 2008

Biographies, part I

I love reading biographies; especially ones about interesting and inspirational people. I particularly enjoy biographies of writers, looking at how they became writers and why, what they wrote about and why, and what they were trying to achieve – though I usually find anyone’s life fascinating – so long as the biography is half-way decently written, I’ll enjoy it.

Biographies are so wonderful because you don’t only learn about the biographee (if that is, indeed, a word), you also learn about their time and place in history, the people they knew. You get a glimpse into their world and what else was going on at the time. This struck me particularly when I was reading a biography of Ada Byron (aka Ada Lovelace) and I was introduced to steam engines and the difference railways made to people in England at the time.

One biography will usually spark me to another – suddenly I’ll become interested in a bit player. While reading a biography about Dorothy Parker, I wanted to know more about F Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, so hunted around the second-hand bookshops for a bio. And recently I was reading a book that mentioned Vita Sackville-West, read Portrait of a Marriage, about her marriage to Harold Nicolson (and her affair with Violet Trefusis), and then read a rather large biography all about her by Victoria Glendinning. The biography had quite a bit about Virginia Woolf, and so I’m now reading a biography about her, and I have plans to read Mrs Keppel and her daughter, about Violet T.

The Vita Sackville-West biography had quite an affect on me. I didn’t really know that much about her – I knew vaguely that she’d written books – my impression was that they were all about gardening. I knew she had an unconventional marriage. The main thing people know her for now is her friendship/relationship with Virginia Woolf, and that Orlando was sort of about her.

Turns out that she was actually pretty famous at the time (‘the time’ being the 1920s and 30s) – better known and more widely read than Woolf. She wrote novels and poetry (the gardening books came later), she won awards, she seemed to be a serious prospect for poet laureate. Part of the reason, it seems, that she was both so successful early on and so quickly forgotten, is because she was already old-fashioned. She was an Edwardian, even though she only died in 1962; she was an aristocrat used to privilege. She was contemporary with people like T S Eliot, but it is like they were working in quite different eras. By the end of her life she was regretful about her writing. She didn’t rate it, she knew she didn’t understand contemporary poetry, she was becoming forgotten.

Reading a biography so quickly, particularly someone who had a pretty decent-length life (as opposed to the die-young tragedies), makes life seem so short. Makes you feel like you need to get out there and do stuff, and write stuff. (While reading the later part of the book I was feeling a niggling anxiety that I shouldn’t be reading this, I should be writing. I had to remind myself that it was around midnight on a Friday night and really I didn’t need to feel guilty about not writing at that hour.)

It also reminded me that I need to keep on challenging myself with my own writing – pushing the boundaries of art and form, as Virginia Woolf did, which is why we remember her, seems like too big an aim – but pushing myself to be innovative and original in my own work is important. And I’ll try to keep doing that.

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