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294 literary lives,
This review is from: Lives of the Novelists: A History of Fiction in 294 Lives (Hardcover)
This substantial volume (more than 800 pages) is a review of 294 novelists writing in the English language, chosen from the vast panorama available from the past almost four hundred years. The range is very wide. Included are authors of romances, dramas, westerns, adventures of many sorts, thrillers, sci-fi, and even a few writers of stories for children. But it is not a straightforward set of biographical entries of the `great and the good'; there are some surprising omissions of the latter. Instead, the choice is a very personal, idiosyncratic, collection of writers the author says have influenced him during a lifetime of reading. Eyebrows will doubtless be raised at the fact that Patricia Cornwall, Amanada Ros (winner of an award for `The World's Worst Novelist'), and Jeffery Archer, to name a few surprises, make an appearance (although the latter may have preferred not to have been included).
There is a large number of Victorian writers, reflecting the author's encyclopaedic knowledge of the literature of that period. Victorian authors were an extraordinary bunch; often intellectually precocious, sometimes illegitimate and from humble backgrounds, frequently soon parentless, either through death or abandonment. Not surprisingly, they commonly had difficult lives as adults, producing many children, or none, and dying tragically young (commonly of TB or drink, a few committing suicide). Even if they themselves did not succumb, they were surrounded by others who did. J.M. Barrie, for example, adopted five young boys after the premature deaths of their parents. One died soon afterwards, one possibly committed suicide and another definitely did. Madness, and even the proverbial `lunatic wife (rarely a husband) locked away in an asylum', features not only in their novels, but also in not a few of their real lives. The lives of more recent authors are often just as unstable. Early days drifting aimlessly from one low-level job to another, multiple marriages (frequently unconventional), and alcoholism leading to premature death (at least TB had been conquered) all figure prominently. Many authors in this collection were huge best sellers in their day, some earning considerable fortunes and living extravagantly in grand style, but now are forgotten and unread; salutary reminders of the fickleness of public taste and the transitory nature of fame.
The entries vary in length from barely a page to several. They are all peppered with anecdotes, personal views and pithy observations, told with a splendid dry humor. It is an immensely enjoyable read and has given me quite a few additions to my `must read' list.