Archive for the ‘Biography’ Category

Art for a Mary Shelley t-shirt available from the ThinkGeek webstore

It is a fine time for Finds to be returning Miranda Seymour’s greatly praised Mary Shelley to print. On first publication in 2001 the book was hailed by the FT’s reviewer as “the most dazzling biography of a female writer to have come my way for an entire decade.” And 2011 has already proved to be a year of passionately renewed interest in The Woman Who Wrote Frankenstein – her life, her legend and enigma retain all their powers to enthrall. Danny Boyle’s new staging of Shelley’s most famous novel has been a huge success for the National Theatre (your correspondent wrote on the subject for the Guardian back in February) and the fascination of readers with the ‘tangled lives’ of the circle of Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley has been evinced yet again by the great reception afforded to Daisy Hay’s Young Romantics.
Merely to know that Mary Shelley completed Frankenstein when not quite 19 is to be aware this was no ordinary young woman. But Mary’s exceptionality began with her parentage: her father was the radical novelist/thinker William Godwin, her mother the intrepid proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft who died of septicaemia 12 days after giving birth to her – a grievous inheritance for any child.
Wollstonecraft’s life is rather better known than her writing – partly because the widower Godwin wrote an impassioned memoir of her, including details of her unmarried motherhood and various love affairs which aroused a deal of public disapproval. Mary certainly read her father’s memoir, and her mother’s books, including the famous Vindication of the Rights of Woman. How far had the apple fallen from the tree? Well, in describing Wollstonecraft as ‘feminist’ one intends to say above all that she was a model of self-reliance and that her passionate concern was with how the potential of her sex could be freed by education. And young Mary did indeed get the benefit of a good, advanced education, though her father was in other ways an unhelpfully remote figure. Still, it may be that no small part of the appeal to Mary of Godwin’s protégé Percy Bysshe Shelley was the aura Shelley exuded of a readiness to live out the ideals of Mary’s parents.
Of course, the romance of Mary and Shelley proved to be no giddy jaunt, much less a seamless union of minds. Clearly Percy Bysshe offered her good editorial advice in the writing of Frankenstein, the fame of which would enable her to eclipse his literary star for a while. But the fact remains that of Mary’s five pregnancies with Shelley only one child survived into adulthood. She suffered profound depressions, and grew to build up resilient defences against the outside world. In the end she would outlive all the luminaries of the ‘Pisa circle’: a lone mother, Shelley’s flame-keeper, author of many volumes though none to rival her hideous progeny Frankenstein. In Mary Shelley we may say there was a sort of ungovernable daring but also, over time and perforce, a driving need for social ‘respectability’. And these dual forces are twinned to a degree in her work.


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‘I hazard that the King James Bible, the rhetoric of the store-front church, something ironic and violent and perpetually understated in Negro speech — and something of Dickens’ love for bravura — have something to do with me today; but I wouldn’t stake my life on it. Likewise, innumerable people have helped me in many ways; but finally, I suppose, the most difficult (and most rewarding) thing in my life has been the fact that I was born a Negro and was forced, therefore, to effect some kind of truce with this reality. (Truce, by the way, is the best one can hope for)…’
(James Baldwin, 1952)
As a Harlem teenager– the oldest of nine children – just prior to WWII, James Baldwin for a while emulated his father by becoming a preacher in a small Pentecostal church. Today we have no difficulty in finding the influence of Biblical cadence in Baldwin’s famously fluid and eloquent writing style. He wrote a great deal and wrote nearly all of it superbly, devouring subject matter, for he was (famously) by his own estimation “a very tight, tense, lean, abnormally ambitious, abnormally intelligent and hungry black cat.” But his elegance never hid or was intended to hide the force of his feeling about racism in America, the subject he would address most powerfully in The Fire Next Time (1963). ‘No black man,’ he once wrote, ‘can hope ever to be entirely liberated from this internal warfare – rage, dissembling, and contempt having inevitably accompanied his first realization of the power of the white man.’
In 2008 Finds had the honour of returning to print James Campbell’s Talking at the Gates: A Life of James Baldwin, which was based on Campbell’s ten-year-acquaintance with Baldwin prior to the great man’s death in 1987, alongside interviews with his friends and his extensive correspondences. It’s a fantastic study by one of the best literary critics at work today, and I commend it to you wholeheartedly. You can sneak-preview extracts here and here. And James Campbell wrote interestingly here for the Guardian on the biographer’s use of sources, Baldwin’s letters in his case.
This Saturday March 19 at 2pm the National Film Theatre in London (as part of its ‘African Odysseys’ strand) is screening I Heard It Through A Grapevine, a 1980 documentary by director Dick Fontaine and producer Pat Hartley made in collaboration with James Baldwin and his brother David. The piece is about the survivors of the civil rights movement, and the state of the movement’s ideals twenty years after its inception. It finds Baldwin – who quit the US for Paris in 1948 but returned to be a participant in the civil rights struggle – returning once again to those American cities where that struggle began, starting in Washington and ending in Mississippi, putting the questions ‘What has happened to these people? What happened to this country? And what does this mean for the world?’ As such it’s an essential watch for anyone versed in or seeking access to the field of Baldwin Studies.
Below are some fascinating samples of Baldwin from YouTube.
The first is a remarkable CBS TV roundtable from 1963, discussing Dr King’s March on Washington and involving Baldwin, Marlon Brando, Harry Belafonte, Charlton Heston, Joseph Mankiewicz, and Sidney Poitier.
The second is a piece of the debate between Baldwin and William F. Buckley at the Cambridge University Union on October 26, 1965, the motion being “The American Dream is at the Expense of the American Negro.”
The third is the opening of the excellent 1989 documentary study James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket.

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Andrew Roberts

Andrew RobertsSalisbury: Victorian Titan ‘is as learned, accessible and well-shaped a biography as I’ve read. Roberts is a rare historian, with an eye for the human detail and for contemporary relevance.’ So wrote Brenda Maddox in selecting her books of the year for the Guardian back in 2000. Salisbury earned Roberts the Wolfson History Prize and the James Stern Silver Pen Award for Non-Fiction. Faber Finds is delighted to be restoring the book to print and it will very shortly be available for order here.
It was, the Spectator noted, ‘a massive work based on blood, sweat and hard labour in one of the biggest modern political archives’ (namely the Salisbury collections at Hatfield House, Hertfordshire.) In a 2009 Evening Standard interview Roberts told Sebastian Shakespeare that he considers Salisbury to be his very best work – yet he also lamented, ‘I have met every single person who has read the book. It didn’t sell more than a couple of thousand…’
That’s still a respectable sale for a heavyweight historical tome; nonetheless Roberts had a right to feel somewhat short-changed. Shouldn’t one expect greater currency for a clearly definitive study of a three-time Prime Minister who presided over the height of British imperial pomp? But then Robert’s subject posed a challenge to readers, without a doubt. A good few reviewers of the time pointed to how ‘unfamiliar’ and ‘unfashionable’ is Salisbury next to, say, Gladstone or Disraeli. Roberts dedicated Salisbury to another ‘Thrice- elected illiberal Tory’, Margaret Thatcher, which will have tickled one demographic but turned off another. But ‘illiberal’ is the word for this patrician Tory, and we know Salisbury best for his imperishable formulations of a conservative mindset. ‘Whatever happens will be for the worse,’ he wrote in 1887, ‘and therefore it is in our interest that as little should happen as possible.’ He further advised a niece of his that the ‘use of Conservatism’ was to ‘delay changes until they became harmless’.
The Spectator is where you would look to take the temperature of contemporary conservative opinion, and its 1999 review of Roberts’ book by Jane Ridley was firmly impressed:

Roberts succeeds triumphantly in his purpose, which is to restore Salisbury to the centre of the political stage. Roberts makes no secret of his sympathy for his subject, and he writes a readable, fluent narrative. This is an affectionate, admiring, detailed portrait of a neglected giant.

One of the aspects of the work that most interested Ridley, and should interest any of us today, is Roberts’ consideration of Salisbury’s complex feelings towards the Empire. As Ridley wrote:

Roberts makes strong claims for Salisbury’s foreign policy. He argues that Salisbury was not a splendid isolationist but a practitioner of non-alignment, intent on keeping Britain out of continental involvement and avoiding major wars. Had he been around in 1914, Roberts suggests, he might have kept the country out of the first world war, now increasingly seen as an avoidable catastrophe…

Roberts himself gives a fascinating and detailed account of Salisbury’s philosophy of empire for History Today here. And if any further enticement were needed to pick up this outstanding volume, i.e. if you hope for a work that is delicious as well as good for you, then consider the view of Piers Brendon in the Independent:

This is an outstanding achievement: fluent, weighty in the Victorian mode, sympathetic but not uncritical, often hilarious… Salisbury tricycles around Hatfield with a footman standing behind him, allows his grandchildren to rootle through his beard, wishes he were a cat so that he need not change his coat, throws cushions at sparking electric lights, murmurs “Bulgaria” when he misses a shot at billiards. Seldom has such an important study been such splendid entertainment…

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Almost 20 years ago,” [Gerald Jacobs wrote in 2003], “a man called to see me with a story. It was the compelling, tragic and terrifying account of the early years of his own life and he wanted me to write it with a view to publication…
That man was Nicholas Hammer, born Miklos Hammer in Budapest in 1920. For a brief and terrible time in his young life he went by the name of ‘Peter Howard’ – the name of a dead man. His story was one of abysmal suffering, exceptional spirit and extraordinary survival. He and Gerald Jacobs worked together on its telling in book-form for four years, and the resultant work, Sacred Games, was first published in 1995, on the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. In 2011 Faber Finds is proud to be make Sacred Games available to readers once more.
Ian Thomson’s original review from the Independent is worth quoting at length:

This is a record of hideous times, and of a mind that refused to succumb to them. Miklos Hammer, a Hungarian Jew, was deported to Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Dachau; his determination to beat his tormentors is a parable of uncorrupted men… Superbly told by Gerald Jacobs, Hammer’s story is a triumph over tragedy in Hitler’s war against the Jews… Amid the abundant literature of atrocity which this century has produced, Sacred Games is exemplary. Miklos Hammer’s tribulations are narrated without the prurient tenor of so much Holocaust writing (Jerzy Kozinski’s The Painted Bird and Sophie’s Choice by William Styron, for example, often verged on the sentimental, pornographic, or downright kitsch); Gerald Jacobs records the enormity of human loss with a detached calm and appropriate sympathy.

Nicholas Hammer died in London on 23 October 2003 and Gerald Jacobs wrote his obituary notice for the Independent. Therein he set down this powerfully moving personal anecdote:

In 1986, I accompanied Nicholas Hammer on his first and only return to the sites of Auschwitz and Birkenau. He showed me the block in which he had been housed. It was not part of the camp open for exhibition and, as he stepped over the small barrier around it, a uniformed Polish woman attendant rushed over making stern, windscreen-wiper-like gestures of prohibition with an index finger. Hammer stopped her short with a gesture of his own: he rolled up his shirtsleeve to reveal the number tattooed on his arm. He was not going to be stopped. Neither was he going to be stopped from recording the events he had witnessed there four decades earlier.

Sacred Games is highly recommended, and available to order here.

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The classic novel by Jean Rhys, whose definitive biography is now in Finds

It’s my pleasure to unveil another strong, diverse and enticing selection of titles newly reissued in Finds as of this month. The nominees for your reading pleasure are:


A Spirit Rises – Sylvia Townsend Warner
Our second offering of stories from this brilliant and versatile author, much admired by (inter alia) Sarah Waters and Ali Smith. Dovegreyreader also offers a recent appreciation here.

A Test to Destruction – Henry Williamson
The eighth of the fifteen titles in the Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight sequence, the numbers of whose readers in Finds appear to be growing daily…

The Bath Detective – Christopher Lee
The first in a thriller trilogy by the acclaimed novelist, historian and broadcaster whose own website is here.

Mark Only – T. F. Powys
The latest in our restoration to print of extraordinary works by the more austere of the prodigious Powys boys (see previous post here)…


Jean Rhys: Life and Work – Carole Angier
The definitive study of the melancholy author whose glorious final novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, confirmed Al Alvarez in calling her “the best living English novelist.”

The Embattled Mountain – F. W. D. Deakin
Bill Deakin’s scintillating account of his WWII mission into Yugoslavia to locate and assess Tito and his Partisans. Our earlier post on Deakin is here, and Mark Wheeler’s tremendous New Introduction here.

Secret Classrooms: An Untold Story of the Cold War – Geoffrey Elliott & Harold Shukman
A gem of an insight into how certain bright young scholars of the 1950s (among them A. Bennett, M. Frayn and DM Thomas) sidestepped National Service so as to be instructed in Russian for the betterment of the Cold War effort. Fine Spectator review here, and more to come on this blog…

Enid Bagnold – Anne Sebba
Our latest from Anne Sebba, a marvellous study of the brilliant and controversial woman who wrote National Velvet and The Chalk Garden. See Anne’s personal author site here.

Lloyd George: From Peace to War, 1912-1916 – John Grigg
We continue to reissue Grigg’s magisterial sequence, hailed by the Telegraph as overall “one of the most brilliant biographies of recent times”, this third volume the winner of the Wolfson Prize.

East End My Cradle – Willy Goldman
An unforgettable, affectionate evocation of 1930s London life from an author hailed in his time as “a sort of Proust of the Whitechapel Road.” Longer appreciation to follow on this blog v soon…

The Coming of the Barbarians: A Story of Western Settlement in Japan 1853-1870 – Pat Barr
An evocative and apt title for Pat Barr’s indispensable account of the opening to Japan first forged by US Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry – a story that inspired, inter alia, Stephen Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures

Paddy and Mr Punch: Connections in Irish and English History – Roy Foster
An inspired collection of thematically-linked essays praised in the LRB by Colm Toibin as ‘important and original’. (Toibin also hailed Foster as ‘the most brilliant and courageous Irish historian of his generation’, and his fascinating essay is fully available here.)

How the English Made the Alps – Jim Ring
An exciting anecdotal study of how 19th-century English poets, Christians and natural scientists sought out the highest peaks of Alpine glory, driven – as E.S. Turner put it in his LRB review – by “lust for adventure, scientific curiosity, vanity, national pride, the need for spiritual uplift, the geological urge to disprove Genesis, the expansion of railways, the tourist mania, the deathly pilgrimages of the tubercular and, finally, the primitive and irresistible joys of the piste…” Phew!

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Portrait of Elizabeth of Bavaria, 1864, Franz Xaver Winterhalter

Brigitte Hamann’s The Reluctant Empress: A Biography of Empress Elisabeth of Austria is newly available in Finds and widely reckoned the finest study of one of the darkly romantic women of European history – a figure whose life was subject to some outrageous fortune. To begin with, in 1853 it was Elisabeth’s older sister Helene who was expected to be married to Franz Joseph I, but 15-year-old ‘Sissi’ (as she was nicknamed) caught his eye instead. (A light-hearted play and a film, The King Steps Out, were made from this rather exquisitely awkward turn of events, the film directed by Josef Von Sternberg.)
The royal marriage proved unhappy, Elisabeth feeling herself unsuited to and oppressed by the royal duties demanded of her. But she became renowned as a beauty, her looks, pursuits and personal style of huge public interest (though evidently she suffered from what we now call anorexia nervosa.) The story so far might possibly remind you of someone… But the first acute twist of tragedy in Elisabeth’s life came in 1889 when her estranged son Crown Prince Rudolf and his young lover Baroness Mary Vetsera committed suicide together in a hunting lodge, this becoming known as ‘The Mayerling Incident’. Then in 1898 Elisabeth was stabbed fatally by an Italian anarchist who had wished to strike a blow at monarchy in principle, and found her nearest at hand.
The supposed romance of ‘Sissi’ was essayed in a sequence of romantic German films from the 1950s starring the young Romy Schneider. (Schneider played the same role, only older and in a different league, for Luchino Visconti in his 1974 film Ludwig, devoted to Elisabeth’s cousin Ludwig II of Bavaria.) But other, more notable art-works played on the darker, sadder strains of her life. Jean Cocteau’s play and film L’Aigle à deux têtes imagined a sort of mirror-image attraction between an Elisabeth figure and her assassin. (In 1980 Michelangelo Antonioni shot a feature film on videotape inspired by Cocteau, The Oberwald Mystery.) Omar Sharif and Catherine Deneuve played Elisabeth’s ill-fated son and his lover in Terence Young’s Mayerling (1968), with Ava Gardner as the Empress. And Kenneth MacMillan’s ravishing ballet Mayerling premiered in 1978.
That array of dazzling works by some of the twentieth century’s great artistic heavyweights tells us something, surely, about the appeal of the ‘Reluctant Empress’? For samples of the works in question, please see below.

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The late Humphrey Carpenter was a biographer of great gifts and excellent taste in subjects. Finds is delighted to have his Dennis Potter, A Serious Character: A Life of Ezra Pound, and W.H. Auden, a work so indispensable to Alan Bennett in the writing of his Auden stage-drama The Habit of Art that, as AB put it, “eventually Carpenter found his way into the play…”
Another string to Carpenter’s bow was his run of cultural histories in the form of what we might call ‘group biographies’ – The Angry Young Men: A Literary Comedy of the 1950s, Geniuses Together: American Writers in Paris in the 1920s, Secret Gardens: A Study of the Golden Age of Children’s Literature, That Was Satire That Was: The Satire Boom of the 1960s – are all great assets to the Finds list… As is a title of Carpenter’s that I see was recently praised online by a blogger named Edmund Sykes, an English expatriate in Spain who seems to have made a brave foray into the courier business. He writes as follows here:

My father gave me for Christmas Humphrey Carpenter’s The Brideshead Generation. This is published by Faber Finds which specialise in re-printing out-of-print books… [T]he book I am glued to, subtitled Evelyn Waugh and His Friends, is absolutely fascinating and reminds me of so much of my own youth… Anyway, well done Faber for coming up with the idea and why can’t these things be published electronically? I would buy a Kindle or iPad or similar tomorrow if someone only guaranteed to provide for me the rare books I want to read…

The kind words are appreciated, and as to the electronic availability of Finds I should say that come the spring we expect that all new and upcoming Finds titles to be offered as e-books where this is contractually possible.

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