The art of the biography writer is a complex one. To be successful they have to bring to life someone who, by definition, they know better than almost everyone reading their book. They have to be true to the individual they are writing about, but at the same time they have to be true to their readers. They have to get sufficiently under the skin of their subject to present their story in an engaging and interesting way. And at the end of the day they have to inform and entertain, and, above all else, ensure that the balance between those two elements feels right to their readers.
"The Burning Glass: The Life of Naomi Mitchison" by Jenni Calder was first published in 1997, the year of its subject's one hundredth birthday. Naomi Mitchison died two years later, and if there's anything surprising about the second edition of this book, it is that it has taken so long for it to appear. This new edition, published by Sandstone Press, has been brought up to date and revised, partly thanks to people who responded to the first edition. The result is an outstanding example of the biographer's art.
Naomi Mitchison CBE was a feminist Scottish novelist and poet who is often regarded as the doyenne of Scottish literature. She wrote over 90 books in several genres, including historical fiction, science fiction, travel writing and autobiography. Her husband Dick Mitchison's life peerage in 1964 entitled her to call herself Lady Mitchison, but she never did. That's actually a very one-dimensional summary of an enormously complex person, as you quickly discover once you delve into Jenni Calder's book. Between the covers she illuminates the many facets of the character of her subject in a way that feels balanced and honest and "warts and all"; while at the same time succeeding in being both readable and entertaining. I had of course heard of Naomi Mitchison, but that's about as far as my knowledge of her went. Reading this book was a fascinating experience that brought to life not just its subject, but also the long-gone world in which she lived, a world in which daily life depended on retinues of servants and wide circles of friends. But it was also a world which Naomi's marriage at the age of 18 in 1916 nearly foundered thanks to simple ignorance on the part of both of those involved, a situation only partly remedied after Naomi had read "Married Love" by Marie Stopes after its publication two years later.
The Naomi Mitchison that emerges from Jenni Calder's books is a fascinating and complex character. And possibly also one given to headstrong impulses. The idea of a married female novelist in the 1920s dedicating a novel "To my lover" seems from this distance to be either amazingly naive or supremely calculating. Certainly if you wanted to be talked about that would appear to be an ideal way of going about it. What emerges from "The Burning Glass" is the story of a life that deserves to be told: and which is told extremely well.