The Modest Biographer: John Aubrey

Ruth Scurr’s new biography takes an innovative form – although being a lecturer, at Cambridge, she is hesitant to admit to doing anything so dangerous as innovation.  Nonetheless, it is innovative and she may well have just launched a new vogue in biography or more precisely literary studies.  What she has done is to give John Aubrey, the writer famous for his brief lives of others, his own voice, his own life, in the form of a diary.


Aubrey lived from 1626 to 1697, through the unrest and chaos of religious upheaval and two political revolutions. Ruth Scurr maintains it was this that made him dedicate his own life to preserving the past, not only buildings, artefacts, books and letters, but above all the detailed description of individual lives. Yet Aubrey, she said, has been unfairly portrayed as a gossip. Instead, quite the reverse seems more likely: he sought to preserve trust at all costs, by not publishing the Brief Lives until those he described, and he too, were “rotten in the ground, as medlars”.

The event was chaired by Stuart Kelly, undoubtedly one of the most perceptive and knowledgeable critics attending the Festival. He started by asking Ruth about friendship and the biographer: to what extent, as a biographer, do you have to befriend the person you are writing about? Ruth Scurr’s first book, a biography of Robespierre, created a neat comparison: how do you approach the blood-stained monster of the Revolution vs the quietly assuming man of letters? However, Ruth answered evenly that the biographer is like a painter, and you have to find the resonance between you and the subject. Much easier to do, she admitted, in Aubrey’s case, but she clearly also succeeded with Robespierre. This is confirmed by Hilary Mantel, writing in the TLS:

Just as Scurr understands the powerful religious impulse behind Robespierre’s thought, she also understands revolution. […]

Many years later, when he was an old man, Merlin de Thionville was asked how he could have brought himself to turn against Robespierre. ‘Ah,’ he said, ‘if you had seen his green eyes . . .’

It seems doubtful whether Merlin or many others ever got close enough to see his green eyes. Scurr seems to have got closer than most.

But back to Aubrey: the astonishing nature of Scurr’s book has been endorsed by many reviewers, but none possibly in more forthright terms than Stuart Kelly this morning: “I’ll cartwheel down Princes Street,” he said, if this book doesn’t win an avalanche of prizes next year. Stuart, we’d love to hold you to that, but (sadly) I think you’re right and so your acrobatic skills will have to be put to the test another time!

One of the brilliant solutions offered by this “diary form” is that it enables the biographer to cope with gaps, or silences, in the archival material. In any historical life there are bounds to be moments, months sometimes stretching to years, when the biographer doesn’t know what the subject was doing.  Hence, the usual formula:  “In the meantime, he/she must have continued to …” (and you fill in the dots for what might be the most informed guess). Instead, the diary allows you to leave the gaps: not every day requires an entry.

John_AubreyScurr said that it had been easy to find Aubrey’s “very distinctive” voice, and to include his sometimes flamboyant turns of phrase. Her own gift for the telling detail echoes the ability of Aubrey “to find the small, defining details that make a person who they are”. The example she gave was his description of Thomas Hobbes who was nicknamed “Crow” at school because of his jet black hair.  It is for this ability and for the desire to preserve such details that Aubrey is sometimes referred to as the “father of biography” – a phrase Ruth Scurr found a little too catchy.  “What about Plutarch?” was her reply.

Scurr admitted that her overall concern in using this form was to include as much material as possible. She compared it to restoring a tapestry: some areas have remained more frayed and worn, but nothing has been consciously left out.  However, to say that by using this invented diary form the biographer writes herself out of the picture is, according to Scurr, incorrect: the writing is still subjective, and the historian remains in control, selecting and rewording, notwithstanding the overall intention to make objective use of the materials.  And those materials, his books and papers in the Bodleian, the Royal Society archives and elsewhere, are certainly richly rewarding, despite Aubrey’s fears that they would not survive.

Thank you, Ruth, for a wonderful event and for giving John Aubrey, this most modest man, his Own Life.

Posted in book reviews, Cultural history, Edinburgh Book Festival | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Masters of their craft: Louis de Berniere and Joanne Harris

Louise de Bernière is an exceptional raconteur, not only on paper but also on stage. He was talking to Sara Davies this afternoon at the Edinburgh International Book Festival about his new book, The Dust that Falls from Dreams. Can you believe that it is 21 years since the block-buster Captain Corelli’s Mandolin? That really shook me!

IMG_0451The Dust that Falls from Dreams starts in 1902, Edward VII’s coronation year, and it was inspired by his grandmother’s story. Her diaries still survive, although he said that were sadly they were not that interesting: a lot of detail about the weather! However, she had a childhood sweetheart who was killed in action in 1914. As Louis de Bernière said: it’s a strange thing, but if he hadn’t died, I wouldn’t have existed. The main character, Rosie, is loosely based on his grandmother – only loosely, because, as the author said, the whole point about writing fiction is to tell magnificent lies!

the-dust-that-falls-from-dreamsAsked about the research needed to write this and his previous books, LdB replied that the trick is to forget most of the research you do. In an earlier book, Birds without Wings, he made the mistake of researching too much.  Now he’s realised that the trick is not to do it all up front. If you do, you have notebooks and computer files filed with information that is very hard to manage. Instead, you should research what you need, when you need it: then write, possibly even chapter by chapter.  Research, he said, gives you the confidence that you know what you’re talking about: “the invisible background”, he called it.  That said, his novels are dense with detail, but it is managed in such a way that “the characters tell the history”.

Although the anniversary of the First World War has been marked by an outpouring of fiction, Sara Davies noted that Louis “hit some notes that I haven’t read before”. In particular, his description of the sheer exhilaration of flying, the boredom of those left at home, the horrors of the Front (LdB read an extraordinarily moving passage about the death of horses at the Front).

Next up this afternoon I squeezed into a packed tent to listen to Joanne Harris talk about The Gospel of Loki. I have to be frank here and say that I knew very little about this before she started to talk! Again, like Louis de Bernière, Joanne Harris is a great speaker and the discussion with her chair, James Runcie, was excellent. Clearly, the Norse sagas have been part of her life for years and she read them compulsively as a young girl (her mother “approved” because they were educational). A few years ago, when Joanne’s own daughter was about the same age, Joanne retrieved a 1000-page unpublished manuscript (vast!) written when she was about 18, which had since been languishing in a drawer (or a trunk!). The result was Runemarks and Runelight.  Now comes The Gospel of Loki: Loki (who has always been her favourite character) is the quintessential trickster, a demon who comes as an outsider to Asgard.

gospel-of-lokiTalking about fantasy, Joanne spoke of the timeless quality of the Norse tales: they are stories about who we are and where we come from. Originally written to make life more bearable, now, given the present times we live in, we need this sort of fantasy even more.

A key theme of Joanne’s fiction is disruption: stories are all about disruption, she says. Outsiders arrive in a community and “things” happen. Sounds familar… Chocolat. Nonetheless, the moral ambivalence of the outsider, the villain, or the trickster fascinates us. The Gospel of Loki is written in the first person because she wanted to find the voice of Loki that doesn’t appear in the Edda: he is the ultimate unreliable narrator because he lies, yet his story resonates with us.

Note to all fans: there will be more to come – Joanne spoke of her next challenge: she plans to write about the post-Ragnarok and to set the Norse gods in the present-day! Now that will be interesting!

Posted in translation | Leave a comment

Edinburgh Book Festival: Day 1

Miracles (at least of the meteorological variety) sometimes happen and today certainly was one: this is the start of the Edinburgh International Book Festival and the sun is shining! Let’s enjoy it while it lasts.

I went to two events today. First up Translating Julia: the Julia in question being Julia Donaldson.  This was by way of research because I am chairing an event with Julia and Peter May on Tuesday. This afternoon’s event was in the children’s programme and I have to say there was a lot of wonderful entertainment and also a lot of wonderful noise! She had children up on stage performing What the Ladybird Heard, James Robertson reading from his Scots translation Whit the Clockleddy Heard, and two brilliant illustrators – Lydia Monks and Nick Sharratt (the latter illustrated her book What the Jackdaw Saw including signing for deaf children). The title “Translating Julia” related to the translation of Julia’s words into different languages (Scots) and mediums (illustrations, signing, drama). One important fact gleaned from this afternoon’s event was The Gruffalo has now been translated into 65 languages – shortly to be joined by four more versions in Scottish dialects (Shetland, Orcadian, Dorrit and Dundonian – look forward to that!). Daniel Hahn, a well-known translator himself, was in the chair – he noted sadly that as he always translates into English, he’ll never have a chance to have this sort of fun with Julia’s words.

The Fountain Overflows, 1956 dust jacket

The afternoon’s second event was chaired by Lennie Goodings of Virago who was joined by three stellar authors: Sarah Waters, Maggie Farrell and Jackie Kay. The event was titled “The Female Gaze: Classics by Female Writers” and each author talked about a book from the Virago Modern Classics collection that had inspired or influenced her. The choices were, respectively, Rebecca West (The Fountain Overflows), Molly Keane (Good Behaviour) and Zora Neale Hurston (Their Eyes were watching God). What a great conversation, revealing layers of influence and fabulous writing both past and present.

Some memorable snippets:

Jackie Kay: “Good writers even though they go out of fashion never go out of orbit. Someone will always throw a boomerang to get them back.” Thank goodness!

Sarah Waters described The Fountain Overflows as “a great stuffed carpetbag of a book”, which she then admitted was brilliantly controlled and structured by its author.

Molly Keane

Molly Keane at Ardmore, Co. Waterford

Maggie Farrell said that rabbit mousse must be the most revolting dish imaginable, and at the beginning of Good Behaviour it becomes an instrument of genteel matricide.  Her 2011 introduction to the ebook edition says much the same, but it’s good to read it in print. Talking of her own book, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, Maggie also added how valuable the VMCs (Virago Modern Classics) had been for capturing the “voices” of the 1920s and 30s. Keane was exemplary in that respect.

In response to a question from the audience, the conservation then shifted to bookselling with all three authors adamantly defending the independent bookseller: “once they’re gone, you can’t replace them”.  Word Power Books in Edinburgh got a good clap. Jackie Kay rounded on Amazon, giving full licence to tweet, that she loathes Amazon and what it does to the indie book shops. Lennie Goodings also signalled the presence of – one up for publishers supporting local bookshops!

Posted in translation | 1 Comment

Commemorating the First World War in Fiction

We will remember them. Commemorating the First World War in fiction.


Memory and storytelling, the art of bringing past events alive, are arguably among the most powerful drivers of historical fiction. Recent novels written about the First World War are no exception, conjuring up stories of families torn apart, the chaos and horror of war, the ineptitude of leaders, the longing for home — stories of intense camaraderie, unfaltering duty and heroism. As we mark this year’s centenary, many readers will also return to classics, such as Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy,2 as well as Sebastian Faulks’sBirdsong (1993). The damaging effects of war, affecting both the minds and bodies of those at the Front and the equally destructive forces faced by their loved ones and families at home, are the focus of all of these stories, old and new.3

The LieIn The Lie (Windmill Books, 2014) by Helen Dunmore, the violent effects of war are prolonged by an innocent lie. Its fatal consequences form the subject of this haunting and disturbing tale of fresh emotional damage, not on the battlefield but in a small Cornish community. With extraordinary deftness Dunmore dissects the psychological damage of the war and its effects on Daniel Branwell, a former gardener’s boy with an astonishing gift for memorising poetry. Some shared themes appear, particularly the parallel emotional responses to loss: Daniel’s to his childhood friend and “blood brother,” Frederick Dennis, whose life he almost saves, and Felicia’s to the husband she barely knew. Beyond loss, the author exposes the petty jealousies of a small community amidst post-war social change. When death comes, it appears as a relief, a reunion, while the living are left to grieve once more.

WakeIn Wake (Doubleday, 2014) Anna Hope uses a temporal constraint as the guiding thread: the story is set in November 1920, over the five days leading up to the first ever national British commemoration of the “Unknown Warrior,” an anonymous corpse retrieved from France. Hope uses this brilliant conceit to weave together the stories of three women dealing with the aftershocks of war: Ada, the grieving mother; Hettie, too young to have been directly involved but old enough to see the effects of war all around her; and Evelyn, who may finally allow hope to return to her embittered life. How each story touches on the others is wholly unexpected and revealing, and although set three years after the war, the overwhelming theme of loss is still strong, analysed through the parallel bonds of mother–son, sister–brother, lovers.

Au Revoir la-hautPierre Lemaitre won the prestigious Prix Goncourt withAu revoir là-haut (Editions Albin Michel, 2013). This raw novel paints a gritty picture of postwar French society, focused on its fallen heroes and ignoring or even trying to get rid of cumbersome soldiers who barely made it. The story opens just before the Armistice and concludes a year after the end of the war. In between, the reader follows Albert and Édouard, two unforgettable characters fighting once more for life, friendship, love, and a decent future. But their efforts are threatened by the shadow of Lieutenant d’Aulnay-Pardelle, a character à la Javert. More common themes emerge through the waste of millions of butchered lives, the pain and ugliness of emotional and physical injury (as in Édouard’s half-destroyed face), and the greed and corruption of military leaders. The scandalous traffic of corpses and graves is historically documented, although it was covered up by the French government in 1922. An English translation will be published by MacLehose Press in 2015.

The Russian TapestryReading a WWI novel — The Russian Tapestry by Banafsheh Serov (Hachette Australia, 2013) — from the Russian viewpoint is a refreshing experience, and a tapestry is a suitable metaphor for the story that unfolds with characters from the wide diversity of Russian society woven together in war and revolution. After war is declared, it becomes clear that Russian generals cling to outdated military tactics and technologies, and that supply lines cannot cope with the distances involved. To make matters worse, outdated factories cause massive shortages of guns and ammunition. Although the Russian army wins some battles, most successes are quickly overthrown. Then, as workers strike and protesters take to the streets, the plot shifts to actions taken by the Bolshevik party to gain power and end the war. Although this multi-stranded plotting occasionally confuses, the ending is very satisfying.

A Star for Mrs BlakeIn A Star for Mrs. Blake by April Smith (Random House, 2014), Cora Blake and a group of American Gold Star Mothers cross the Atlantic to visit their sons’ graves. We follow Cora, Bobbie, Katie, Wilhelmina, and Minnie along with their ‘handlers,’ a young lieutenant and a nurse on contract to the army. Smith rounds out the cast with General Perkins, a taskmaster, and Grif Reed, a former journalist severely wounded during the war. While early chapters are slow, the pace accelerates when the women arrive in New York, and bits of humour add zest to the story. Verdun is where reality bites, where “instantly they were in a war zone, hardly changed since the battle of 1916″ and each woman imagines her son in similar circumstances. At the end, Cora confronts General Perkins: “Wrongs cannot be righted by blood. Happiness can never be the result of senseless deaths. We mothers know.”

Paradise LostMartin Sutton won the 2013 Historical Novel Society International Award for his novel, Paradise Lost. With memorable characters and a fabulous choice of setting — the Heligan Gardens owned by the Tremayne family in Cornwall — this is a great read. Sutton has captured the detail of everyday life, whether at home — seen through the eyes of William Pascoe, the gardener, or Diane Luxton, Jack Tremayne’s niece — or on the battlefront. The disparity of experience on the Front is also brilliantly evoked: the horror of raids, the humour and boredom, even the ghost villages behind the line where William finds unexpected fulfilment as a talented writer. The dominating themes of class, the role of women and profound friendship are artfully incorporated in this extraordinary love story.

StarshineWith a father and six uncles surviving the Great War, John Wilcox grew up with WWI hanging over his head “like a thundercloud.” His novel, Starshine (Allison & Busby, 2012), centers on two pals: Jim, who earns a DCM for his heroic efforts, and Bertie, who struggles with fear and the slaughter that surrounds them. Both men love the same woman. Beyond the notion of what enables a man to serve with courage, in Starshine Wilcox exposes the futility of so many WWI actions, the routine of trench duty, the nitty-gritty of war, and the way friendships and love kept men going. The novel is a soldier’s perspective on WWI with significant focus on battlefield strategies and tactics and the ‘human machine’ deployed against the enemy. Although some descriptions waver between fiction and nonfiction, the story propels us forward until its emotional and gripping climax.

The Storms of WarThe Storms of War (Orion, 2014), Kate Williams’s 657-page novel, creates a unique perspective on WWI, that of a well-to-do family living in England and the persecution they suffer because the father, Rudolf de Witt, is German. The story explores class tensions, the suffragette movement, shell shock, war conditions, the hatred of all things German, the nature of courage, attributes of those who excel at war, pacifist activities, homosexuality, and coming of age. While many scenes are very well written,The Storms of War spans too many plot lines and points of view to truly engage.

Jacqueline Winspear’s compelling and moving novel, The Care and Management of Lies (Allison & Busby UK, Harper Collins US, 2014), centers on four characters — Kezia, Thea, Tom, and Edmund — bound together by friendship, marriage and war. In June 1914 Kezia marries her best friend Thea’s brother, Tom, and comes to live on the Brissenden farm, which borders Edmund’s sprawling property. Tom enlists with his friends and neighbours, Edmund becomes an officer, and Thea, the suffragette and pacifist, goes overseas as an ambulance driver. Kezia, left to manage the farm, writes poignant letters to Tom sharing imaginary meals with him based on recipes fromThe Woman’s Book. Lies are central to Winspear’s story. Tom lies to Kezia about conditions; Edmund lies to encourage his men; Thea lies about her pacifist exploits; the brutal Sergeant Knowles lies about Tom sleeping on sentry duty, an offense punishable by death. Amidst the unrelenting horror of war what comforts Edmund, Tom, and others in their unit are Kezia’s letters embodying the taste of love and home.

Heroes' WelcomeLouisa Young’s The Heroes’ Welcome (The Borough Press, 2014) spans a period of almost ten years, but the story is firmly anchored in the events of WWI and its aftermath. The title sets up parallels between the women who welcome and the heroes who are welcomed. Nadine and Rose possess the empathy and sensitivity to welcome and love, in the truest sense, those who return, while beautiful Julia cannot see beyond her own needs. Riley rebuilds his life, breaking through the barriers of horrific facial disfigurement and class prejudice, while Peter cannot “just slot back in,” instead reliving his own wartime horrors night and day, an Odysseus on a becalmed ship. The Heroes’ Welcome focuses on change — the physical reconstruction of Riley’s face and Julia’s emotional growth — yet below society’s superficial changes, its “architecture” remains the same.

These ten novels commemorating the centennial of WWI remind us of the inhumanity and folly of that ‘war to end all wars.

1. Lawrence Binyon’s well-known poem, “The Fallen,” was published in The Times on 21 September 1914.
2. The trilogy appeared in the 1990s: Regeneration, The Eye in the Door and The Ghost Road.
3. This selection of recent books and their themes are briefly examined in alphabetical order, by author.

About the contributors: Visit LUCINDA BYATT at A World of Words, M.K. TOD blogs about all aspects of historical fiction at A Writer of History,, and her second novel, Lies Told in Silence, is set in WWI France. EMMA CAZABONNE blogs at Words and Peace, www.wordsandpeace.comand on Twitter, @wordsandpeace.


Published in Historical Novels Review  |  Issue 69, August 2014

Posted in book reviews, historical fiction | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment