I will be the first to admit that my knowledge of American history is spotty at best – only the bare minimum is covered in Dutch schools – so if you had asked me one year ago who Alexander Hamilton was, I probably would have said something along the lines of: “That name does ring a bell… One of the founding fathers, I think? Maybe. I don’t know.” One little Broadway cast recording later, I found myself diving headfirst into Thomas Paine and picking up the 800-page biography that started it all. The combined popularity of Chernow’s book and the juggernaut of a musical it inspired has brought Alexander Hamilton right back into popular consciousness in a major way, and I have been watching this development with great interest. What happens when a controversial historical figure gets dusted off and put back into the general public’s spotlight two hundred years after his death?
Memes, of course.
Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now.
Sassoon in 1920.
When we think of Siegfried Sassoon, we think of World War One – his brutally realistic poems about the trenches, his anger, how he narrowly escaped death so many times. The war was the defining of Sassoon’s life and his career as a writer… But it lasted only four years and was over when he was only thirty-two. In this 639-page biography, the war ends around the 200th page. Then what? This was a question that plagued Sassoon all his life – and one his biographer, Max Egremont, struggles with as well. What happens after the worst has passed? How do you move on? What is left?
Brontë in a portrait painted circa 1840.
Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Gaskell first met in August 1850, after Gaskell had already been intrigued by Jane Eyre and its mysterious author for some time. Gaskell writes: “She and I quarrelled & differed about almost everything , – she calls me a democrat, & can not bear Tennyson – but… I hope we shall ripen into friends.” And they did: despite their frequent disagreements, they would exchange letters and ideas and pay each other visits until Brontë passed away in 1855, Gaskell, who had not heard anything from her for four months, did not even know that she had been ill. A few months later, she started working on the story of Brontë’s life; Gaskell spoke to many of Brontë’s friends and collected as much written material as she could get her hands on, including a great number of letters. The resulting book, The Life of Charlotte Brontë, was the first successful biography of a woman and written by a woman.
I bought this book over two years ago, but didn’t get around to reading it until recently. The cover design of my edition, bright purple with a pink swirly font, combined with a title that sounds like it was ripped straight from the headlines of a gossip glossy really put me off initially (although come to think of it, the gossip columns played an important part in the lives of the Wildes). Still, curiosity got the best of me in the end, and I’m glad it did. We all know what happened to Oscar Wilde, but the story of Constance is one that is seldom told and deserves to be heard.