A suggestion by Leon Edel that attention ought to be paid to the way a biography is constructed—the way the life is told rather than the way the life was lived—first sparked my interest in a small group of biographers who also happened to be novelists. Later, reading Elizabeth Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Brontë, I was intrigued by Professor Alan Shelston’s notion that it was Gaskell's training as a novelist that prompted her daringly frank account of the eccentricities of Brontë’s father, the Rev. Patrick Brontë, the excesses of her brother, Branwell Brontë, and the indiscretions of Branwell’s lover, Lydia Robinson. That seemed to me a sensible idea, and I wondered whether other novelists had followed Gaskell’s lead, despite the disastrous reception her book received.

Novelists have of course been making the transition between these genres with some...

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