The Biographer’s Craft

May 10, 2013 at 11:00 am (books, diaries, history, jane austen, research) (, , , , , , , , )

Having joined (a few months ago) Biographers International Organization — BIO, for short of course! — I feel (momentarily, at least) among kindred spirits. In today’s email box a new edition of the Society’s Newsletter, The Biographer’s Craft. There are short news articles, a list of biographies just hitting the shelves, a member interview or two.

Until six years ago (almost to the day!), I worked as a staff member at a local college. Oh, how I wanted to rewrite my life! It’s been more like a re-run… Once the economy tanked… Well, I don’t expect I have to say more than that to you. But at the college (university-aged students, for those of you in the UK), I had a few kindreds: people who read books; people who travelled; people who did research, wrote, and published. Not that the professors thought of little ol’ me as far as research went! One prof thought I’d do well writing fiction (rather than history / biography). Another wanted to know, ‘Why is there so much material on these people?’ Luck of the draw, would be my answer to that unanswerable question. Her project? a diary that someone else had transcribed and left voluminous notes about – but she taught me how much can be deduced from so little primary material. I, on the other hand, do have diaries and letters, sketchbooks, printed biographies, &c, &c.

So reading the latest edition of The Biographer’s Craft, my mind was engaged by a couple of bits and pieces:

There’s an upcoming (in NYC) conference – among the roundtables, talks, lectures are two sessions, one entitled Diary of a Biographer: How Authors Lived Their Lives While Writing Someone Else’s and another called Almost Famous: Biographies of Wives, Sisters, Fathers, Lovers of the Famous. The second intrigues me; but I’ll mention the first first.

“Just starting out” means no one cares about my unearthing anything about Mary Gosling and Emma Smith; few know about the project (oh, you lucky few! those reading this post…); people who know me sometimes ask about it with the questioning tone in their voice that says, Are you still working on that?


I think about these families, the Smiths and Goslings, day and night.

I travel with them — right now I’ve just ridden over the Simplon Pass on a mule, enjoyed the beauty of the tremendous mountain scenery, and quaked at the dangerous precipices. This comes from a diary I’m currently transcribing, dated 1827.

I moan over letters I know to be out there, but have remained (some time) unread.

I bemoan pictures and silhouettes and miniatures which may be out there, unattributed; and lament those I, again, know to exist but which haven’t been shared with me.

scenes from lifeWhen I bought my little copy of Scenes from Life at Suttons, a book of “poetry” in which the Smiths go about their daily business of reading, or having breakfast, because I know these people, from their letters, from their diaries, I could hear them speak. For others, however — those with glazing-over eyes who maybe never can share my passion, their lack of enthusiasm sometimes colors my day. So it’s nice to think of writers (some QUITE successful) inhabiting this world. I feel less alone when I read an issue of The Biographer’s Craft.

And I feel invigorated. Take the topic of Almost Famous. Although other materials exist in public archives, the vast majority of materials exist because of Emma’s connection to Jane Austen. I know that. I also know that Austen herself is the interest for the 99%. When I gave a lecture on letters, I asked for a show of hands: How many of my audience had read some of Austen’s Letters. Very few hands went up. More had read a biography of her.

I read biographies of the “almost famous” because of the circle of people they knew, the time period, and of course the connection to England. But we 1% are a GREAT minority in Austen Studies. It’s a small group for me to target — and yet if more Austen readers would find my Emma and Mary, they’d find a story not far removed from Austen’s novels. Will my books ever excite the attention of Jo Baker’s Longbourn… I have a feeling, probably not. Yet: It Should! My Two Teens led fabulous lives, so ordinary in some respects, so unusual in other respects. And the “times” they lived through: the Regency, political strife, war, a changing “welfare” state, the young Victoria ascending the throne. I always think of them as starting in the horse-age and proceeding through the steam-age into the age of trains.

I have long said that I would LOVE to see a volume (probably a set of books would be required) in which ALL the Austen family letters were published — Jane’s among them, all chronological, and of course highly annotated. But if 1% only want to buy such a book, it will never be published.

mozartA favorite book of mine on Mozart is Ruth Halliwell’s The Mozart Family: Four Lives in a Social Context; why can’t there be a book about Jane Austen that treats her entire family circle in such a manner?!? Again, if 99% buy Longbourn, who’s left to care about “lives in a social context”?

And yet, when I see a book on the “used” market which is scarce and hard to come by – quite often, unless I’m quick, another one-percenter snaps it up!

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Mrs Delany writes Letters

August 14, 2012 at 12:04 am (books, goslings and sharpe, history, people, research) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , )

Ah, August… when the summer sessions at the university END, so ends the evening hours at the library. Booo!

Today, if they had been open past five, I would have gone to have a look at their collection of Mary Delany books. A new biography published last year had caught my eye, but there were other books I had looked at over the years but never taken out. I really want to see them, but must wait for noontime Saturday when the library’s open 12-5.

This silhouette comes, however, from a book published in 1821!  While I’ve long known about the more recent books, I had no idea anything was published as long ago as that. Might Emma and Mary have read Letters from Mrs Delany? Might Emma mention it in her diary and I just hadn’t been paying attention enough to make note of it?

Today Mrs Delany is remembered because of her Flower Mosaics. Yet a quick perusal of the index in vol. 6 of her letters shows how valuable her published letters could prove to the Smith & Gosling project. Why? Among other things, she evidently banked with Goslings and Sharpe!

For instance,

March 1780, from Mrs Delany: “I hope my last letter and draft on Gosling for L:y Clanbrassil’s christning {sic} money has arrived safe.”

September 1770, to Mrs Delany: “…he has vowed that he will be punctual to a day to the hands of your banker, Mr. Gosling.”

December 1758, from Mrs Delany: “I have indeed set my heart much upon your going to town, and you have a draught on Gosling, etc., which I designed should pay for the Birmingham boxes…”

She therefore, goes back to the very beginnings of the banking firm!

So who in 1756 might “Mrs Gosling” have been — she wouldn’t have been William Gosling’s mother (i.e., Mary’s paternal grandmother), as William’s parents only married in 1763. William’s father, Robert Gosling, though would have been with the firm — having joined in 1754, according to The History of Barclays Bank. At this time the firm was called Gosling, Bennett, and Gosling — for the partners (Sir) Francis Gosling, Samuel Bennett, Robert Gosling.

Could this describe Elizabeth Douce, William’s paternal grandmother? Elizabeth Midwinter, prior to Francis Gosling’s knighthood? (According to The Alderman of the City of London, Francis was knighted on 28 October 1760.)

It’s a curious comment, and a faintly unflattering one:

March 1756, from Mrs Delany: “Wednesday, I spent with Mrs. Donnellan instead of going to Israel in Egypt; and how provoking! she had Mrs. Montagu, Mrs. Gosling, and two or three fiddle faddles, so that I might as well have been at the oratorio.”

Mrs Delany was a Handel fan.

The Gosling circle tightens when one finds the Correspondence of Samuel Richardson contains (in vol. 4) letters to Dr and Mrs Delany, Mrs Donnellan, Mrs Dewes (sister to Mrs Delany). Samuel Richardson was the guardian of Miss Midwinter — who became Lady Gosling, wife to Sir Francis.

Oh, my….

It’s eleven at night and I find myself *WISHING* I had all the hours in the day to devote to research – there’s so much here. And how was it that I found Mrs Delany this evening: looking up information on BIO – Biographers International Organization. I’d love to hear from anyone belonging to BIO; I’m thinking of applying.

As midnight looms, I wrap up this post with a listing of the online books relating to Mrs Delany:

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