Classics Club July Meme: Biographies

The Classics Club

This month’s Classics Club Meme question is:

Have you ever read a biography on a classic author? If so, tell us about it. If you had already read works by this author, did reading a biography of his/her life change your perspective on the author’s writing? Why or why not? // Or, if you’ve never read a biography of a classic author, would you? Why or why not?

Looking through my list of books reviewed here on my blog, I can only see three or four biographies of classic authors that I’ve read in the last five years. I’ve also read some fictional biographies (such as The Taste of Sorrow by Jude Morgan) but they’re not quite the same thing! When I read a book, classic or otherwise, I do like to know some basic information about the author (whether they are male or female, which country they are from, how old they are, etc) but I can usually get that information from the book cover or ‘about the author’ page. Beyond that, I don’t usually feel any need to know every detail of the author’s life and prefer just to concentrate on enjoying their work.

One biography that I did enjoy was Claire Tomalin’s Charles Dickens: A Life. It didn’t leave me with a very good opinion of Dickens as a person, but it was interesting to see how people and events from his personal life inspired his fictional plots and characters. Having also read Tomalin’s Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self, which is another excellent book, I would like to read more of her work at some point, despite my usual lack of interest in reading biographies. Her book on Thomas Hardy sounds the most appealing to me, but I’ve been waiting until I’ve finished reading all of Hardy’s novels first.

Earlier this year I read The Secret Life of Wilkie Collins by William M. Clarke but although Collins is one of my favourite classic authors, I was a bit disappointed with this particular biography. There’s a lot of information on Collins’ private life (though to be fair, you would expect that from the title) but Clarke doesn’t spend much time discussing his writing. He does occasionally show how aspects of Wilkie’s personal life may have related to his work, but there’s not enough of this and when I reached the end of the book I didn’t feel I’d gained any real insights.

While I did learn a lot about Collins’ and Dickens’ lives from these two biographies, I can’t really say that they changed how I feel about their writing. For the purposes of this meme, a better book for me to mention here is probably the biography of Daphne, Angela and Jeanne du Maurier which I read last year – Daphne du Maurier and Her Sisters by Jane Dunn. Although I had a few problems with this biography too (which I’ve explained in my review) I do think Jane Dunn did a good job of explaining how the girls’ childhood experiences and influences shaped their future careers. I’ve never read anything by Angela du Maurier, but I know that Daphne put a lot of herself into her writing and many of her novels include autobiographical elements – reading Dunn’s biography gave me a better appreciation of this.

Well, it seems I’ve found more to say on the subject of biographies than I’d expected! Do you enjoy reading biographies of classic authors? Which ones have you read?

8 thoughts on “Classics Club July Meme: Biographies

    • Lisa says:

      I’ve read several biographies about Jane Austen, and I seem to keep collecting them. I have also read a biography of Trollope, as well as his autobiography, both of which were really interesting and informative. I’ll probably read more about him. I’very read other authors’ autobiographies, like Angela Thirkell’s, but not that many biographies. I tend to read more of historical figures.

      • Helen says:

        I’ve never read a biography of Trollope, but from the little I know about his life, I’m sure it would be very interesting. Maybe I’ll try one sometime.

  1. jessicabookworm says:

    Sounds like you’ve read some really interesting biographies of classic authors. I’m afraid I haven’t really read biographies about authors. I read a biography of C S Lewis and J R R Tolkien’s friendship which was interesting. While moving into the modern I read Stephen King’s memoir On Writing which was excellent. May be something I should look into reading more of.

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