Frances Spalding

Romantic Moderns,like this year’s wisteria in England, is catching the attention of many. Both are very English phenomena; and while Oxbridge colleges and London’s residential streets drip purple blossom, this new title has won the Guardian newspaper’s first book award and been shortlisted for two other eminent prizes. Public interest has been further stimulated by word of mouth, while excellent packaging, in terms of product design and well-chosen illustrations, has turned this book into a popular gift. It is also the subject of much debate. Few would deny that by the late 1930s in England a concerted project of national self-discovery was under way. But surely this was a shameful retreat? Didn’t it mean a return to the past, to safe traditions and to a ‘Little England’ mentality, after the wider and more progressive embrace of international modernism? Or is Alexandra Harris right to talk of a modern English renaissance which, as it unfolded fully in the 1940s, proved bold, timely, necessary, and of undeniable cultural significance?

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The business of authoring another person’s life is problematic and potentially dangerous. You need to be brave to write biography. It is not just the labour involved, or the obsessive research involving more travel and hours of work than can be deemed cost-effective; it also requires a self-exposing judiciousness. At every stage in the procedure decisions are made, not with the support of a committee or a line manager, but usually by the biographer alone. The rightness or wrongness of these decisions affects not only the selection and handling of the material, but also almost every aspect of the project, from the initial negotiations with descendants of your subject, the literary executor or interested parties, to the publicity that surrounds the book’s publication.

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