There are many biographies I admire, but the one I love above all is Mollie Panter-Downes's At The Pines (1971). I had no particular interest in the poet AC Swinburne, or in Theodore Watts-Dunton (who has?), and so picked up and put down this joint biography several times in second-hand bookshops before buying it. After a productive and highly rackety early life, the alcoholic Swinburne was taken by Watts-Dunton to suburban Putney to spend his remaining years in blameless cohabitation at No 2, The Pines. Here, in a neat reversal of one of his most notorious couplets, he exchanged the roses and raptures of vice for the lilies and languors of virtue. This did nothing for his poetry, but it probably saved his life. Reading this wonderfully evocative book is like opening the front of a dolls' house to reveal the intricate detail inside. We peep into every room, and it is as if we can run our fingers along the furniture, hear the household noises, even smell the roast mutton. Panter-Downes produced a masterpiece that is sympathetic, beautifully written, and very funny indeed.
Peter Parker's biography of Christopher Isherwood is published by Picador
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