Category: DNBL

Beyond the Secret Garden

The definitive and revealing biography of the author of The Secret Garden.

 

Frances Hodgson Burnett’s favourite theme in her fiction was the reversal of fortune, and she herself knew extremes of poverty and wealth. Born in Manchester in 1849, she emigrated with her family to Tennessee because of the financial problems caused by the cotton famine. From a young age she published her stories to help the family make ends meet. Only after she married did she publish Little Lord Fauntleroy that shot her into literary stardom.

 

On the surface, Frances’ life was extremely successful: hosting regular literary salons in her home and travelling frequently between properties in the UK and America. But behind the colourful personal and social life, she was a complex and contradictory character. She lost both parents by her twenty-first birthday, Henry James called her “the most heavenly of women” although avoided her; prominent people admired her and there were many friendships as well as an ill-advised marriage to a much younger man that ended in heartache. Her success was punctuated by periods of depression, in one instance brought on by the tragic loss of her eldest son to consumption.

 

Ann Thwaite creates a sympathetic but balanced and eye-opening biography of the woman who has enchanted numerous generations of children.

The Iris Trilogy: Memoirs of Iris Murdoch

Dame Iris Murdoch (1919-1999) was one of the greatest British novelists and philosophers of the twentieth century. She read philosophy at Oxford where she met and later married John Bayley, a literary critic and fellow novelist. So began a forty-year, intense and unconventional but happy marriage, detailed in the classic bestselling memoir Iris. Despite Iris’ extramarital affairs with men and women throughout their long marriage – which John always suspected – their bond was unbreakable, and his memoir beautifully captures their child-like moments of bliss: walking in forests, swimming together in streams, and sharing hot cups of coffee on crisp mornings.

These are touching but poignant stories with the knowledge that Iris and her grand intellect would eventually succumb to Alzheimer’s disease. John would care for her singlehandedly for five years, the last of which he writes about in Iris and the Friends that also describes her peaceful passing. Finally, he reflects on his bereavement and the void that is left when a soulmate departs in A Widower’s House. All three books are told by the person who knew Iris best, with gentle humour – at times unbearably moving – in his portrayal of a remarkable woman.

Widower’s House

Since the death in 1998 of his wife, the novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch, John Bayley has given much thought to adjusting to his new, single status. As the carer of a victim of Alzheimer’s, his was in many ways a double-bereavement as Iris, in the sense of the person who John Bayley met and married, very slowly departed this world some years before her physical death. A meditation on bereavement and loss written in John Bayley’s inimitably sensitive and amusing style of reminiscence, Widower’s House reads like despatches from another, gentler era.

Houdini & Conan Doyle

In the early 20th century, in the English-speaking world, Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini were two of the most feted and famous men alive. And their relationship is extraordinary: As strange as it may seem Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of the ultra-rational detective Sherlock Holmes, was a believer in Spiritualism. He came to his belief, that one could communicate with the dead, after his son was killed in World War I, and became an expert in the field. Harry Houdini, the world’s foremost magician, was a friend of Conan Doyle’s, but was sceptical of his belief in the supernatural. Houdini took every opportunity to use his knowledge of illusion to expose psychics who he thought were fakes, particularly incensed by their exploitation of grief and insecurity. Based on original research, this sensational dual biography of two popular geniuses conjures up the early 20th century and the fame, personality and competing beliefs.

Siegfried Sassoon

The definitive biography of one of the twentieth century’s finest poets, Siegfried Sassoon combines material from The Making of a War Poet and The Journey from the Trenches, the two bestselling volumes on Sassoon from his biographer and foremost scholar, Jean Moorcroft Wilson. Encompassing the poet’s complete life and works, from his patriotic youth that led him to the frontline, to the formation of his anti-war convictions, great literary friendships and flamboyant love affairs, this single-volume opus also includes new poems only just come to light. With over a decade’s research, and unparalleled access to Sassoon’s private correspondence, Wilson presents the complete portrait, both elegant and heartfelt, of an extraordinary man, and an extraordinary poet.

Rest in Pieces

In the long run, we’re all dead. But for some of the most influential figures in history, death marked the start of a new adventure. The famous deceased have been stolen, burned, sold, pickled, frozen, stuffed, impersonated and even filed away in a lawyer’s office. Their fingers, teeth, toes, arms, legs, skulls, hearts, lungs and nether regions have embarked on voyages that criss-cross the globe and stretch the imagination.

 

Counterfeiters tried to steal Lincoln’s corpse. Einstein’s brain went on a cross-country road trip. And after Lord Horatio Nelson perished at Trafalgar, his sailors submerged him in brandy – which they drank. From Mozart to Hitler, Rest in Pieces connects the lives of the famous dead to the hilarious and horrifying adventures of their corpses and traces the evolution of cultural attitudes towards death.

Churchill and Orwell

Today, as liberty and truth are increasingly challenged, the figures of Churchill and Orwell loom large. Exemplars of Britishness, they preserved individual freedom and democracy for the world through their far-sighted vision and inspired action, and cast a long shadow across our culture and politics. In Churchill & Orwell, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Thomas E. Ricks masterfully argues that these extraordinary men are as important today as they ever were. Churchill and Orwell stood in political opposition to each other, but were both committed to the preservation of freedom. However, in the late 1930s they occupied a lonely position: democracy was much discredited, and authoritarian rulers, fascist and communist, were everywhere in the ascent. Unlike others, they had the wisdom to see that the most salient issue was human liberty – and that any government that denies its people basic rights is a totalitarian menace to be resisted. Churchill and Orwell proved their age’s necessary men, and this book reveals how they rose from a precarious position to triumph over the enemies of freedom. Churchill may have played the larger role in Hitler’s defeat, but Orwell’s reckoning with the threat of authoritarian rule in 1984 and Animal Farm defined the stakes of the Cold War and continues to inspire to this day. Their lives are an eloquent testament to the power of moral conviction, and to the courage it takes to stay true to it.

The Life and Loves of E. Nesbit: Author of The Railway Children

A SUNDAY TIMES BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR

Winner of the Rubery Book Award 2020 (Non Fiction)

Edith Nesbit is considered the inventor of the children’s adventure story and her brilliant children’s books influenced bestselling authors including C.S. Lewis, P. L. Travers, J.K. Rowling, and Jacqueline Wilson, to name but a few. But who was the person behind the best loved classics The Railway Children and Five Children and It? Her once-happy childhood was eclipsed by the chronic illness and early death of her sister. In adulthood, she found herself at the centre of a love triangle between her husband and her close friend. She raised their children as her own.

Yet despite these troubling circumstances Nesbit was playful, contradictory and creative. She hosted legendary parties at her idiosyncratic Well Hall home and was described by George Bernard Shaw – one of several lovers – as ‘audaciously unconventional’. She was also an outspoken Marxist and founding member of the Fabian Society. Through Nesbit’s letters and deep archival research, Eleanor Fitzsimons reveals her as a prolific activist and writer on socialism. Nesbit railed against inequity, social injustice and state-sponsored oppression and incorporated her avant-garde ideas into her writing, influencing a generation of children – an aspect of her legacy examined here for the first time.

Eleanor Fitzsimons, acclaimed biographer and prize winning author of Wilde’s Women, has written the most authoritative biography in more than three decades. Here, she brings to light the extraordinary life story of an icon, creating a portrait of a woman in whom pragmatism and idealism worked side-by-side to produce a singular mind and literary talent.

***PRAISE FOR THE LIFE AND LOVES OF E. NESBIT***

‘A terrific book.’ Neil Gaiman

‘A very well-researched biography.’ Kate Atkinson

‘Eleanor Fitzsimons’ painstaking research gives us a new insight into the bizarre Bohemian life of the groundbreaking children’s author E. Nesbit. It’s a fantastic read.’ Jacqueline Wilson 

‘Absolutely superb!’ Hilary McKay, children’s author of The Skylarks War (shortlisted for the Costa Book Awards)

‘In this long-overdue new biography, Eleanor Fitzsimons gives us a nuanced yet compelling portrait of E. Nesbit’s many-facetted personality, life and works, as well as of the politically and culturally vibrant milieu in which she lived.’ Fiona Sampson, author of In Search of Mary Shelley

‘What a stirring and unexpected story Eleanor Fitzsimons tells and what a subject she has found. I can’t think of a single writer who doesn’t owe something to Edith Nesbit’s glorious books for children. The extraordinary woman who wrote them proves to be every bit as brave, funny and imaginative as her own intrepid characters.’ Miranda Seymour, author of In Byron’s Wake

‘One of the greatest children’s writers, and an acknowledged much loved influence on Joan Aiken E. Nesbit is celebrated in this wonderful new biography by Eleanor Fitzsimons.’ Lizza Aiken, daughter of Joan Aiken

‘An exceptional biography about an absolutely fascinating individual.’ Adam Roberts, Vice-President of the H.G. Wells Society

‘A fascinating, thoughtfully organized, thoroughly researched, often surprising biography.’ Kirkus Review

‘Fitzsimons delivers a sprightly and highly readable life of a writer who deserves even wider recognition.’ Publishers Weekly

Shadowy Third: Love, Letters, and Elizabeth Bowen – Winner of the RSL Christopher Bland Prize

** Winner of the RSL Christopher Bland Prize **

 

Uncovering the hidden love triangle between novelist Elizabeth Bowen and the author’s grandparents – the critically acclaimed biography with never-before-seen letters detailing the affair.

 

For readers who were swept up in Laura Cumming’s On Chapel Sands, Daniel Mendelsohn’s An Odyssey and Francesca Wade’s Square Haunting.

 

A death in the family delivers Julia Parry a box of letters. Dusty with age, they reveal a secret love affair between the celebrated novelist Elizabeth Bowen and the academic Humphry House – Julia’s grandfather.

 

So begins a life-changing quest to understand the affair, which had profound repercussions for Julia’s family, not least her grandmother, Madeline. Julia traces these three very different characters through 1930s Oxford and Ireland, Texas, Calcutta in the last days of Empire, and on into World War II. With a supporting cast that includes Isaiah Berlin and Virginia Woolf, The Shadowy Third opens up a world with complex attitudes to love and sex, duty and ambition, and to writing itself.