Posted by: zhiv | June 4, 2008

Reading Notes: Biographies of Women Authors

My copy of the Richard Yates biography, A Tragic Honesty, by Blake Bailey, finally came yesterday.  Handsome book.  I had to reorder it and have been waiting for it for awhile, and I remembered that I made a vow not to start it until I had finished Ruth First and Ann Scott’s biography of Olive Schreiner.  That of course didn’t stop me from wading into the deep waters of Frances Kiernan’s Seeing Mary Plain, as I’ve mentioned.  Remembering all this, this morning I checked and saw that I have 80 pages to go in the Schreiner, and I settled in for ten minutes and finished the “A Lady of Letters” chapter in Kiernan, which has MM married to 4th husband James West, turning 50, having just written her last short story (apparently quite good), living in Paris, and about to finish and publish The Group, which is the title of the next chapter.  Should be interesting to see if I can resist Bailey’s Yates and finish the Schreiner and Kiernan’s SMP first.  I doubt it.  It’s not at all unusual for me to be reading 10 books at once.

All of this, and a note about Salem, Mass. over at Dorothy’s Of Books and Bikes, made me want to reflect for a moment on literary biography and some women authors.  I love literary biography.  I could go deeper into it, but I’ll throw out a few broad strokes about my own habits.  When I find an author, and Schreiner, Yates, and McCarthy are all good recent examples, I like to read their work first, as far it goes, but within moments I’m curious about their lives and background.  I don’t really like to “cheat,” because I want to form my own impression of the author’s work and style and my own sense of their accomplishment in the “vacuum of the text,” if you want to call it that.  So I would read RevRoad and some Yates stories before getting too many biographical details, and I mentioned how I wanted to read Memories of a Catholic Girlhood before getting to Kiernan’s version of those biographical events.  But as I say, it only goes so far.  I’m wasn’t going to read all of McCarthy’s other works before reading the biography, and I don’t know that I’ll read Easter Parade, for instance, before diving into Bailey’s biography of Yates, although I feel like I probably should (and I might, dammit!).  And I might add here that the other thing I like to do is gather up copies of these other books, so I already have a tidy little Yates collection, and the MM collection is fairly substantial, and very fun to gather.

But my main objective today is to mention some of my favorite biographies of women authors.  Or at least, sort of women authors.  Over at Dorothy’s site I just wrote a note about Megan Marshall’s The Peabody Sisters, which I read about 18 months ago, I think, and that was just a great, revelatory book, that is a wonderful example of literary scholarship and biographical writing.  Marshall published a tantalizing excerpt in The New Yorker called “The Other Sister,” and the book was simultaneously published to some acclaim and recognition.  One of the things I really liked about it was its form as a family biography, not unlike the “group biography” that I wrote about in David Laskin’s Partisans, which is the book that put me on the McCarthy path.  Marshall’s book combines the illumination of an important, even central character who has been quite neglected, in Elizabeth Peabody, with an extended new perspective on an American literary titan, Hawthorne.  It was a great story and a great read, and it’s highly recommended.

Another book I want to note as one of my favorites isn’t about a woman author per se, and I guess it isn’t a biography either, but since she wrote it herself that has to count somehow.  For years I’ve felt that Katharine Graham’s autobiography, Personal History, is one of the best and most compelling books I’ve ever read, and I thought it would be worth noting here, especially as I read about McCarthy, who is a close contemporary of hers, I believe.  The story itself is simply amazing, and one of the most interesting things is that it has genuine historical import.  It seems as if Graham is fairly well-known now, settling into her place in history, and this Pulitzer-winning book certainly helped the cause.  Even though I might have read it more than a decade ago, I can make a number of immediate connections with this book to my present concerns.  It slightly predates the late century memoir explosion, but it deserves to be included in a discussion or course on 20th century memoir and autobiography, which is of course McCarthy territory in a major way.  And this gives me a chance to mention how I was studying and writing about the intersected lives of Andy Warhol and Truman Capote last fall.  When Warhol first moved to New York, he basically stalked Capote.  This was briefly referenced in Ken Burns’ Warhol documentary, and it was fun to track down the timeline and details in the Capote biography that led to the movie, and elsewhere, and studying early, pre-In Cold Blood Capote as well as 50s Warhol was fascinating.  But my first real interest in Capote, aside from vague knowledge, came from reading the Graham book and its discussion of the “party of the century” where she was his guest of honor.  I’ll finish by throwing out another one of my (hopefully rare) movie notes.  Uber-producer Laura Ziskin (Spiderman, Pretty Woman, etc) has owned the movie rights to the book for years, at HBO I believe.  In the first place, this is the perfect Meryl Streep Oscar-winner of all time–it would be virtually impossible to mess it up.  But even better and truly exciting, I’ve always thought, would be to do the movie version of the Katharine Graham story as a female Citizen Kane, imbuing the whole movie with references to one of the ultimate classic films.  If you know the story and the book, you get it.  I’m just saying.

As long as I’ve mentioned movies, I’ll nod at another biography:  Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, by Amanda Foreman, which is going to appear in September (bad release date) as “The Duchess,” with litstar Keira Knightley.  If you like the 18th century, this is a really good read, very well done, and the Duchess is a great character.  I read it years ago, shortly after it came out, and I give people credit for getting it made as a film.   Nothing to suggest that the movie will be anything special, and it’s getting the “Silk” treatment rather than “Atonement” (does anybody know anybody who saw Silk?), but we’ll see.  But if anybody out there likes to read books before they appear as movies, add this one to the list.

Lastly, there’s Schreiner, which I have to get back to.  I’ve been drifting away from the Africa books, after a fascinating and fun “senior honors project” year with the GD, but I want to finish this, and my “paper”/essay on OS and Virginia Woolf as well.  Schreiner’s book had a big impact on me back in the fall, and it would be nice to get back to it and write about her a little bit more. 

The larger question here, I suppose, is the gender issue, taking a look at these women and their lives and accomplishments and glancing to see how they’re distinctive and particularly feminine.  David Laskin, in Partisans, spends a lot of time talking about McCarthy’s pre-feminist approach, but it hasn’t been much of an issue in Kiernan’s book.  I don’t have any off the cuff deep thoughts about these women or these books and what it all means.  I guess all I know, at the moment, is that these are books that I have enjoyed and am enjoying, both for their subjects and for themselves.  I’m sure there are countless other solid and enjoyable literary biographies of women out there, but this is a place for me, at least, to begin to do some  thinking about this particular category.


  1. I read Georgiana shortly after it came out and remember being fascinated by it and enjoying it very much, although I never would have guessed that it would be made into a movie! But I can see how it would work, and I’ll make sure to see it. Thank you for the information about the Peabody Sisters book — my husband bought it while we were in Salem, actually, and while I’d originally thought it wouldn’t be a book for me, I may change my mind. Same for the Katherine Graham book. I haven’t been a big reader of literary biography, largely because those books are usually so long and require a big investment of time, and I’m a slow reader and so I usually stick to the primary source material, whatever it is. But I have enjoyed those few I’ve read (Colette, M. McCarthy). I’m interested in McCarthy’s “pre-feminism” as Laskin puts it, so that’s another reason to look at Partisans (yes, I’m in a bad habit of saying I want to read every book a blogger mentions and the truth is I won’t get to them all, but still!)

  2. DW — I’m not surprised that you had read Georgiana, or that you liked. Yes, I’m a little surprised that someone managed to make the movie, and we’ll see how it turns out.

    But I do think it’s quite funny that you guys bought a copy of The Peabody Sisters when you were in Salem. Completely appropriate. You really would like it very much, more because of the interesting and surprising character of Elizabeth Peabody than anything else.

    Yes, biographies in general probably take too long to read. That’s why, I guess, that I mentioned that I like to read at least a few of the primary works first. And I also find with biographies that you don’t have to read the whole thing right away, and it’s very easy to have them in the background while you’re reading another book or two at the same time.

    And I would definitely stand behind the Katharine Graham book at any time as being truly extraordinary, a great and even epic 20th century lifestory.


  4. You remind me how much I ignore literary biography – and probably to my own detriment. For some reason, I continue to focus almost singularly on the author’s work, avoiding any further understanding of the their life and experience. But I don’t do this because I think literary biography cannot inform my understanding of an author’s work, more just because I get so excited about the work itself, I forget about anything else. But I recently read a New Yorker profile of Pat Barker and it made me want to learn more about her life, good timing with this post. Perhaps my Gordimer project should include some biography?

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