Reading list

The real lives of classic authors

From fresh looks at literary heavyweights to a biographer turning the pen on her own life, these books are for anyone fascinated by what goes on behind the scenes – the story behind the story.

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A Life of My Own

Claire Tomalin

Claire Tomalin is one of the highest regarded biographers working today, as well as former literary editor of the New Statesman and the Sunday Times, but this time she’s turned her attention inward. Charting her own life to date it covers the tumultuous relationship her parents had, growing up during the Second World War, and her first marriage to war journalist Nicholas Tomalin, who she had four children with, who was killed on assignment. Her memoir is a beautiful, wise look at ambition, grief, love and life written with the same intelligence and insight she affords her previous subjects. 

 

The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft

Claire Tomalin

Tomalin has written several critically acclaimed biographies but her first was this 1974 biography of the author of 1792 polemic A Vindication of the Rights of Women, Mary Wollstonecraft. Tomalin won the Whitbread First Book Award for this vividly realised account of Wollstonecraft’s eventful life, which is now seen as the definitive account. Wollstonecraft lived through revolutionary France, had an illegitimate daughter and then married one of the founders of the anarchist movement before dying aged 38, days after giving birth to her second daughter, Mary Shelley, who would go on to write Frankenstein.

 

Virginia Woolf

Hermione Lee

A fresh look at a woman whose life has been picked over many times - partly through Woolf’s own extensive diary and personal writing. Lee looks at Woolf as a woman undeniably impacted by the times she lived in; the effect of living through two world wars, how it was to be a woman struggling with mental health issues in a time of prejudice against both those things. But Lee always centres these investigations around they made Woolf the writer she became; exploring how her feminism, sexuality and politics informed her work. 

 

Will in the World

Stephen Greenblatt

Although arguably the most famous writer in the world, what we know about William Shakespeare is still riddled with holes and questions. Stephen Greenblatt sets out to provide the fullest account attempted so far. Placing Shakespeare firmly as an Elizabethan man and writer, he connects the playwright to the history he was living through, looking to find a deeper understanding of Shakespeare’s imaginative life. An uplifting and story-driven biography, it’s a testament and love letter to the man and the writer. 

 

At the Existentialist Cafe

Sarah Bakewell

More a biography of a movement than an individual writer, Bakewell focuses on Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir as she tracks the development of existentialism in 1920s and 30s Paris. Pulling in several writers and thinkers, history and politics, Bakewell gives a warm and very human face to big, complicated philosophical concepts; explaining these people’s lives and ideas in intelligent but lucid writing that will have you yearning for a debate over an apricot cocktail on a Parisian pavement. 

 

Take Courage

Samantha Ellis

Ellis weaves her own life through her exploration of the traditionally overlooked youngest Bronte sister, Anne, the author of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. A previously devoted Emily and Wuthering Heights-fan, Ellis became fascinated with Anne; her quiet strength in the face of many difficulties, her quiet but hard-won professional ambitions next to her more celebrated sisters, and her surprisingly fierce feminism. Take Courage maps Ellis’ personal and professional pilgrimage to Yorkshire to try and find out who the real Anne was and what her true legacy is. 

 

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