Some Like It Hot

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National Portrait Gallery, London
Violet Trefusis on her wedding day, June 16, 1919

Libraries were lending out their copies of Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians ever less frequently before Michael Holroyd brought out his groundbreakingly indiscreet biography of the Bloomsbury writer in the late 1960s. By 1974, when the first of Holroyd’s two volumes on the life of Augustus John appeared, canvases by this one-time star of London’s art world had been relegated to the storerooms of many a British museum. What hopes there might be of reviving the sprawling theatrical weltanschauung of George Bernard Shaw had been a puzzle for producers and critics for decades before Holroyd’s correspondingly vast biography of the playwright came out at the turn of the 1990s. In each of these three major projects, Holroyd looked back at figures who had seemed to tower over the cultural landscape of late-imperial Britain at the time of his own birth in 1935, but who more lately had been shelved away, to linger as little more than significant rumors.

That angle of approach gave Holroyd a free hand to make things new—to surprise himself and his audience with the unexpected discoveries of emotional life he could unearth from archives and private papers. It is his good-tempered nosiness that has secured Holroyd a large, attentive audience. As a rule he is fond of people, his urbane prose suggests, and he is disposed to respect them, but above all he longs to know more about them; and he is able to persuade us to share his longing. Seemingly, then, it was not so much the historical importance of his subjects that sold Holroyd’s biographies as sheer curiosity: his passion for the somewhat obscured, his drive to exhume and reanimate.

Before he made his name with that life of Strachey, Holroyd had devoted his first publication to a “quite hopelessly neglected”1 English man of letters named Hugh Kingsmill. Thirty-five years later, the by now celebrated biographer could afford to investigate persons of yet slenderer public significance, namely his own grand- parents and parents. Basil Street Blues (1999), reapproaching late-imperial Britain through lives passed in precarious gentility and concealed despair, masterfully extended his scope as a writer.

Halfway through its narrative a new character shuffled into view—the author himself as a youth. The success of the book spawned a sequel, Mosaic (2004), and in parts of that professedly “wayward” family history, this figure got inspected in greater detail. Holroyd explained how a fellow writer’s take on Basil Street Blues had struck home: “You stay hidden.”2 She had been left wanting to know more about how his own emotional life had taken shape. “I do not know the answers to these questions,” he continued, “and feel a great reluctance to answering them. But other readers, too, have chided me.” It was not only his readers, perhaps, that prompted him to offer up a memoir of a former romance and some words about his marriage …

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  1. 1

    This description, which comes in a letter to Holroyd from his friend William Gerhardie, is quoted in Basil Street Blues (Little, Brown, 1999), p. 273. 

  2. 2

    Mosaic (Little, Brown), p. 85 (quoting a letter from the novelist and memoirist Margaret Forster).