BookBlast® interviews Linda Kelly, biographer and historian.
Where were you born and where did you grow up?
I was born in Kent and brought up in the country, mostly in Hampshire. However I was also a wartime evacuee, from 1940-43, in the US: a Saturday Evening Post – Norman Rockwell kind of America, complete with freckle-faced kids and rocking chairs on verandas. It was an idyllic period from which I date a certain independence of mind and a dislike of snobbery.
What sorts of books were in your family home? Who were early formative influences?
Our house was full of books, both English and French, and my mother read a lot to us when we were small. Due to wartime paper shortages, there were few new books being published for children, so we were thrown back on the classics of our parents’ generation: Frances Hodgson Burnett, Charlotte Mary Yonge, Stevenson, Henty and Conan Doyle. Perhaps because of my American experience, I particularly loved books like Little Women and What Katie Did, but I was more or less omnivorous and gobbled up anything from Agatha Christie to Walter Scott.
In your home, was the atmosphere for women emancipated?
I don’t think it was a subject which arose – I had two brothers and two sisters, and we all regarded each other as equals.
Are there any advantages in being a woman and a writer?
I personally like having outside occupations, like cooking and shopping and looking after children and grandchildren. Writing is an escape into another world which I wouldn’t appreciate so much if I didn’t have the contrast. So for me it is an advantage being a woman, with domestic tasks to ground one.
When did you begin writing biographies?
I began writing biographies when I left my job as travel editor of Vogue. I couldn’t find a flexible job which fitted in with children, so decided to try and write a book at home.
How do you choose your subjects?
I do a lot of reading about people or periods which attract me till eventually, if I’m lucky, the penny drops. Sometimes it’s just a phrase or a picture which provides the first inspiration – the pre-Raphaelite painting of Chatterton in the Tate for instance – and then I start to build up round it.
Are there individuals you considered, but didn’t pursue?
Two people I wish I’d written about are Mrs Gaskell and the French poet André Chenier. Mrs Gaskell had been the subject of two recent biographies, so I didn’t feel there was a place for another. André Chenier, who perished in the French Revolution, is a poet I’ve always loved and a forerunner of the French romantic movement. But having written one book with a background of the Terror – Women of the French Revolution – I didn’t feel I could live through the horror of the period again.
Thomas Chatterton, Madame de Staël, Josephine de Bauharnais, Sarah Siddons, Susanna Burney, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, Tom Moore and, most recently, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord Prince of Benevento. Can you say a little about what each of your subjects has taught you?
In the case of Chatterton, who committed suicide in 1770, at the age of only seventeen, I was fascinated by the legend of neglected genius that grew up round him, and the way it spread through the romantic movement. It was only later, after studying his poetry, that I realised what a wonderful poet he was.
I came to Mrs Siddons, as with Chatterton, through a painting, Reynolds’ magnificent portrait of her as the Tragic Muse. It was matched by the grand neo-classical painting of her brother, John Philip Kemble, as Coriolanus by Lawrence. Together they dominated the theatre of the period and their partnership is the subject of my book The Kemble Era. It was a golden age for theatrical memoirs and criticism – Hazlitt and Lamb were leading theatre critics – so there was some marvellous material to draw on.
Susanna Burney was the sister of the novelist Fanny Burney, and I first used her letters in a book on Juniper Hall, the house near Dorking, where Madame de Staël, Talleyrand and a group of liberal French aristocrats took refuge from the French Revolution in 1792. Susanna and her husband Captain Phillips, a veteran of Cook’s last voyage, lived next door. Her letters give vivid descriptions of the group and of her sister Fanny’s romance with General d’Arblay, whom she later married.
Soon after the book was published, I met the musical historian, Curtis Price. He told me of Susanna’s earlier relationship with the great castrato singer, Gaspero Pacchierott, an unspoken love affair fuelled by her admiration for his genius. Susanna’s unpublished letter-diary in the British Library tells the story in poignant detail. I used them as the basis for my book, Susanna, the Captain and the Castrato, in which Captain Phillips’ adventures in the South Seas contrast with the world of Italian opera in London.
How can one resist Richard Brinsley
Sheridan? I’ve loved him ever since I played Lydia Languish in a school performance of The Rivals. I was lucky in my timing since the original manuscript of his biographer Tom Moore’s diaries, recently discovered in the archives of his publisher Longmans, had just been published in five volumes. They provided a considerable amount of new material on Sheridan, not included in the bland Victorian edition.
The life of Sheridan led me naturally to that of his biographerTom Moore, the poet and song writer, whose enchanting Irish Melodies, including “The Last Rose of Summer”, swept the world in the first half of the 19th century. He was also the best friend and biographer of Byron.
Byron, Moore and Sheridan led me into the 19th century, and the celebrated salon of Lord and Lady Holland at Holland House, of which they were all habitues. Another eminent habitue of Holland House was Talleyrand, who emerged from retirement at the age of 76 to become French ambassador in London following the revolution of July, 1830. During his four years in England he helped to keep the peace in Europe after after revolution broke out in Belgium, where the Belgians, forcibly joined to Holland in 1815, demanded their independence. The establishment of Belgium as a constitutional monarchy, in the teeth of Europe’s autocratic powers, was the joint achievement of Talleyrand and the Foreign Secretary, Lord Palmerston. The entente cordiale, later confirmed by Edward VII, began with Talleyrand’s embassy to London.
What is it about late 18th and early 19th century romanticism which appeals to you?
One of the things I specially love about the late 18th and early 19th century is the way that people use English. Even the simplest letters have a zest and style which seems to vanish one once enters the Victorian age. And then it’s a period with a tumultuous background of war and revolution, dramatic events which are mirrored in the works of the poets and writers of the day. And what wonderful people it threw up – from Byron to Madame de Staël.
How do you move from research to writing; is it difficult to begin?
I try and get a general feel of the subject before I start and then research in detail, chapter by chapter. I like the feeling of discovery as I go along. I find it incredibly difficult to get started and have sometimes taken a year to get the first chapter right. Once the scene is set things become much easier.
Do you write every day; what is your writing process? Do you do many drafts?
I try and write every day though it’s not always possible. I go through many drafts but usually try to get the main outline down in the first. I can then fiddle around till I think I’ve got it right.
Why is history valuable? Why does it matter?
Solzenitzyn said that being ignorant of history is like having had a lobotomy. We need to know where we come from. And how boring it would be if the past was a blank.
When you look back at the books you have written, is there a favourite?
I suppose I like my second book, The Young Romantics best. It is about the friendships, loves and rivalries of the French romantics between 1827-37, the years that saw the first night of Hernani and the July Revolution. The group included Victor Hugo, Alfred de Vigny. Alexandre Dumas, Alfred de Musset and George Sand. I fell in love with all of them and had severe withdrawal symptoms once the book was finished.
What are you working on now?
I’m thinking about the salons in Paris, and the ferment of new ideas there, in the years just before the French Revolution.
What is the significance of being married to a fellow writer and historian?
We read and comment on each other’s work; it’s very helpful to have someone to discuss things with. Laurence specialises in Russia history, and has written books on Lermontov and Griboyedov, I’m interested in French and British subjects, but we both feel specially at home in the romantic period.
Are there any other writers in your family?
My father, Ronald McNair Scott, worked for the London Mercury and wrote two novels before the war – one with his friend T.H.White. He gave up writing for 30 years after the war, then wrote two biographies, of Robert the Bruce and Alfred the Great, in his seventies. Twenty two years after his death, Robert the Bruce is still selling well the US. We give the royalties to the London Library.
My sister Valerie Pakenham has written a several books, including The Noonday Sun, a study of Edwardians in the British Empire, and The Big House in Ireland. She is currently editing the letters of Maria Edgeworth.
My elder daughter, Rosanna Kelly, specialises in Russian subjects, including an illustrated history of Russia, and a translation of a memoir of Shostokovitch by his two children. She has just completed a translation of a book about the Ballets Russes which is due to come out this summer.
My daughter Rachel’s memoir of depression, Black Rainbow, has been hugely helpful in raising public awareness of mental illness. She has since written a bestselling short book Walking on Sunshine: 52 small steps to happiness and a cookbook, The Happy Kitchen, with recipes to beat the blues.
Your views on book publishing?
I owe a lot to publishers, and am glad to see new ones springing up at a time when of many of the older ones are being swallowed up by big conglomerates.
Your views on how new technology has (or has not) changed your writing life? Do you enjoy reading ebooks?
I am woefully old fashioned and have not got round to reading ebooks. I’m not very good on social media either!
Your views on celebrity?
I think celebrity is a bit of a two edged sword – sooner or later it turns against you. But I realise it helps sell books.
If you could go anywhere in time for one day, where would you go and why?
I would like to have been one of the audience at Shakespeare’s Globe theatre for a performance of Twelfth Night.
Who are the five people, living or dead, you’d invite to a party?
I’d like to invite some of the characters I know from my books: Sheridan, Talleyrand, Madame de Staël, George Sand and Victor Hugo. The question is, how would they all get a word in?
Which characters in history do you like the most?
The Duke of Wellington, Winston Churchill, Walter Raleigh, Elizabeth I.
Which characters in history do you dislike the most?
Apart from the monsters of the 20th century, Stalin, Mao and Hitler, I would choose Napoleon and Henry VIII.
Who are the writers you admire?
Shakespeare, of course, Jane Austen, Dickens, Proust, P.G.Wodehouse and Anthony Powell.
Your idea of happiness?
Reading a Victorian novel by the fire on a cold November day, with a cat asleep on my knee.
Your bedside reading?
I like to have a choice – a detective story, a collection of poetry, something in French to keep up the language, and a solid biography or novel.
Your favourite motto?
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Linda Kelly‘s books include Women of the French Revolution, Richard Brinsley Sheridan: A Life, Holland House: A History of London’s Most Celebrated Salon, Ireland’s Minstrel: A Life of Tom Moore, Poet, Patriot and Byron’s Friend and, just published, Talleyrand in London: The Master Diplomat’s Last Mission. She has written for The Washington Post, New York Times, Times Literary Supplement and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and of the Wordsworth Trust. She is married to the writer Laurence Kelly, a specialist in Russian history.