november 2015

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Jerry Dowlen on... Michael Holroyd

   Sir Michael Holroyd: Happy 80th Birthday to our Bloomsbury Biographer!

Click here for previous articles by Jerry Dowlen from the Books Monthly Archives


This year 2015 marks the eightieth birthday of the critic and essayist Michael Holroyd who was born in London in August 1935. His full name is Sir Michael De Courcy Fraser Holroyd CBE FRHistS FRSL. His distinguished literary career contains a wealth of awards and offices. He is married to the author Margaret Drabble.


Michael Holroyd introduced himself in his book Unreceived Opinions (Heinemann, 1973) by saying: “My world is the world of books and words.” At that time his work as a biographer had embraced as major subjects the author and critic Lytton Stratchey and the artist Augustus John; next in his pipeline was the playwright Bernard Shaw.


Currently in 2015 Nicky Morgan our Minister for Education has issued a patriotic call for our students to flock to the STEM subjects. The young Michael Holroyd was similarly exhorted by his father: the family business of tea plantations in India had been destroyed by the invading Chinese, and thus for a new career it was surely worth noting from the advertisement pages of the Daily Telegraph that post-war Britain was crying out for biochemists, engineers, plasma-physicists and radiologists.


He duly studied science at Eton but after demonstrating his unfitness to be a biologist he failed with his subsequent effort to shine as a trainee lawyer.  National service loomed, after which he emerged from the army to embark upon “the real warfare of literary life”.


The slow progress of a biographer


Anyone who has worked as a biographer or is contemplating such a career would be valuably informed by Michael Holroyd’s wry account of his early exploits in the field. In the winter of 1963/64 after two years work and a further two years wait he made his first breakthrough: a biography of Hugh Kingsmill was published by the Unicorn Press. But it was the earlier rejection of his Kingsmill manuscript by the publishing firm Heinemann that gave Michael Holroyd a life-shaping steer. James Michie, the poet and translator of the Odes of Horace, sent for the young Holroyd, assured him that he liked his work, but explained that if his firm were to make a practice of bringing out books about almost unknown writers by totally unknown authors, it would soon become bankrupt.


A contract was duly drawn up for Michael Holroyd to research and write the first-ever biography of Lytton Stratchey (1880 - 1932). Stratchey had been a prominent member of the notorious Bloomsbury set. His literary reputation had fallen into disrepute. This was seen by Holroyd as an injustice that he was fervent to put right. He embarked on a mission to revalue Stratchey as a serious historian. A target of one year’s work and 70,000 words was agreed with Heinemann.


As related in the chapter entitled ‘The slow progress of a biographer’ it took until 1968 for the biography to appear. After that long process Michael Holroyd should surely have known what would happen when in 1967 he gained approval from the Greater London Council that a blue plaque should be erected for Lytton Stratchey at his former house in Gordon Square. As recounted in the chapter ‘A plaque on all your houses!’ it became a weary and frustrating bureaucratic and political slog before the commemoration finally saw the light of day in November 1971.


‘Life in Squares’


In the same year 2015 that has brought the eightieth birthday of Sir Michael Holroyd the controversies surrounding the Bloomsbury Set have received a new airing, by courtesy of BBC television and a three-part drama series entitled ‘Life in Squares’. The advance publicity contained a fundamental no-holds barred question about the Bloomsbury set. Were they:


(a)    An influential group of sexually permissive writers, intellectuals and artists who introduced bohemianism and modernism to Britain;

(b)   An inward-looking, sexually incontinent clique of snobs whose self-esteem and knack for self-publicity (or at least self-publishing) far outreached their collective talents?


I certainly know people who vehemently believe that (b) is the correct answer. They constitute a body of opinion that would accordingly rule Michael Holroyd’s long biography of Lytton Stratchey to be a thorough waste of time. They would even rule out Christopher Hampton’s gentle film ‘Carrington’ (1995) starring Jonathan Pryce and Emma Thompson as the platonic lovers. During his account of the struggle to comb through the extensive family archives Michael Holroyd mentions that he saw above the fireplace in the study of Lytton’s younger brother a portrait of Lytton relaxing in a deck chair, painted by Dora Carrington.


The series title ‘Life in Squares’ came from the famous quote attributed to Dorothy Parker that the Bloomsbury group “lived in squares, painted in circles and loved in triangles”.


Evidence for this is swiftly found in Michael Holroyd’s book Unreceived Opinions. We already have seen that Lytton Stratchey lived in Gordon Square and that he was painted by Dora Carrington (who also painted other Bloomsbury luminaries such as E.M. Forster). We learn moreover of Virginia Woolf that when her sister Vanessa had a child, she was distressed and jealous. To injure her sister she embarked on a prolonged and pointless flirtation with her sister’s husband Clive Bell.


Unreceived Opinions


In addition to offering a selection of short essays on diverse literary people such as J.M. Barrie, A.E. Houseman, John Ruskin and Bertrand Russell, this delightful book contains some entertaining autobiographical snippets from Michael Holroyd’s life. More recently (in 2014) he has rewritten and released in Britain his autobiographical work A Dog’s Life that he had been forced to suppress originally for fear of a lawsuit from his father. Altogether he cuts a friendly figure who writes with humour, wit and certainly opinion. In hindsight he has recognised that he might have started on a false trail with Hugh Kingsmill: “I wrote a book about an unknown writer and he remained an unknown writer after my book was published.” (The recondite author William Gerhardie was another faded star that he championed stoically).  As for the enormous time spent researching and writing works of biography, Michael Holroyd has confessed that he would have loved to have had more. “Most people give their time to get money. Writers, by contrast, need money to buy time.” 


Jerry Dowlen

September 2015


Previous articles by Jerry Dowlen in the Books Monthly Archives include:


Michael Holroyd

Erle Stanley Gardner

John Masefield


Antony Sher: The History Man

Edmund Crispin, Crime Fiction Author

Computer Chess: The Imitation Game

P G Wodehouse

John Betjeman and Candida Lycett Green

Daniel Abse

Sherlock Holmes: The Seven Per Cent Solution

Wilfred Owen

Wolf Mankowitz

Bob Hoskins

Muriel Spark & Jane Gardam

The Story of Edith Nesbit

Anthony Gilbert and Michael Gilbert

Rebels With A Cause

Inspector Winter: Gwendoline Butler's First Detective

The Carlton, The Commodore, and the Embassy - Orpington's Three Cinemas

The Bergerac Police Adventure Series

It's All In The Mind - Margery Allingham and Graham Greene

Berlin: Cold War Spy Thrillers

The Life and Centenary of Barbara Pym

D H Lawrence: The Sniggering Legacy of Lady Chatterley's Lover...



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