Making embarrassingly slow progress on my resolution to read seven books off the Guardian Best Books of 2013, I hit gold with Penelope Fitzgerald: A life. John Lanchester, Penelope Lively, Hilary Mantel and Helen Simpson all rated it and they weren’t wrong.
Hermione Lee has written a model of a literary biography, which will come as no surprise to the well read, familiar with her books on Virginia Woolf, Willa Cather and Edith Wharton.
To my shame the only thing I knew about Lee was that one of her favourite possessions is a handbag that once belonged to Dodie Smith, given to her by Julian Barnes, who features in one of many amusing stories about Penelope Fitzgerald in the biography. Lee could have lent her handbag to Fitzgerald, who sported a sponge bag at one of the Booker Prize dinners.
The biography is the perfect mix of telling detail, considered judgement and sympathetic but honest examination, all written in a style that makes the reader want to just keep on reading. Lee made Fitzgerald so alive to me that I now want to read everything she ever wrote. Also books by people she thought a lot of.
Then Lee is such a good writer I also want to read everything she has written. Although I might give the Edith Wharton biography a miss having been scarred for life by The House of Mirth – a worthy contender for The Most Misleading Title Ever Award.
Do you have any favourite literary biographies? Because I need a few more titles to add to my lists.