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Hermione Lee on how to write a life

Lee is known for her landmark biographies of writers such as Virginia Woolf and Edith Wharton. Now, she has taken on her first living subject: Tom Stoppard.

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Hermione Lee and Tom Stoppard operate on very different sleep schedules. While writing her new biography of the British playwright, Lee would visit and sometimes stay overnight at Stoppard’s 1790s home in rural Dorset. The next morning, Lee “would be sitting there with my notebook from breakfast time onwards”, she laughs. “He’s more of a theatre time person. So he’d pick up energy in the evening – just as I was beginning to flag.”

Some lines of conversation energised him more than others – like his 1960s wardrobe, which prompted a long “terrific riff” about lime green Cuban heels, Biba silk scarves, and the tobacco-coloured suits with orange-blue linings he was fitted for at Mayfair’s Mr Fish boutique. At other times, “he would stop and give me one of those somewhat quizzical looks and say, ‘I can’t think what use this is going to be to you,’” Lee says. “I could tell when he was getting a bit bored – but he was very patient. And he never didn’t answer a question.”

Conducted over six years, these conversations formed one of the many sources on which Lee has based her 977-page biography Tom Stoppard: A Life, which covers everything from Stoppard’s origins in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, through the sudden success of his play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead in the late 1960s, to his star-studded 80th birthday party in Chelsea Physic Garden in 2017 and beyond, right up to when Stoppard’s latest play, Leopoldstadt, abruptly ended its run on 14 March due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Speaking over video call from her home in Yorkshire (she and her partner, fellow English scholar John Barnard, split their time between there and Oxford), 72-year-old Lee is grateful to have had final edits of the book to work on during the pandemic. “We’re used to long days of self-isolation already, as it were, in terms of our work, but it’s obviously very different,” she says.

Stoppard is the latest in a long line of writers to undergo Lee’s forensic, critical, but lively and compassionate brand of literary biography: her subjects include Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton and Penelope Fitzgerald. Made a dame for services to literary scholarship in 2013, Lee is an emeritus professor at Oxford University (where she taught me for a term when I was an undergraduate in 2014) and was president of Wolfson College from 2008 to 2017.

This last achievement provoked some rare praise from her father, a doctor and second-generation eastern European Jewish immigrant. “He said, ‘It’s taken four generations from someone selling buttons on the streets of Whitechapel to someone running an Oxford college.’” She smiles. “I don’t know if you remember the moment in To The Lighthouse where James is waiting for his father to say ‘well done’, but it was rather one of those ‘well done’ moments.”

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Lee was born in Winchester in 1948; her family moved to London when she was four. They lived in a top-floor mansion flat in the grand but sombre red-brick buildings near Westminster Cathedral and Buckingham Palace, an area populated by “elderly ladies with little old-fashioned fox-fur stoles”. Her father was an accomplished cellist as well as a GP, while her mother, who Lee calls “one of the best self-educated people I’ve ever known”, had worked for the publisher Jonathan Cape during the war and was “an enormous reader”.

Lee’s earliest memories are of quartet parties her parents held at home, and the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves they had built in the flat’s long corridor: she would roam up and down it, looking for books to read, unable to reach the top shelf. It was a childhood immersed in culture: professional musicians in and out of the flat, frequent visits to the local library on Buckingham Palace Road, weekly trips to the Tate and National Gallery. She was privately educated at City of London School for Girls and, later, when the family moved to Harley Street, Queen’s College. The young Lee harboured ambitions to be a journalist or an actor – she jokes that in one school play she was “a fine Mr Rochester… I had a terrific scar!” Looking back, Lee calls it “a very, very privileged London childhood”.

It was also in some ways an independent one. “I was both extremely short-sighted and extremely self-conscious,” she says. “I was quite an internalised child and teenager. When I look back, between the ages of eight and 17, when I went to Oxford, I think I just read all the time.” Encouraged by her mother, Lee was reading Elizabeth Bowen, Rebecca West, Rosamond Lehmann and Stevie Smith, as well as classics such as Jane Eyre. She was drawn to “emotionally intense, rather angry, heroines”.

Lee was only 16 years old when she was offered a place at Oxford. She arrived aged 17 in 1965, having just won a prize in the Daily Mirror’s children’s literary competition for a sonnet. Having never lived away from her parents before, she found herself at St Hilda’s, then a single-sex college, at a time when Oxford was still overwhelmingly male. She was intimidated by the college’s “formidable lady dons” who she now realises “had to be these rather fierce, battle-axe-y, redoubtable characters in order to hold their own” in a sexist academic culture.

She cites her tutors Dorothy Bednarowska and Stephen Wall as influences, as well as an “austere” and “nun-like” woman named Anne Elliott who “taught through silences”. “I remember doing my first essay for Anne Elliott on Lycidas,” she says, referring to Milton’s elegy for his friend Edward King. “I did what I thought was this completely brilliant essay, all about church corruption and Milton’s politics, and all the rest of it. I came and read this essay and there was this profoundly long silence, and then Anne Elliott said, ‘Hmm… You seem unaccountably to have left out the drowned man’.” It was, Lee says, “a completely unforgettable lesson” in getting to the point.

Lee hopes that in later life, as an Oxford tutor herself, she was less stern: “I wanted to have more fun than that.” I tell her I was similarly intimidated by her as an undergraduate, having read an interview in the Paris Review in which she said of her students: “I’m not terribly good when people burst into tears. I tend to give them a glass of water and go out of the room for five minutes… they’re mortified at having shown weakness in a professional situation. As I would be.” In our first one-on-one tutorial, I arrived with a single printed-out copy of my essay, having not grasped I needed to bring two: Lee said, impassively, “Well… that’s unfortunate.”

Today, Lee laughs. “Oh, God, that’s really terrible! I’m sorry. Maybe I imbibed more of the sternness of those ladies at St Hilda’s than I have realised.” But despite my being somewhat overawed by her, our tutorials felt novel, energising and fun.

[See also: How do we tell the story of Sylvia Plath?]

Lee is now retired from teaching. A constant throughout her career has been her anti-elitist instinct. “I wanted to speak the same language across the board,” she says. “I didn’t feel there should be a specialised critical language that wasn’t accessible to a general public.” She first moved into biography through her literary criticism of figures like Bowen, Smith and Willa Cather, drawn to their “remarkable life stories”, as well as their work – “you can’t think about one without the other”. When the publisher Carmen Callil asked her to write a biography of Virginia Woolf in 1990, Lee balked. “I thought it was a ridiculous idea, because there were innumerable books on Virginia Woolf.” But she quotes Woolf herself, who said (in reference to a Shelley biography), “There are some stories which have to be retold by each generation.” Woolf and Stoppard, in Lee’s eyes, are such figures. 

Lee describes biography as “reactive”: “You write a biography from the vantage point of where you are: your gender, your race, your class.” She is unromantic about it as an art form. “It’s not a love affair or a marriage: it’s a job. You’re not writing autobiography; you’re writing about some other person, usually a dead person. You can only access them in as far as you have materials and witnesses to allow you to access them. You are at the mercy of what you can find and read and hear and see. You become as intimate as you can with the life and work of this person… But there is always going to be a gap.”

“At the beginning, you don’t know what you’re looking for,” she says. “The shape comes at you as you get deeper into the archive, and a strange force field starts to grow, as you concentrate intensely for years on end on one person.” She talks about finding unseen letters from Woolf’s brother Thoby Stephen simply by asking the right person – Anne Olivier Bell, who was part of the Bloomsbury Group – if she knew where they were. (“They’re in the attic,” was her cool reply.) Or being given Penelope Fitzgerald’s teaching books, yellowed and warped from when her houseboat sank, and finding new insights in her annotations. “Stuff oddly comes at you in ways you don’t expect.”

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Lee’s biography of Tom Stoppard marks a clear departure from her other books: he is a living subject. “You have the advantage of talking to him – which is fantastically good fun,” she says. He allowed her to sit in on rehearsals multiple times: “Those have been very important to me.” And he provided her with some material: “He was thinking, ‘Oh, I must find more things for Hermione.’ I would go down to his house at regular intervals and there’d be another pile of things waiting for me to look at – including, remarkably, all the letters that he’d written to his mother all through his life.”

The project had its challenges, too – not least that he went on living as she wrote about him. Originally, Lee planned to end the book with Stoppard’s 80th birthday – then, in January 2020, Leopoldstadt premiered, with several critics labelling it his most autobiographical work to date. “I had to say to Faber, ‘Wait, I’m going to need to cover this!’”

Lee writes of Stoppard’s “dread of biography”. Yet it was he who asked her to take on his life story. At an event in New York, Stoppard introduced Lee by joking, “You know the writer who said, ‘Biography adds a new terror to death?’ Well, here she is!”

He need not have worried. Lee’s book is comprehensive and scholarly, but it’s very affectionate too. Her Stoppard is a charismatic, good-looking figure, dry and witty; the centre of attention at parties, but anxiously self-flagellating in private. She sees him as unfailingly kind and loyal to his friends; though she notes that he himself often declares he is “good at performing niceness, but he is not as nice as people think”. She observes, too, that “many people who know him have said they don’t feel they know him well. They don’t know who his close friends are and they aren’t even sure if he has any.”

Lee calls Stoppard “a reserved, shy and embarrassable private man”, and notes towards the end of the biography: “There have been moments when he clearly regretted setting this book in motion.” So why did he approach her? “I attribute it to his coming up to 80, and wanting to put his papers in order, as it were, have things organised; I think that’s quite a strong impulse in that decade, for people who are public figures.”

Despite this discomfort, he “only baulked at one thing in the whole 900 pages of the book”, she says. “There was an actor who had to be sacked in a new production of an old play. When Stoppard was reading through the book, the only thing he asked me not to put in was the name of that actor. I thought, ‘This is a noble human being.’” 

“Tom Stoppard: A Life” is published by Faber & Faber

Anna Leszkiewicz is culture editor of the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 23 October 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Ten lessons of the pandemic