I suppose fundamentally I love biographies because I’m nosy. I want to peep behind a famous face’s work and public persona to catch a glimpse of the person they were in private – their loves and hates, fears and foibles. This is why I prefer biographies to autobiographies, where you get the person’s own spin on their life, and unless they’re very brave, all the juicy bits are edited out (or even worse it’s written by a ghostwriter and then there’s no point to it at all.)
The biographer doesn’t even really have to like their subject – in fact sometimes it’s more interesting when they clearly don’t. But they should give you more than just an insight into their subject’s life and a neat chronological account of the events in it – I also love to be told about the history and culture of their era, the changing times they lived through.
In fact, factual accuracy can be dispensed with to a certain extent – one of my favourite biographers is Nancy Mitford, whose accounts of the lives of Voltaire, Louis XIV (the Sun King) and Madame de Pompadour read more like one of her gloriously gossipy novels than a seriously weighty tome.
Historians were appalled by her casual attitude to facts and dates, but they missed her great achievement – pinning down the spirit of a time and the personalities who shaped it with absolute precision and complete confidence – as if she’d been lurking behind an elegant screen in a drawing room in Versailles, furiously scribbling notes.
Women whose lives spanned the Twentieth Century and who had access to fascinating social and political figures fascinate me the most. It's like having a history lesson brought to life, with dry accounts of events suddenly populated with the colourful characters who actually lived them.
If you were born in 1903 like Diana Vreeland or 1905 like Nancy Mitford into high society and lived to a ripe old age, chances are you would have crossed paths with some of the greatest characters of the century (Churchill, Kennedy, Chanel) and witnessed enormous social upheaval.
In Amanda MacKenzie Stuart’s biography of Diana Vreeland* (subtitled Empress of Fashion), we have a perfect example of this. Vreeland was able to bring her personal memories of the roaring Twenties to her work at Vogue during the second ‘youthquake’ of the century – the ‘60s (she invented that term too.)
She was a true original, blazing her own trail and proving that ‘prettiness’ isn’t the be all and end all - when you have the tools of fashion and beauty in your hands and the confidence to use them, you can construct a version of yourself that better represents the inner ‘you’ than the one you were born with.
After encountering her in the Vreeland biography, I now want to know more about Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis so I’m looking for a good biography to read on my hols. I feel like I've seen this woman moving through news reels in black and white and caught so many fragments of her life story, now I really want to know more.
So tell me, are you a fan of biographies? Do you have a favourite that I really must read? Am I the only person on earth who's read Martine McCutcheon's?
*I'm co-hosting a salon with Amanda MacKenzie Stuart on July 2 - if you'd like to get a ticket (there will be conversation, cake and wine!) find out more here.