Saturday 7 February 2009

Too Much Information

I've spent one of those days thinking about working and not really doing anything... other than demonstrate how slowly a man can walk along a road. I was much laughed at by sympathetic housemate Mel.

I haven't been to Booking Through Thursday for a while, not for any particular reason, so I was surprised and pleased to see that this week's question was suggested by me! I put it in the suggestion area of their website last April, and rather thought that it had been passed over - however, they must keep these things boiling under for many months, as this week's question is:

Have you ever been put off an author’s books after reading a biography of them? Or the reverse - a biography has made you love an author more?

I never know whether an author's life and personality *should* influence a reading of their work or not, but I know for a fact that it does. Not wholly, but I can't quite keep it out of my mind.

Having said that - Katherine Mansfield (Claire Tomalin) and
Virginia Woolf (Hermione Lee) remain two of my favourite authors, despite coming across as less than pleasant in their respective biographies. I've forced myself to ignore their meanness (see anything KM wrote to Ida Baker) or selfishness or whatever, because their writing is amongst the best I've ever read. Daphne du Maurier has rather suffered after I read her Letters from Menabilly, which made her seem arrogant and callous, but I'm pre-determined to love anything I might ever read by Oriel Malet, who came across so much nicer in that book. Whatever my objective reasoning tells me, it always helps when an author turns out to be a lovely or courageous or notable person - I admire Beatrix Potter after discovering more about her; Richmal Crompton and AA Milne seem increasingly good people to invite to dinner.

So I'm all confused, basically. All Round Good Eggs benefit in my eyes - but I'll blind myself to the nasty traits in authors I already love. It's a case of warming to them or feeling quiet (and usually irrational) disappointment... do any of you have anything more sensible to contribute? Or, of course, any response, sensible or not...


  1. After reading Mrs Woolf & the Servants I bought Mrs Dalloway. I don't think I would have picked up a Virginia Woolf book before. In this case, having some background knowledge of her helped me to understand her better.

  2. With the exception of Colette I haven't read a biography of any author. I think I'm likely to keep it that way and thus, neatly, sidestep the issue! I am not particularly interested in knowing about the "real" lives of the authors whose works I read.

  3. I think this is a surprisingly tough question. I know we are not supposed to apply biography to literature but it's very hard not to, isn't it. I have certainly been disappointed in much loved authors after reading about their less than admirable lives. I think I'll go and address this question on my own blog right now!

  4. I think that it is very interesting to read about how writers lived - the differences in life then and now gives a greater understanding of their work - setting it in context. However, the truly unpleasant picture drawn by Daphne du Maurier's latest biographer spoiled her books for me (at least for the time being). Maybe I can no longer trust her - after all, the beastliness of her treatment of her 'loyal friend' in old age, was particularly despicable.
    I love to read about Jane A's life - but nothing I read detracts from her light witty touch. If I learned that she ate her grandmother, I might feel differently!
    Perhaps it all depends on whether the biographer is sympathetic or not.
    Oh, and if you want to see more snow pics, go to my blog!

  5. After reading a biog of Daphne du M, found I lost all desire to read any more of her as I found I did not care for her at all. Read Sir Laurence Olivier's Diaries and letters and he came through as arrogant and egoistical, have not been able to watch him in a movie since, read Noel Coward diaries and fell in love withhim immediately, or should I say with the real person that lurks under that persona he adopted. Read some rather unpleasant things about Jan Struther, Mrs Miniver does not mean the same to me any more. This is a really difficult question and one I find unable to answer

  6. Reading P.G. Wodehouse's bio by Robt McCrum simply reinforced my love for his books. However, when I read Letters Btw Six Sisters (which I adored), I found myself really disliking Nancy Mitford, and I think it will be quite a while before I re-read two erstwhile favorites, The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate.

  7. I had the same problem with Du Maurier but Rebecca is still oneof my favourite books!

  8. Having now read these comments I am intrigued to read a biography of Daphne du Maurier as I adored her books as a teenager and have recently re-read 'My Cousin Rachel'. I tend to read an author's biography after reading several of their books.

  9. I think Ted Hughes rather suffered from this phenomenon in the post-Plath years, didn't he? I'd like to judge his work objectively but I almost feel it would be disloyal to like him. Completely irrational, isn't it?

  10. I'm terribly biased - if I read a biography of a writer whose work I like, I wilfully twist any hint of callousness or arrogance to mean being 'self-assured', 'ambitious' and 'courageous'. Reading Vita Sackville-West's biography recently (Victoria Glendinning) has made me even more interested in her writing and in her as a person. The biography was very sympathetic, but in places it was hard to condone the way she behaved at certain times in her life - the trouble there is the extent to which her story has been romanticised.
    As for Thomas Hardy - well, I wouldn't even recognise a criticism of him...Sad really.


  11. I don't mind reading awful things about authors. It helps me understand where some of their work was coming from. And if they wrote beautiful, noble prose from a terrible life, what a miracle! But like you, Simon, I divide authors into those I would invite to dinner and those who would never grace my table. :)


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