- The biography industry since 1960 has been remarkable in terms of its high quality, its continuity with past traditions, the distinctive nature of its topical variety and its sheer range of subjects. Standards and productivity have been high, despite the fact that the lavishly funded competition from abroad is fierce, even on what narrowly might be regarded as ‘home turf’ subjects (for which subsidised support is not so readily available to British researchers).British biographers have also managed to achieve their singularity of appeal since 1960 by venturing abroad themselves, writing on topics that publishers of earlier decades tended to consider ‘un- English’. That is, support has been extended to biographical studies of cultural icons of continental Europe and beyond. Examples of such successful projects are journalist Margaret Crosland’s Piaf and Marianne Gray’s Depardieu: A Biography. The quality of writing and the depth of insight in both portraits of the French ‘artiste’ are equal if not superior to French and American rival productions. Moreover, although the new ‘red brick’ universities of the 1960s and the ex-polytechnics in the 1990s have tended not to shelve a separate library classification called ‘biography’, biographers have found that UK television, radio and the ‘quality’ press have consistently boosted their work suppor-tively. The works of writers such as John Grigg and Peter Ackroyd, the biographers of Lloyd George and William Blake respectively, have been highlighted in features and documentaries by BBC2 and ITV’s The South Bank Show. Such biographers have challenged their overseas, generally academic rivals through their painstaking research, by the belief that period or contextuality often matters as much as subjectivity, and by their frequently magisterial but nevertheless empirical style. An example of this would be Margaret Drabble’s Arnold Bennett: A Biography. Drabble’s work on Bennett was soundly researched but often far too cavalier and dismissive in her eccentric judgements of both her subject and his vital friends, such as literary editor Charles Masterman. Continuity with pre-1960 British biographical traditions is strong and abundant, an enduring homage to the somewhat sceptical British reader’s love of verisimilitude and factual veracity. Political biography of high quality most attests to this sense of continuity. It retains Lytton Strachey’s rudely quizzical ‘debunking’ tradition on the one hand, and Sir Philip Magnus’s reverential if mildly sceptical tradition on the other. In respect of the first, BBC and ITV (Newsnight, World in Action) reporter Donald McCormick authored a significant biography at the start of the 1960s in which he is acerbically critical of his left-wing subject (The Mask of Merlin: A Critical Biography of David Lloyd George). As regards the second tradition, Lord Roy Jenkins was awarded the Whitbread Prize for biography in the 1990s for his tome on Gladstone which embodies the opposite extreme of too much pompous centrist reverence for all but a few of its subject’s rather sanctimonious ‘grand old man’s’ priggish traits!Yet, in the final analysis, the robustness of British biography since 1960 in terms of both insightfulness and commercial success is explained by this diversity and love of controversy, this refusal to be ‘objective’ and ‘detached’ or ‘neutral,’ even if in unspoken adherence to strong biographical continuity with either the satirical or hagiographical traditions. Personal familiarity with the subject, for instance, produces unique insights which bristle through the work of biographers of the 1970s, from Quentin Bell (Virginia Woolf: A Biography) to Christopher Sykes (Nancy: The Life of Lady Astor). As a result of each author’s affectionate yet critical empathy with the subject, the reader arrives at a unique comprehension of the creative vitality of the former ‘Bloomsbury’ women’s much overpsycho- analysed ‘moods’, in Woolf’s case, and of the rather unhappy personal private life of Britain’s first sitting woman MP, Astor, which explains her alleged ‘hysteria’ and supposed ‘bad’ temper, traits used unfairly against her until her death. Some national cultures may well find the future of their own biographical traditions in academic canons; for instance, in the United States the University of Hawaii now publishes the world’s only English language Journal of Biography. However, in Britain readers do seem to prefer non-institutionalized biography. Empathy, eccentricity and a traditionally critical spirit remain the preferred weapons of insight of British biographical writers.See also: autobiographyFurther readingHamilton, I. (1994) Keepers of the Flame: Literary Estates and the Rise of Biography, London: Faber & Faber (a useful discussion of the difficulties confronted by biographers).LAWRENCE IRVINE ILES
Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . Peter Childs and Mike Storry). 2014.