I've hot-footed it back from Charlotte Square to bring you news of one of this morning's Book Festival events: Alexandra Harris, author of the marvellously eclectic and stimulating Romantic Moderns: English Writers, Artists and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper, and Kathleen Jones whose biography Katherine Mansfield: The Story-Teller draws on previously unseen material to shed new light on her subject's short life.
In her introduction to the speakers, Claire Armitstead commented that both their books are engaging and structurally unusual, and said that she had first read Romantic Moderns (which won the Guardian First Book Award last year) in manuscript and found that "it zinged out of the box in all sorts of ways"!
Alexandra Harris then gave us a whistle-stop tour through her book which, though it is aimed at the non-specialist reader, grew out of a doctorate, but in essence harks back to her childhood when she spent time discovering small English towns and the countryside around her, and later when she began to be drawn to people who responded imaginatively to places close to home, people such as Virginia Woolf, Stanley Spencer and Paul Nash. Studying art and literature at university, she found that this 'homeliness' or 'ordinariness' was largely a neglected field, but her researches in the more remote and dusty corners of the Courtauld Library yielded many good things. There isn't space here to go into everything Alexandra had to say - her field encompasses such diverse subjects as Powell and Pressburger films, garden design, food, art, architecture and literature of the period, but click here for more on her book, and better still, read it - the vivacity and enthusiasm she exudes in person do come across on the page!
On then to Kathleen Jones who, with reference to Michael Holroyd's recent remarks on the death of literary biography, said her aim was to write a biography that was "vivid and alive and read as a novel". She chose a somewhat experimental form for her book, using the present tense for parts of it, avoiding the all-knowing authorial voice, and describing a life lived moment by moment, its subject's decisions seen in the light of the knowledge she had at the time. With access to huge amounts of family material which had never before been made available to biographers (the discovery of this "treasure trove" was one of the most exciting moments of her life, she said), Kathleen has been able to re-define Katherine Mansfield, finding the truth hidden behind the myth, that myth created largely by Mansfield's husband John Middleton Murry who controlled publication of her work and effectively constructed the Katherine Mansfield we know today.
Two fascinating speakers and much food for thought as well as ideas for further reading - an excellent event enjoyed by a very appreciative audience.