Boswell Book Festival: Biographies tap into the same curiosity that makes us watch Love Island and I’m a Celebrity – Caroline Knox
We can’t help but want to know more about those in power or the public eye as much as the new family who have moved into a house along the street.
The itch of wanting to roll back the curtain is hard to contain. That’s why millions of people tune in to watch shows like Love Island and I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here to try and find out more about the people involved.
This is why people continue to buy James Boswell’s masterpiece The Life of Samuel Johnson over 200 years after its publication and why every year biographies and memoirs are on bestseller lists.
May 16, 1763 was the life-changing day of 23-year-old aspiring Scottish writer James Boswell on his first visit to London.
Presented by a mutual friend to the towering figure of Dr Samuel Johnson – compiler of the Definitive Dictionary of the English Language and famous man of letters – Boswell’s life was changed forever.
It was love at first sight of inspiration that ultimately led to the first “ warts and all ” modern biography. This established him as the inventor of modern biography and confirmed his reputation as one of the most innovative writers of the Enlightenment.
Boswell’s Scottish Dictionary found after 200 years
In 2009, a regenerative and educational charity, the Boswell Trust, decided to celebrate the genre of writing that Boswell has transformed with a festival named after him and dedicated to biography and memoir.
First held at Boswell’s home, Auchinleck House in Ayrshire, it moved to neighboring Dumfries House as the audience increased. The first Festival over ten years ago kicked off with speakers including Kate Adie, Selina Hastings, Candia McWilliam and actor Bill Paterson, whose reading of Boswell’s Journals will be a highlight of this year’s online festival. , and we have strived to match and surpass their caliber every year since.
Great biographers need great subjects, they need people who have written a lot or who have remembered a lot in their lives. They need to work their way into their psyche to try to establish the reasons for their actions as well as the reasons why this life is worth writing.
A good biography can inspire readers. Our Schools and Families program, which is growing this year, can help children discover what is happening in other parts of the world and at other times. This is especially important for young people who will not have experienced much outside their neighborhood boundaries in the past year.
The urge to tell one’s story is such a strong human instinct that it survives the most difficult circumstances. Until recently, people wrote many letters daily which are invaluable archival material for life story writers.
Hence the inclusion in this year’s festival of Letters from My Father from the Soviet Gulag – a deeply moving and powerful historical narrative that tells the stories of 16 of the millions condemned between the 1930s and 1950s in the Soviet Union across letters sent to their children.
Memories don’t always have to be about the most famous people. Recently there has been a boom in those related to the medical profession – former Doctor Adam Kay’s shows, based on his books, have drawn thousands of people to West End theaters.
One of our former speakers, Henry Marsh, had huge success with his memoirs of his life as a brain surgeon; and Edinburgh GP Gavin Francis (who will be attending this year’s festival) recently published a book on adaptation during the year of Covid-19. Who knows what the next trend will be, but whatever it is, we’ll be inviting writers to our festival.
Observation is of course the other key to writing about others. Chips Channon’s Interwar Diary, edited by Simon Heffer, was one of the most discussed books of this year with a second volume published in the fall.
He was a minor novelist and backbench MP who mingled with high society and, as an American, watched the spectacle of politics, balls, and royalty with a fresh eye. a stranger, which makes his case both compelling and meaningful.
Famous Rolling Stones singer Mick Jagger was given a big lead in writing his autobiography in the 1980s, but couldn’t complete it because he found the process “boring and overwhelming.” However, Bill Wyman, considered the “boring” member of the group, kept a journal throughout his years of touring and recording. His overview of everything that happened to one of the most famous rock bands of all time is considered the best book ever made on the Rolling Stones.
I am often asked how biographers will handle writing about contemporary people.
The advent of modern forms of communication such as email, text, WhatsApp, voicemail, and podcast provide a huge cache of research material. Hard drives are regularly acquired by libraries and archives.
Professor Jane Ridley, founder of the first postgraduate course in biography at Buckingham University, points out that in the ‘golden age’ of letter writing in the early 17th century, there were six departments postal services per day in London.
People were able to send each other several letters a day in a way that is no different from the email exchanges we know today. Jane Ridley will lead one of the festival’s masterclasses in writing for life.
There is no doubt in my mind that biographies and memoirs will continue to thrive, reflecting the boom in book buying during the pandemic. What could be more tempting than an invitation to reflect on the lives of others as told by some of our best writers?
Caroline Knox is director of the Boswell Book Festival