I USED TO THINK, looking back at my career, that years of it, at the beginning, had been, if not wasted, then at the best marking time until I worked out what I really wanted to do. I studied English as an undergraduate, at Oxford, which then, in the late 1970s, hardly had a reputation for dynamism or innovation. But we certainly read a good deal and learned to write to a deadline.
Occasionally, despairing of getting through primary sources, I would try to blag my way using biographies. I remember two that particularly impressed me, Leslie Marchant's threevolume Life of Byron, and Michael Holroyd's Lytton Strachey. Holroyd's book would have been a decade old when I read it, and I don't have any memory of noticing that its depiction of Strachey's homosexual world was in any way ground-breaking. But I did notice two things about it that have been enormously influential on my own career: that it was written like a novel and that, despite being a single-person biography, it had a large cast, and was essentially the portrait of a group, written as a tragic-comedy of manners. I remember thinking that I would like to write something like that, although I had no idea how, and embarked on a PhD somewhat in default of anything better to do.
My PhD was a study of the links between modernism and the Arts and Crafts Movement in the London art world before the First World War. I'd always been interested in painting, and subsequently went to the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston for a while. I tend anyway to think and write visually, and working on the PhD taught me to look closely at pictures as well, a skill I hope I have not lost. But it was also written as a book, rather than as a piece or research, and, oddly enough, as a story. It is years since I have looked at it, but I do remember that its very first words are, 'this is the story of the rise to power of Roger Fry as a critic of art'. I don't think it was a page-turner, but I did manage to include a couple of rather clunky cliff-hangers; perhaps I was gauchly trying to mould unsuitable material to my natural form.
By the time it was finished I had spent a year at Harvard and moved to the United States. By then I was reading history--Hayden White, Quentin Skinner, Natalie Zemon Davies--as well as feminist literary criticism. Perhaps I was looking for a way for all this disconnected reading to coalesce. At any rate something caught me one day in Los Angeles while I was talking to the medical historian Dorothy Porter. She and her then husband Roy were writing In Sickness and in Health, a book about the experience of being ill in the eighteenth-century. She told me about Caroline Fox who treated her sick son Ste with a horrifying concoction of heavy metals and patent medicines. I asked her what happened later--did Ste survive and what happened to him? She didn't know, she said, she was interested in him as a patient. Somehow the story nagged at me and that summer, in the British Library, I ordered up her source, three published volumes of letters to Emily Duchess of Leinster, Caroline Fox's sister. It only took me a few minutes to realise that what I had found was a cornucopia of details of daily life as well as the compelling story of a close, loving, and sometimes quarrelling, family.
It wasn't so easy to convince others. One agent turned me down, admitting later that she, 'hadn't seen anything in it'. But perhaps my unorthodox training and the decade I had spent with literature, art history and miscellaneous reading had prepared me to see the material not so much simply as history or biography but as a mixture of the two. The fact that the Lennox sisters and their families wrote so well made my job easier too. Perhaps the growth of the novel, especially the epistolary novel, made letter-writers, especially from the 1740s onwards, acutely conscious of their craft. Fine form and a conversational style were highly valued amongst letter writers and in circles like the Lennox's in which letters were passed around, read aloud and then kept and reread. …