In no particular order, except how they came to mind, here are five biographies, diaries, and/or letters that I have found SO engrossing that I never want the reading experience to end. They are all *old* books, so your fingers can search the used book market, thereby creating some online business (perhaps for small retailers). If the coronavirus keeps YOU home, cozy up with these tales of life in other times.
(1) Germaine Greer, Shakespeare’s Wife (2007)
A consistently engaging narrative, though its foundation is erected upon slim, extant historical evidence. Greer’s prose and knowledge of the time period, the players, and an ability to extrapolate a meaningful conclusion, keep this book not far from my bedside. Although early for my usual tastes, to me, this book shows what a good writer can do with a few choice bits and a winning way with words.
“Anyone steeped in western literary culture must wonder why any woman of spirit would want to be a wife.”
(2) Jean Strouse, Alice James: A Biography (1980)
I am no Henry James fan (although I have a soft spot for The Aspern Papers. What researcher in pursuit of family letters wouldn’t? And I adore the film The Heiress with Olivia de Havilland). His sister’s life, on the other hand entrances me. Alice James had so much going for her, until she sank under the idea of invalidism. Strouse’s words flow like butter, whipping up an irresistible tale of one woman’s life.
“Interesting perceptions are preferable to marketable achievements only when there is enough money to go around.”
(3) Avril Pedley (ed), A Georgian Marriage: The Family Papers of Sir Nash & Lady Grose, 1761-1814 (2007)
Oh! to have found such a treasure trove as the correspondence of Nash Grose and Mary Dennett. Editor Avril Pedley, the owner of the letters, tells us, early on, how she came by such an astounding series of letters. The sharp mind of Mary Dennett brings the Georgian era to life. The one book I never wish to finish.
“Pray when did I desire you to keep every scrap of my writing? Never I am sure… tear it, burn it or anything else”
(4) Susan C. Djabri (ed.), The Diaries of Sarah Hurst, 1759-1762: Life and Love in 18th Century Horsham (2009)
One of the first diaries I truly found to be “a must have”. Sarah Hurst’s diaries cover only a few years, those during which she was parted from her beloved Captain Henry Smith, a marine at war in far-away Canada. Barbara Hurst, a descendant of the diarist’s brother, transcribed the diaries, bringing Sarah out of the shadows. Djabri’s editing only adds to the total package of this fascinating document. A diarist with a unique, compelling voice.
“I had now carried on my affair with Lieutenant Smith for 3 years unknown to my friends tho’ not without great compunction of mind and several efforts to break with him, which however prove ineffectual.”
(5) Frederick Pottle (ed.), Boswell’s London Journal, 1762-1763 (1950)
There’s only one James Boswell. And this diary begins it all. I’m pretty sure I found my copy in a long-gone-now secondhand book shop in Rutland (Vermont), Tuttle Antiquarian Books. I seem to remember the shop’s basement level was one of my favorite haunts. Prolific Boswell – ‘friend’ to Dr. Johnson, ‘enemy’ to Mrs. Thrall – lived in a charmed circle of people who left writing behind, be it published works or intimate words.
“The ancient philosopher certainly gave a wise counsel when he said, ‘Know thyself.’ For surely this knowledge is of all the most important.”