Britain Enjoying a Golden Age of Biographies

Article excerpt

Biographers plough a lonely furrow trying to stir up the ghosts of the past.

Research gives them the skeleton. Then comes the flesh and blood of writing.

But Michael Holroyd and Claire Tomalin, two masterly practitioners of their craft, revel in the challenge.

The two authors have helped to launch a new golden age of biography in Britain. Best-sellers abound. All those agonising years of academic detective work have paid rich dividends.

Many great literary figures, from Jane Austen to George Bernard Shaw, have now sprung vividly back to life and readers are flocking to find out.

Holroyd is married to novelist Margaret Drabble, Tomalin to playwright Michael Frayn. But both biographers infinitely prefer the rigours of their trade to fiction's flights of fancy.

Both came to a literary festival in western England to give intriguing insights into their lonely, enclosed worlds of rigorous discipline.

Holroyd spent 15 years researching his monumental biography of George Bernard Shaw before starting to write.

"It was the most terrifying thing," he confessed. "I didn't know if I had lost touch with my readers. I risked everything." He is the first to admit that "writing biography is terribly hard. Writing a novel is impossible".

Holroyd, who established his reputation with definitive biographies of writer Lytton Strachey and painter Augustus John, said of his books: "They are not intended as works of propaganda. They are voyages across time."

Holroyd, who has returned to his biographies later to revise them extensively, feels it is important that the biographer walks a delicate tightrope between judgment and criticism, warmth and perspective.

There is no doubting his affection for the playwright Shaw.

"He has retained his place as one of the most deeply unfashionable writers of any age. He wilfully marched in a different direction," Holroyd said.

"He involved himself in everything. Today he would be all around the Internet and you would never get him off the telly. He was a guru for three generations. Like Sherlock Holmes, he solved problems."

Holroyd found that the bohemian artist Augustus John was enormous fun to write about.

"He looked so biblical that devout pedestrians would cross themselves as they passed to be on the safe side," Holroyd said. …