When it comes to biographies, I prefer them short. Mildred R. Bennett's The World of Willa Cather (University of Nebraska Press, 285 pages), one of my favorites, is a vivid, well-written book about Willa's upbringing and early adulthood in Nebraska. Bennett collected unduplicable material: she interviewed and corresponded with Willa's family, friends, and residents of Red Cloud, Nebraska, her hometown. It's one of those little-known books that should be read by all Catherites, but Bennett, the founder of the Willa Cather Society, was not a famous writer and was not connected with the New York publishing world.
I often lose biographies or get stuck in the middle. I have skimmed many great biographies of American presidents, the best of which is Fred Kaplan's Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer (a medium-sized biography at 406 pages). I especially enjoy literary biogaphies. I adored Peter Ackroyd's exhaustive 1,195-page biography of Dickens, but after the halfway point skipped to the pertinent material about Our Mutual Friend (which I was reading) and the Staplehurst train crash in 1865. I supplemented my reading with a short pictorial biography by Ackroyd and Jane Smiley's excellent short critical biography, Charles Dickens (Penguin Lives, 224 pages).
I read fewer biographies than I'd like to. Nevertheless, there are some historians and biographers I deeply respect. Alison Weir is one of them. Her thoughtful, beautifully written Wives of King Henry VIII, which I wrote about here, fascinated me. There is a whole wives of Henry VIII industry. Think of all the historical novels that compete with biographies. Weir stands out among them.
Weir could be said to compete with herself, as she writes both historical novels and biographies. At the moment I'm reading her latest biography, The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn. Weir's enthralling book is keeping me up nights. She investigates the rumors and fallacies about Anne Boleyn, who is perhaps my favorite of all the wives. It's an engrossing book, and here are a few quotes from Weir.
In her introduction to Lady in the Tower, Weir writes:
"The fascination [with Anne Boleyn] is evident in numerous sites on the internet, the almost-regular appearance of biographies of Anne Boleyn, films and television dramas about her, and the numerous letters and emails I have received from readers over the years.
"Yet never before – surprisingly - has there been a book devoted entirely to the fall of Anne Boleyn, and it was a deeply satisfying experience having the scope to research in depth this most discussed and debated aspect of Anne`s life. It allowed me to achieve new insights and to debunk many myths and misapprehensions. It was an exciting project, and I was constantly amazed at what I was able to discover."
At Weir's website, she says:
"I have been interested in history since the age of fourteen, when I read my first adult novel, a rather lurid book called Henry's Golden Queen, about Katherine of Aragon. I was so enthralled by it that I dashed off to read real history books to find out the truth behind what I had read, and thus my passion for history was born. By the time I was fifteen, I had written a three-volume reference work on the Tudor dynasty, a biography of Anne Boleyn based partly on contemporary sources, and several historical plays; I had also started work on the research that would one day take form as my first published book, Britain's Royal Families."