The Ten Best: Literary lives

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The Independent Culture

1 BRIEF LIVES John Aubrey (written late 1600s)

Whatever biography might rather be, gossip is part of it, and one of the earliest English biographers was one of the biggest gossips ever. Not all of his subjects are writers, but who else would tell us, and so simply, that the poet Katherine Philips ("Very good-natured; not at all high-minded; pretty fat; ... red pimpled face") had an uncle who "is now prisoner in the Fleet on her account for a debt of her husband"?


Samuel Johnson (1779-81)

Vivid, wittily discriminating, sometimes devastating life-and-work portraits. Of the Restoration poet Rochester: he "blazed out his youth and his health in lavish voluptuousness... As he cannot be supposed to have found leisure for any course of continued study, his pieces are commonly short, such as one fit of resolution would produce." Boswell's Life of Johnson, by contrast, is everything Johnson's own Lives aren't (long, for example, and sycophantic).

3 CHARLOTTE BRONTE Elizabeth Gaskell (1855)

One great novelist's account of another. George Eliot's partner GH Lewes complimented Gaskell: "It makes us familiar inmates of an interior so strange, so original... that fiction has nothing more wild, touching and heart-strengthening to place above it."

4 ORLANDO Virginia Woolf (1928)

Simultaneously a love letter to Vita Sackville-West, a playful history of her family, and an exploration of the difficulty of writing about writers. "Life, it has been agreed by everyone whose opinion is worth consulting, is the only fit subject for [the] biographer; life, the same authorities have decided, has nothing whatever to do with sitting still in a chair and thinking."

5 JAMES JOYCE Richard Ellmann (1959)

The most substantial, most readable and most sensitive of all academic literary biographies: a deeply modest scholar brings back to life one of the least modest of geniuses.

6 SHAKESPEARE'S LIVES S Schoenbaum (1970)

The less that is known, the more the speculation (and the more heated the arguments become). This is certainly true of Shakespeare. Schoenbaum's learned, vivid and funny 800-page survey of Shakespearean biography cleared the decks for his own indispensably empirical account, Shakespeare: a Documentary Life.


"Not only are you the best living English critic of literature," Isaiah Berlin told Pritchett, "(and life too - my Russian roots make me think them dissoluble), but you are also a very good man." Pritchett's essays are as penetratingly human as his short stories. In his 70s, he began an additional career as a biographer - of Balzac and Chekhov as well as Turgenev - making the form as much his own as everything else he wrote.

8 FLAUBERT'S PARROT Julian Barnes (1984)

Even while proving that writing biography is impossible, Barnes's novel - or is it an essay? - does the job with casual- seeming brilliance.


The analyst of psychoanalysis brings her expertise to bear on one of the most painful yet also the most productive of literary relationships, as well as on the complex psychological processes at work in biography itself - especially where kith and kin are involved.

10 PUSHKIN: A BIOGRAPHY TJ Binyon (2003)

A life's work in both senses. The Oxford Slavicist Binyon died last month, knowing that his exhaustively researched, acclaimed biography (it won the Samuel Johnson Prize) had fulfilled his wish "to free the complex and interesting figure" of the 19th-century Russian poet "from the heroic simplicity of... myth".

Jeremy Treglown is a professor of English at the University of Warwick. His biography of VS Pritchett is published by Chatto and Windus, price £25