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Every other year, at a botanical garden in the Chelsea neighborhood of London, the playwright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard throws a lavish, all-day party for his many friends and their families. There are bands, puppets, jugglers, stilt-walkers, staggering amounts of food and drink. Among the hundreds attending in 2013 were the biographer Hermione Lee, who was at the time also the very busy president of Oxford’s Wolfson College, and her friend Julian Barnes, the novelist. As they were leaving, Barnes recalled recently, Stoppard ambled up and asked Lee if she had any interest in writing his life.
“Why me?” she said, taken aback.
“Because I want it to be read,” he replied.
That Stoppard wanted a biography at all was a surprise. He used to be hostile to the whole idea. In his play “Indian Ink,” a character calls biography “the worst possible excuse for getting people wrong,” and in “The Invention of Love,” Stoppard has Oscar Wilde describe biography as “the mesh through which our real life escapes.”
Stoppard came around, Lee thinks, because he knew a biography was probably going to get written anyway, and because at the time he asked her he was entering into what she calls the “tidying up” phase of his life — approaching 80, moving house, beginning a new marriage. And in choosing Lee, though she is too modest to say so, he wasn’t taking any chances. Lee’s “Tom Stoppard: A Life” came out in England last October (Alfred A. Knopf will publish it here on Feb. 23), and at the time Stefan Collini wrote in The Guardian, “It seems unfair that a man of such outrageous gifts should also have been allowed to magic up the perfect biographer to write his life.”
[ Read Dwight Garner’s review of “Tom Stoppard: A Life.” ]
Lee, or to be formal, Dame Hermione (she was awarded the title in 2013 for “services to literary scholarship”) is a leading member of that generation of British writers — it also includes Richard Holmes, Michael Holroyd, Jenny Uglow and Claire Tomalin — who have brought an infusion of style and imagination to the art of literary biography. She is probably most famous for her 1997 life of Virginia Woolf, which upended much of the received wisdom about Woolf and demonstrated that there was much more to say than that she was a depressive in a cardigan wading into a river. In similar fashion, her 2007 biography of Edith Wharton rescued Wharton from her snobbish, old-fashioned reputation and reimagined her as a modern.
Lee said yes to Stoppard, of course. How do you say no to someone so famous for charm? And then, as she recalled over Zoom last fall from her house in Oxford, she immediately thought to herself, “Oh my God, what have I done?”
Lee, who turns 73 later this month, did not set out to become a biographer. She grew up in London in a house filled with music and books, and became a “culture hound,” she once told The Paris Review, the kind of teenager who would rather listen to Bartok than Elvis. She read all the time, but mostly novels, and had little or no interest in the lives of the people who wrote them.
When her dreams of being an actress didn’t pan out, she became an academic, studying at Oxford, where she eventually became the first woman in the prestigious role of Goldsmiths’ Professor of English Literature. In the 1980s, though, she became uncomfortable with what was happening to the teaching of literature. “I think I was very ill-equipped to take on structuralism and deconstruction and French critical theory,” she explained. “I didn’t really buy the death of the author, and I think I went toward biography, perhaps not terribly consciously, as a sort of resistance.”
Lee’s previous subjects — besides Woolf and Wharton, she also wrote about Willa Cather and Penelope Fitzgerald — were all novelists, all female and all dead. Stoppard, obviously, was none of those things. He was also someone both fortunate and beloved, with hundreds and hundreds of friends and admirers, all protective of him. “She always has a natural and healthy anxiety,” Barnes said. “‘Can I do it?’ But this time I think there was also: ‘Will he like it?’”
Lee was not a theater person. But she was an avid playgoer, at least, and had acted a bit when she was young. So she felt reasonably confident about handling that part of Stoppard’s life, though in the end writing about the plays themselves required a tremendous amount of homework. Nor was Stoppard’s being male something she worried a lot about. “Maybe I should have,” she said, “but I didn’t feel that in writing about a man I was entering into some strange, uncharted territory.”
By far the hardest part of writing the life of Stoppard, she said, was that Stoppard, now 83, was still living it. How do you end such a book? She originally thought she might conclude with Stoppard’s 80th birthday, in July 2017. But in 2020, he finished “Leopoldstadt,” his most personal and emotional play, touching on his Jewish heritage, and practically as soon as it opened the run was ended — for the time being, anyway — by the coronavirus. So instead, Lee’s book ends with a vanishing — Stoppard’s recollection of a famous outdoor production of “The Tempest” in which Ariel seems to run across water and then disappears into the dark.
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