The best literary biographies

Who am I?

Fiona Sampson is a leading British poet and writer, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, awarded an MBE for services to literature. Published in thirty-seven languages, she’s the recipient of numerous national and international awards. Her twenty-eight books include the critically acclaimed In Search of Mary Shelley, and Two-Way Mirror: The life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and she’s Emeritus Professor of Poetry, University of Roehampton.


I wrote...

Two-Way Mirror: The Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning

By Fiona Sampson,

Book cover of Two-Way Mirror: The Life of Elizabeth Barrett Browning

What is my book about?

Born into an age when women could neither own property once married nor vote, Barrett Browning seized control of her private income, overcame long-term illness, eloped to revolutionary Italy with Browning, and achieved lasting literary fame. A feminist icon, political activist, and international literary superstar, she inspired writers as diverse as Emily Dickinson, George Eliot, Rudyard Kipling, Oscar Wilde, and Virginia Woolf. The first biography of Barrett Browning in more than three decades, with unique access to the poet's abundant correspondence, Two-Way Mirror holds up a mirror to the woman, her art, and the art of biography itself.

The books I picked & why

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The Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau

By Jean-Jacques Rousseau, J. Cohen (translator),

Book cover of The Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Why this book?

The granddaddy of literary autobiography and biography, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions was written in 1769 but published posthumously in 1782. Rousseau, whose pioneering Romantic political philosophy was by then already influential, was setting out to do something equally new when he decided to study human nature, taking as his experimental model the human he knew best – himself. The rollicking result, sometimes self-flagellating, occasionally exhibitionist, deviates from its own model, St Augustine’s fourth-century religious-philosophical Confessions, in being chock-full of what nowadays we call emotional intelligence.


Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter

By Beauvoir Simone De, James Kirkup (translator),

Book cover of Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter

Why this book?

Simone de Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter is a classic. First published in France in 1958, it’s the opening volume of an autobiographical trilogy. This exploration of the childhood and young womanhood that created the world-famous writer and intellectual is compendious, descriptive – and alert at every turn, as befits the mother of existentialism, to how the emerging psyche understands the world around it.


Ninth Street Women: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler: Five Painters and the Movement That Changed Modern Art

By Mary Gabriel,

Book cover of Ninth Street Women: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler: Five Painters and the Movement That Changed Modern Art

Why this book?

Mary Gabriel’s Ninth Street Women is the best group biography I’ve read. Her protagonists are the women who made up half of Abstract Expressionism, and theirs is a careering, headlong story about how to revolutionise a tradition, the courage to create – and the life of the artist in mid-twentieth century ‘straight’ American society. Gabriel writes with extraordinary charm and – vitally – she’s consummate at keeping the lives of her multiple protagonists both clear and intertwined.


Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer

By Richard Holmes,

Book cover of Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer

Why this book?

By the time Richard Holmes published Footsteps, in 1985, he’d already written critically acclaimed biographies of a number of Romantic ‘greats’: Percy Bysshe Shelley, Théophile Gautier, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Gérard de Nerval. Here he turns the same sympathetic attention to what it’s like to follow in the footsteps of other writers, even recreating Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1879 Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes.


Stravinsky's Lunch

By Drusilla Modjeska,

Book cover of Stravinsky's Lunch

Why this book?

Drusilla Modjeska’s Stravinsky’s Lunch is an absolutely original study of art and life. Its starting and finishing points are the contrasting lives of two major Australian artists, Stella Bowen and Grace Cossington, born twelve months apart in the 1890s. Don’t be put off if you’ve never heard of them (though their work is wonderful). This brilliant book involves its author – and even the reader – in an untricksy but radical look at the self who makes.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in France, New York State, and painters?

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And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

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