Eminent biographer Ann Thwaite joins the 2020 online and free Berwick Literary Festival on Thursday 15th October at 4pm. Her work includes biographies of Victorian writer, editor and translator Edmund Gosse (described by literary critic John Carey as ‘one of the finest literary biographies of our time’); Gosse’s father naturalist Philip Henry Gosse (named by DJ Taylor of The Independent as one of the 10 best biographies ever); and AA Milne (Milne’s son Christopher wrote to Ann: ‘In you my father has found the perfect biographer… I am left with nothing but admiration and happiness’). I was lucky to catch up with Ann on the phone just after the publication of the new edition of her meticulous biography of Frances Hodgson Burnett: Beyond the Secret Garden: The Life of Frances Hodgson Burnett, published by Duckworth Books to coincide with the launch of the new film of The Secret Garden starring Colin Firth and Julie Walters.
by Jackie Kaines
Biographer Ann Thwaite is accustomed to spending a substantial number of hours considering the lives of her subjects: their contradictions and whims; what motivated and distracted them; what brought them joy and sadness. Her writing peels away the layers of her subjects to reveal nuanced insights into their lives and times because of the accurate and exhaustive research that feeds it.
Her biography of Edmund Gosse, who Ann describes as ‘a Victorian man of letters’ (he was friends with Thomas Hardy, Robert Louis Stephenson and Henry James) jostled alongside other commitments: writing children’s books, reviewing, editing the British edition of an American children’s magazine, and enjoying family life (her youngest daughter was 10 when she signed the contract). It took nine years from signing the contract to publication of the Gosse biography. That’s a lot of time to spend with a subject ‘always in my mind’. So, it’s a bit daunting for me to pick up the phone to speak to this skilled piecer-together-of-lives after just a handful of emails and a poke around the internet. Fortunately, Ann is both a generous and fascinating interviewee – whose interest in life, the lives of others and the world around her is compelling.
Back in 1993, Ann used her Churchill Fellowship grant to support her research into Emily Tennyson, the poet’s wife. As she travelled to track down original manuscripts and letters, and to tread in her subject’s footsteps, she says she ‘bore in mind Henry James’s advice – to be one of those on whom nothing is lost.’ To this end, she visited at least seven universities in the States, traced the Tennysons’ complex journey through Italy and France – by car rather than train – and gathered together a rounded picture of a woman who was instrumental in her husband’s success.
The biography of Emily (published by Faber in 1996) is often credited as a book that helped bring marginalised women out of the shadows. And it seems somehow fitting that Ann gives full credit to her own husband, poet and literary critic Anthony Thwaite, for supporting her in her work: ‘I’d never have been able to pursue a career writing biographies without Anthony’s support with the children and domestic life.’ Ann calls their marriage ‘a good partnership’ – they have just celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary. When I ask what Ann would have chosen to do had she not been a biographer, she responds instantly that she would not change her career or life: ‘It’s been wonderful. An extraordinarily interesting life – and often interesting and extraordinary because of the books I’ve written’.
Ann published her first children’s book in 1958 when she was just 25: it was the Japanese book in the Phoenix House Young Traveller series. Ann has an ongoing relationship with Japan and spent some time teaching English language and literature at Tokyo Joshi Daigaku – the women’s university. In fact, Ann credits her Japanese translator (Reiko Yamanouchi) as the catalyst for the new edition of her very first biography (Frances Hodgson Burnett). Yamanouchi had just finished Goodbye Christopher Robin and when asked by her publisher what she wanted to translate next, she chose Ann’s Beyond the Secret Garden: The Life of Frances Hodgson Burnett. Both Milne and Hodgson Burnett are hugely popular in Japan.
But I rush ahead. How did a children’s writer become a biographer? By 1969, Anthony was literary editor of the New Statesman and Ann was restless in her writing. She wanted to write adult books but did not feel ‘I could write a novel that I would want to read’. She had always been interested in biographies and a course was set. Ann says that writing the ‘ninth biography’ of someone does not appeal to her and choosing a subject who has not been much written about is essential for her. It’s also helpful if people who knew the subject are still alive.
Despite the success of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novels, not much was published about her life and several close family members were still alive. Ann knew the family did not want a biography of their famous relative – they were anxious about the author’s ‘scandalous life’ (she divorced twice) and wished to protect the surviving family from further scrutiny. Determined to press on with her chosen subject, Ann started her research without contacting the family. ‘I was fortunate,’ says Ann, ‘because when I did approach them and told them I had signed a contract to write the biography, they were incredibly supportive.’
Thwaite’s meticulous approach to research has gained her praise and respect in the literary world. Jacqueline Wilson, who wrote the foreword of the new edition of Beyond the Secret Garden, says: ‘Ann Thwaite has done extremely painstaking research… She’s written a clear, concise and highly entertaining account.’ Ann says that original letters and manuscripts are vital to the process of understanding a subject: ‘It’s exciting too. Sometimes you will be the first person to open a letter since the person you’re writing about read it’. Such letters, Ann says, are: ‘More accurate than people’s memories. Of course, the words written are affected by the emotions of your subject, but they are the most reliable evidence’.
Despite the all-consuming research and intense writing (all by hand) involved in creating the biographies, Ann says she does not find it difficult to let go of the subjects she’s become so intimately acquainted with. But sometimes the subjects are reluctant to let her go. Her biography of AA Milne, AA Milne: His Life, was Whitbread Biography of the Year, 1990. Ann says: ‘Hardly a day goes by without someone contacting me about something Milne-related’.
One such contact was from producer Damian Jones. He wanted her to be consultant on a film about Milne, which was eventually to become the successful 2017 film Goodbye Christopher Robin. Ann read and criticised potential scripts over several years. The project finally took off when screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce came on board. He used Ann’s book to inform his script to great effect: ‘It was so much better; I was delighted’. A version of Ann’s 1990 Milne biography focusing on the Winnie the Pooh years of Milne’s life was released simultaneously with the film on both sides of the Atlantic.
Ann is slightly embarrassed when she tells me about one of the proudest moments of her life: ‘At the premiere of the film – Leicester Square, red carpets and everything – Damian Jones spoke to the audience from the stage. And he paid tribute to me – “the indefatigable Ann Thwaite” I was thrilled, how lovely!’
Talking to Ann and gaining this glimpse into her life and work, I can’t help thinking that there are probably a lot of people who, over the years, have been grateful for her indefatigable commitment and creativity.
Beyond the Secret Garden: The Life of Frances Hodgson Burnett (Duckworth Books) is available to purchase from all good bookshops now.