Saturday, 23 November 2013

At the Biographers’ Club Prize Dinner

To Brooke Street, Mayfair, on a damp November evening. No. 69 is the home of the Savile Club, founded in 1868 and haunt ever since of writers, artists and bookmen; an apt venue, therefore, for the annual Biographers’ Club Prize Dinner. This takes place in the Ballroom, a first-floor saloon of stunning opulence mirrors, murals and windows in the French manner reached by a very grand double staircase.

In the room, the people come and go: a Regius Professor of History, biographers of royalty, of celebrities, even (these days) of cities, mountains and the London fog; life-writers short and tall, publishers and agents, politicians and biographers of politicians. There are kind souls who make a point of introducing themselves and greeting strangers as we are while others accost old friends cheerily, as if always bumping into them on occasions such as this. I am thus astonished to hear my own name called by a former colleague who has spotted me in the crowd. It’s good to meet him again. His companion is one of the short-listed writers in the ‘Best proposal by an uncommissioned, first-time biographer’ category. I wish her luck and head back to my own party, for we are guests of our good friend John Smart, whose biography Tarantula’s Web is short-listed for the ‘HW Fisher Best First Biography’ award. I wrote about this book when it came out a year ago, and I admire more than ever its unravelling of the complex network of relationships connecting and later dividing John Hayward, TS Eliot and their circle. (John Hayward was a bookman par excellence. I’m sure he’d have known the Savile Club: the word ‘clubbable’ fitted him perfectly.)

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Biography is much on my mind at the moment: I’ve recently completed a commissioned entry for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. A life in miniature: personal details – birth, upbringing, education, marriage and family – followed by career, details and significance of; publications ditto, and a thumbnail sketch of personality, reputation and legacy, all in a thousand words. By contrast, my self-imposed task of writing a book on the life and stained glass of Charles Eamer Kempe, presses insistently on me. And I feel that the better I know him, the more elusive he becomes. Here, for instance is an extract from an enthusiastic letter twenty-three-year-old Kempe wrote in 1860 to his mother from Rouen, which he was visiting for the first time:

I have wandered about its intricate streets (thanks to a good topographical skull) with round eyes, & open mouth, like little Johnny head-in-air….The cathedral and St Ouen have given me several hours’ delight: the western front of the former grows on me hourly – at the end of each day I wander back to it again & again, to peep at it & “find a spell unseen before”…. Altogether my visit to Rouen has been most successful. Its gay streets (I do not know what you wd say of its back streets in the evening where every alley might contain a murderer for aught I know to the contrary), its crowds, among whom I pass quietly on my way, in happy unconsciousness of them, and its grand old buildings render it delightful.

This letter seems straightforward enough, but it’s both frustrating and tantalizing: frustrating because it says nothing specific about the buildings Kempe has been enjoying – no reference at all to stained glass, for instance. (Elsewhere he talks about making notes and sketches in his diary, which alas has disappeared, believed destroyed.) It is tantalizing because one wants to know why Kempe was spending his evenings wandering through the back streets and dark alleys. He enjoys shocking his mother – ‘I do not know what you would say’ etc. – a widow living in sedate Cheltenham, but Mrs Kempe would have been much more shocked if she had read the account of this same area in Madame Bovary, Flaubert’s scandalous novel published only three years earlier:

This is the area of theatres, bars and whores. Often, a cart passed close beside Emma, laden with a wobbling piece of theatrical décor. Youths in aprons were spreading sand on the paving stones, between the tubs of green shrubbery. There was a smell of absinthe, cigars, and oysters.

In a letter to his friend Louis Bouilhet (23 May 1855) Flaubert had written of these streets: ‘The word is out: Babylon is here.’

So what was Kempe doing in this seedy part of Rouen? He certainly had a taste for theatricals and he’d inherited a love of historical costume and fancy-dress from his mother and his aunt, Mrs Claxon, wife of the Dean of Gloucester. Sometimes his early stained glass designs look like carefully dressed stage sets (as in the window above, showing Dives at dinner with his friends). He was a sociable man, given to celebrating friendship, but he never married. Who knows why not? For much of his life his closest confidante was his sister Augusta, but their letters give nothing away about his private life – if he had one. Until shortly before this visit to Rouen, Kempe had been planning to become an Anglican priest, only a bad stammer apparently preventing him. I have been writing and lecturing about Kempe for twenty-five years but I’m baffled by what he still keeps hidden from me. I’d like to discover if he read Madame Bovary. And, if so, what he’d thought of it. I might learn a lot, if I knew.

*          *          *

At the Biographers’ Club Prize Dinner, the judges described Tarantula’s Web as ‘a wonderful book that needed to be written’ and praised John Smart’s research, but the £5000 prize went to Charles Moore for his biography of Margaret Thatcher. Moore, whose ungenerous attack on Seamus Heaney I blogged about recently, read out a confidently pre-rehearsed acceptance speech; but it was Antonia Fraser, receiving a Lifetime Services to Biography Award, whose speech I preferred. She neatly inverted Carlyle’s dictum that ‘A well-written life is almost as rare as a well-spent one’ by declaring that ‘it is possible to have a well-spent life trying to write a well-written one.’ I hope she’s right but, if she is, I still have a long way to go with Kempe.

Adrian Barlow

Postscript (28.11.13): I’m delighted to see that Tarantula’s Web is listed as one of the Books of the Year, in today’s Times Literary Supplement. Biographies of former prime ministers are conspicuous by their absence.

[Illustration: ‘The rich man’s table’ – detail from a window depicting the story of Dives and Lazarus (St. Saviour’s, Oxton), by Wyndham Hope Hughes for the Kempe Studio, 1872. Photo © Philip Collins


  1. I wonder if Claire Tomalin and Jenny Uglow were there, two of my favourite biographers. I can only encourage you to write that biography on Kempe, hopefully in time for Christmas which is when I usually buy biographies. Not this Christmas, of course but one in the not-too-far-distant future. Rouen was the first French city I lived in when I was a language assistant there at the Lycée Corneille and I fell in love with the place. I studied Corneille and Flaubert during my years at Sheffield University but the French writer who gave me the motto that I've always worked with and which has helped me to get things finished is Beaumarchais who gave this line to his hero, Figaro: la difficulté de réussir ne fait qu'ajouter à la nécessité d'entreprendre'. The difficulty of succeeding only adds to the necessity of undertaking. And look where that got Figaro and Beaumarchais! Looking forward to Christmas.

    1. An excellent quotation form Beaumarchais, Garry. which I shall adopt for myself! Many thanks, Adrian

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