Biographies come in all shapes and sizes. "Henrietta Tayler" by Maggie Craig would make a poor door-stop, for it isn't one of those heavyweight tomes that sometimes emerge about individuals whose lives have been so extensively documented that their story cannot be discussed except at great length. It is, however, an excellent read about a fascinating subject, setting out a beautifully written portrait of a woman who deserves to be better known than she is. The book's subtitle describes Henrietta Tayler as a "Scottish Jacobite Historian and First World War Nurse". We have to admit that we'd never heard of her until picking up this book, and the author notes in her foreword that it was only a chance reference to one of Henrietta Tayler's books in the work of another author that introduced her to her subject.
Why read a biography of someone you have probably never heard of, and will probably never hear of again? Biographies tend to lie on a spectrum that can be defined in terms of the author's empathy for the subject. At the one extreme are books that read as if they were written for discussion at an international conference on some arcane scientific subject: well researched and doubtless accurate, and worthy, but also wordy and dry. This isn't one of those books. Instead Maggie Craig has succeeded in breathing real life into Henrietta Tayler, in getting under her skin and presenting us with a real and believable woman living thorough remarkable and sometimes appalling events. It doubtless helped that like her subject, Maggie Craig has more than a passing interest in Jacobite history, but it goes further than that. Despite a paucity of hard information (apart from Henrietta Tayler's wartime experiences as a nurse, which she later wrote about) the author has cared enough about her subject to tell her story as completely and compellingly as is possible given the available sources.
A mystery in a book like this always adds to the experience of reading it. In this case it comes in a short author's note between the foreword and the start of the first chapter. After Henrietta Tayler's death in 1951, a friend wrote about an unpublished full autobiography, entitled "My Brother and I" which has never been found. One can only speculate on what this might have added to the extent of available information about Henrietta Tayler, or might still add if it ever turns up.