Biography

The recklessness of George Mallory

George Mallory bookended the 20th century history of Everest with his pioneering attempts in the 1920s to climb the mountain – and with the spectacular discovery, in 1999, of his body high up on the North Face, preserved by the ice for 75 years after he had failed to do so. His flip remark to a journalist that he was climbing Everest ‘because it was there’ became mountaineering’s most celebrated quote, while masking other less noble reasons. Mick Conefrey has become one of our finest gazetteers of the Himalaya, with successive books on K2, Kangchenjunga and later exploits on Everest. Now he turns his attention to a great conundrum of

Agent Zo: the Polish blonde with nerves of steel

In recent years, far from diminishing, the number of books on the Nazis, Occupied Europe and the Holocaust – events that now lie three quarters of a century in the past – seem only to grow. New archives are opened and attics are raided for forgotten diaries and letters. One historian who has mined them with great skill is Clare Mulley, the author of books on spies and Hitler’s pilots. She has now unearthed a story about a bold and resolute Polish agent, Elzbieta Zawacka, who went by the name of Zo. Her adventures are extraordinary, and their background is no less fascinating. Agent Zo is as much a book

Edwin Lutyens: the nation’s remembrancer-in-chief

In unduly modest remarks at the opening of this immaculate book, Clive Aslet, one of our most distinguished architectural historians, notes that there have been substantial biographies of Sir Edwin Lutyens, and he does not pretend to emulate them. His achievement, however, is considerable. Aslet has spent more than 45 years in intense and enthusiastic study of ‘Ned’ and his works, and has not merely an encyclopedic knowledge of what Lutyens built, but two other invaluable qualities. First, he appreciates the sort of man Lutyens was, the influences upon him, and how he interacted with his family (especially his wife Lady Emily) and his clients. Second, he has a deep

The identical twins who captivated literary London

The dazzlingly beautiful identical twins Mamaine and Celia Paget were born in 1916 and brought up in rural Suffolk – not the greatest springboard, you would think, for lives at the intellectual heart of the mid-20th century. Yet the list of their friends reads like a roll call of literary notables: Dick Wyndham, Peter Quennell, Cyril Connolly, Bertrand Russell, Sacheverell Sitwell and Laurie Lee. Between them, the twins were proposed to by, among others, Arthur Koestler and George Orwell; had liaisons with Albert Camus and the formidably clever Oxford philosopher Freddie Ayer; quarrelled with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir; and received love sonnets from the historian and poet Robert

The circus provides perfect cover for espionage

The hall was before me like a gigantic shell, packed with thousands and thousands of people. Even the arena was densely crowded. More than 5,600 tickets had been sold. Cyril Bertram Mills started his circus career accompanying his father to European horse fairs in the 1920s. The two of them were soon familiar faces on the German circus scene, travelling between shows to recruit acts for London. The Munich Circus was a particular draw; but sometimes they hired out their circular wooden building to other local acts. The opening quote of this review comes from Adolf Hitler. Mills was at first dismissive of the Munich Nazi party leader, pointing out

Four female writers at the court of Elizabeth I

Almost a century ago, in A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf claimed that if William Shakespeare had had an equally talented sister the obstacles to her sharing his vocation would have been insurmountable. Woolf’s argument that a woman needs ‘money and a room of her own’ in order to write proved persuasive. ‘Shakespeare’s sister’ has become a pop-cultural trope. So perhaps it’s unsurprising that the distinguished American scholar of the Renaissance Ramie Targoff should borrow the phrase for a study of four woman writers. Her title offers a shortcut to understanding how significant this immensely accomplished quartet is for readers and writers today. Not that Targoff’s elegantly readable, immaculately

Alone and defenceless: the tragic death of Captain Cook

The principal purpose of Captain James Cook’s last voyage, which began in Plymouth on 12 July 1776, was to discover the elusive Northwest Passage. Attempts had been made before, in vain, from the Atlantic, but this time it would be from the west, from the Pacific.  On the way, Cook was to return an Anglicised Polynesian named Mai to Raiatea, ‘a ragged volcanic island’ about 130 miles north west of Tahiti. Mai takes up much of Hampton Sides’s narrative, offering ‘a poignant allegory of first contact’, before being deposited home with his cargo of English domestic farm animals and his suits.  Prior to that, Cook had investigated, in New Zealand,

John Deakin: the perfect anti-hero of the tawdry Soho scene

During the various lockdowns I found myself wondering how Iain Sinclair was coping with the restrictions. It seemed unthinkable that this unflinching punisher of pavements could be stuck with 30 minutes round the park. But, as it turns out, sequestering, in a fashion that only the Scots word ‘thrawn’ can do justice to, has resulted in the most archetypal Sinclair book yet. John Deakin is the pariah genius of the title. During the ‘brain-dead hibernation’ of the pandemic, Sinclair got a short-term loan of ‘17 albums of John Deakin’s photographs, fresh prints made from recovered contact sheets; a substantial history of his labours, a flickbook parade of the stunned and

They felt they could achieve anything together: two brave women in war-torn Serbia

Lesbian military fiction is a popular genre, featuring titles such as Silver Wings and An Army of One, but Jack and Eve is a true story. Written by the journalist Wendy Moore, whose previous books tackled medical and social history, it tells of two suffragettes who caused havoc in the first world war and exposed the absurdity of Edwardian homophobes. Before the war, the jobbing actor Vera Holme, who liked to be known as Jack, changed careers to become Emmeline Pankhurst’s mechanic and chauffeur. In 1908 she met Evelina Haverfield, the conventionally beautiful, wealthy daughter of a Scottish baron. The two fell in love, began living together and soon became

What we owe to the self-taught genius Carl Linnaeus

Carl Linnaeus and Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon were both taxonomists, born in the same year (1707), but apart from that they had little in common and never met. Buffon was French, Linnaeus Swedish. Buffon was suave, elegant, tall and handsome (Voltaire said he had ‘the body of an athlete and the soul of a sage’), whereas Linnaeus was a bumptious little man (under 5ft), who was widely regarded as uncouth. Buffon’s funeral was attended by 20,000 mourners but Linnaeus died almost forgotten, after suffering from a brain disease for 15 years. Yet the Linnaean system of taxonomy has survived much better than Buffon’s, which was hardly a system at

Sir Roger Casement never deserved to hang

Telling the story of Sir Roger Casement’s life is a challenge for any biographer. In the land of his birth, he is remembered as a national hero. His remains lie in the Glasnevin Cemetery in Dublin beside the graves of Daniel O’Connell and Charles Stewart Parnell. He is there because he was hanged in Pentonville Prison in August 1916 as one of the leaders of the Easter Rising. The awkward fact that Casement had become opposed to the Rising and had tried to prevent it does not fit either the heroic Irish narrative of his life or the official English account of the wartime traitor who died on the gallows.

How country living changed the lives of three remarkable women writers

Very fine hot day. (Bank Holiday). Sound of band in Lewes from the Downs. Guns heard at intervals. Walked up the down at the back. Got plenty of mushrooms. Butterflies in quantities. Ladies Bedstraw, Roundheaded Rampion, Thyme, Marjoram. This isn’t what we expect from Virginia Woolf, known for her caustic investigations of friends and filigree portraits of her own inner life. But in 1917, after three years of mental illness, she moved to Asheham in Sussex and began a slow but dogged recovery that took the form of these daily walks and list-filled diary entries, which rarely contain the word ‘I’. Harriet Baker argues convincingly in her new book that

The stark horror of Barbara Comyns’s fiction was all too autobiographical

Barbara Comyns’s reputation rises and falls like a Mexican wave, making her one of the most rediscovered novelists of recent times. She’s credited with anticipating Angela Carter and for being in the vanguard of tackling themes of traumatic dissociation and the realities of childbirth. Yet younger, trendier writers have regularly eclipsed her. Aged 29, Barbara was broke: a single mother who’d weathered affairs, an abortion and a suicide attempt Every fan remembers their first Comyns novel: the visceral jolt of black humour, the suckerpunch of stark horror. Knowing that she drew from life, we have longed for a biography, and hooray, it’s finally here. Avril Horner, emeritus professor of English

The lonely passions of Carson McCullers

It may be true that The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940) – but in the case of Carson McCullers it could also be an indefatigable and exhausting one. Born Lula Carson Smith into a struggling middle-class family in Columbus, Georgia in 1917, she grew up hungering for great passions – and, like Hunter’s teenage protagonist Mick (her characters often carry gender-neutral names), she fell in love with classical piano at a young age. (Then Carson – not Mick – fell in love with her female piano teacher.) She married young a 20-year-old ex-serviceman named Reeves McCullers who, by all reports, was far more beautiful than her. Then together, almost

The fresh, forceful voice of Frantz Fanon

‘If I’d died in my thirties, what would be left behind?’ is the question that keeps coming to mind reading this timely new biography of Frantz Fanon, the psychiatrist and philosopher who became an icon to leftist revolutionaries across the globe. ‘Would I want history to judge me by what I wrote at 36?’ For that was the absurdly young age at which Fanon died of leukaemia in 1961, leaving two key works to his name: Black Skin, White Masks and The Wretched of the Earth. Not a huge legacy, then, in sheer numbers of words. But it was enough to seal his reputation as both a chronicler of one

The remarkable Princess Gulbadan, flower of the Mughal court

In 1587, the Mughal Emperor Akbar, himself illiterate but with grand vision and even greater ambition, commanded his courtier Abu’l-Fazl to write an official history of his reign and dynasty. An order went around Akbar’s court that anyone who was ‘gifted with the talent for writing history’ should put pen to paper and record the events that had shaped their times. Unusually for a male-dominated society, this included the emperor’s aunt. The 64-year-old Princess Gulbadan was well placed to provide a first-hand description of the creation and consolidation of the Mughal empire, for she was the beloved daughter of the Emperor Babur, who founded the dynasty, and the half-sister of

Four months adrift in the Pacific: a couple’s extraordinary feat of endurance

It is every writer’s dream to glimpse, peeping out from behind a news story or feature, the contours of a book. Brian Masters was eating his breakfast on 12 February 1983 when he read in the morning papers reports of the arrest of a mildly spoken Jobcentre employee accused of strangling a number of men with whose flesh he had blocked the drains in his flat in Muswell Hill. Masters wrote to Dennis Nilsen. Nilsen wrote back: ‘Dear Mr Masters, I pass the burden of my life on to your shoulders.’ After Nilsen had filled 50 prison notebooks, Masters embarked on Killing for Company, surely the grisliest yet most poignant

Will Keir Starmer ever learn to loosen up?

Tom Baldwin declares at the outset: ‘It’s only fair to warn those hoping to find these pages spattered with blood that they will be disappointed.’ Fair enough. This is not an authorised biography, but it is a friendly one, written with Keir Starmer’s co-operation. Baldwin briefly worked as Labour’s communications director, and then was asked to help Starmer with his autobiography. They did several interviews, but Starmer always had reservations and finally pulled the plug last spring. Instead, he agreed that Baldwin could write this book, using some of the material he had already gathered, and that he would assist him with contacts. Starmer’s worst fault, according to his friends,

Four dangerous visionary writers

‘The production of souls is more important than the production of tanks… And therefore I raise my glass to you, writers, the engineers of the human soul.’ The quote is usually attributed to Stalin, though the phrase ‘engineers of human souls’ most likely came from someone else. Who’s to argue? Purges, executions, deportations – what’s a little light plagiarism in comparison? Whoever coined the phrase, it certainly struck a chord and indeed continues to ring various alarm bells whenever one comes across writers who deliberately set out to influence politics and ideas – and not just the big beasts, the Nobel Prize winners, say, or the shopfront-filling non-fiction authors hawking

The strangeness of Charles III

There are two narratives in Robert Hardman’s Charles III. The first is an account of the King’s first year on the throne. This is superbly researched and fascinating. We learn, for instance, that when Queen Elizabeth II died, the state trumpeters were on a plane to Canada and the bearer party was in Iraq. (Their first order on their return was to get a haircut. Their second to carry a comb.) The second is about magic, but since Hardman doesn’t admit this explicitly, the book has the flavour of an intellectual trying to cast a spell. I don’t understand why royalists can’t just say that a monarch occupies a space