Paperback: Body Parts, by Hermione Lee

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The Independent Culture

"Get as many anecdotes as possible. If you love your reader and want to be read get anecdotes!" This note-to-self, as penned, by Elizabeth Gaskell before she embarked on her life of Charlotte Brontë, is still sound advice for any aspiring biographer. Though even the gossipy Gaskell, as Hermione Lee points out, would be shocked, by our modern appetite for full disclosure on such matters as "masturbation, dental work, body odour, menstruation, gonorrhoea, addictions and sexual preferences". Lee's collection of essays is concerned with how literary biographers have struggled to piece together life's leftovers: not only letters, diaries and tittle-tattle, but body parts too and not just figuratively. In the opening chapter, she considers the fate of Pepys's gallstone, Hardy's heart (said to have been eaten, by his cat, Cobby), and Shelley's innards. Part belle-lettrist, part academic, Lee entertains with biographical sketches of Austen, Woolf, Bowen and her good friend Brian Moore. Taking significant moments from these authors' lives Austen's fainting episode, Woolf's suicide she deconstructs the intellectual surmise that has grown up around each story. As she says of her own attempts to reconstruct Woolf's final walk: "I could describe, as far as I knew it, how she ended it all, but I couldn't entirely nor can anyone say why."