Michael Holroyd

Michael Holroyd has written biographies of Lytton Strachey, Augustus John and Hugh Kingsmill, and edited The Genius of Shaw. A Strange Eventful History, about Ellen Terry, is out in paperback.

A Tale of Three Novels: Violet Trefusis

Michael Holroyd, 11 February 2010

Violet Trefusis was born on 6 June 1894, the elder daughter of Alice Keppel, a famously discreet mistress of the future Edward VII. ‘I wonder if I shall ever squeeze as much romance into my life as she has had in hers,’ Violet wrote in the summer of 1918 to Vita Sackville-West. She had begun to squeeze a very indiscreet romance with Vita into her own life. The girls’ passion...

Diary: Travails with My Aunt

Michael Holroyd, 7 March 1996

When people ask me who I am writing about, I tell them it’s my aunt.

Mrs Webb and Mrs Woolf

Michael Holroyd, 7 November 1985

When I signed the contract for my Life of Lytton Strachey, I was allowed by way of an advance on royalties the sum of 50 pounds. Though this reflected my own lack of status as a biographer, it was also, I think, some measurement of where Bloomsbury stood in the scheme of things. Twenty-five years ago, Strachey’s books were not in paperback and Virginia Woolf was not the feminist idol she has since become. The reputation of E.M. Forster was in decline. The paintings of Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell were not privately collected and had been demoted to the cellars of many public galleries. The art criticism of Roger Fry and Clive Bell was no longer considered significant, and few people knew the name of Carrington. The best-known of the Bloomsburgians was probably Maynard Keynes – the man Bloomsbury had sent into the political world to represent their interests during the great changes – revolutions maybe – that were to take place in the 20th century. Nothing was known of his homosexuality, which was concealed in Roy Harrod’s authorised biography; and his literary abilities were not often celebrated. He was the property of economists – a brilliant crisis economist, as I think of him, which is one reason why we hear so much about him today.’

The Adventures of Richard Holmes

Michael Holroyd, 1 August 1985

Earlier this summer, during two and a half days of sun, I was persuaded to join a Wordsworth and Coleridge pilgrimage in Somerset. One of the chief attractions was a rumour that Richard Holmes, currently working on a Life of Coleridge, would appear. For a day and a half there was much talk of Mr Holmes. How would he appear? Over what hill? Across what pond? From time to time messages would arrive which we carefully decoded. Then suddenly a man in a field called threateningly to us: were we looking for Mr Sherlock Holmes? We agreed that we were. He pointed onwards and we increased our pace, stumbling like a group of Dr Watsons, in pursuit of this now legendary figure – whom we eventually caught up with innocently poised near a cream tea.

Who was David Peterley?

Michael Holroyd, 15 November 1984

David Peterley’s Peterley Harvest was first published on 24 October 1960. The book had a curious history and, shortly before publication, stories began to appear in the press declaring it to be an elaborate hoax.

Inexhaustible Engines

Michael Holroyd, 1 March 1984

What is a bibliography? For Bernard Shaw it was a directory whose natural subscribers were to be found among librarians, biographers, critics and occasionally the authors themselves. He regarded its aim as the production of opus lists that would be useful to specialists. Such an attitude, his own bibliographer informs us, was appallingly inadequate, revealing ‘a man who had no understanding or respect for the responsibilities of scholarship’. To Dan Laurence, bibliography is something other. Where Shaw had observed only a harmless drudge, Mr Laurence sees ‘an exacting science’, a work that may be ‘treated artfully’, and the culmination (like an elevation to the peerage) of a lifetime’s achievement.

Fabian Figaro

Michael Holroyd, 3 December 1981

Second-hand book dealers will tell you that of all Bernard Shaw’s out-of-print works, the volumes of music criticism have been in most constant demand. It is therefore excellent news (except perhaps to secondhand book dealers) that the Bodley Head has now issued, in the same chunky format as the Collected Plays, these three volumes containing all Shaw’s writings on music.

Bogey’s Clean Sweep

Michael Holroyd, 22 May 1980

On 7 August 1922, in a letter for her husband John Middleton Murry to be opened after her death, katherine Mansfield wrote:

Sidney and Beatrice

Michael Holroyd, 25 October 1979

‘I can’t help it being “Beauty and the Beast,” ’ wrote Sidney Webb to Beatrice Potter shortly before their marriage in 1892, ‘ – if only it is not a case of Titania and Bottom!’ The courtship of this super-extraordinary pair – ‘two active self-centred people, excessively devoted to the public cause,’ as H.G. Wells characterised them in The New Machiavelli – was the oddest romance in the Fabian calendar and a triumph for Sidney’s policy of gradualism.

John Pemble invites us to find ‘remarkable’ Lytton Strachey’s admiration for W.S. Gilbert, ‘the most eminently Victorian of them all’, after he saw a production of Iolanthe in 1907 (LRB, 16 June). ‘It’s impossible to believe that a lord chancellor in love with a fairy can be anything but ridiculous,’ Strachey wrote that year to Leonard Woolf in a letter...


1 January 2009

In his review of my book A Strange Eventful History, David Edgar credits me with having pioneered the use of fiction in biography (LRB, 1 January). But though I welcome many biographical experiments (and enjoyed the imaginary conversations in Peter Ackroyd’s Dickens), I do not myself attempt to fictionalise my characters. I speculate, paraphrase, parody and employ some novelistic narrative techniques....


13 May 1993

The naming of biographical subjects, which has been raised by Miranda Seymour and Frank Kermode (Letters, 27 May and Letters, 24 June), partly depends upon the context in which their names appear. I wrote about ‘Lytton’ because that was how all his friends referred to him, and I wanted to integrate their references into my narrative. ‘Lytton’ was also helpful in distinguishing...


2 April 1981

SIR: Frank Kermode (LRB, 2 April) recommends ‘everyone interested in good novels’ to read William Gerhardie, but calls for an even stronger base than Futility and God’s Fifth Column on which to rebuild Gerhardie’s reputation. He will be pleased to hear that Penguin plan to publish the first paperback edition of Of Mortal Love later this year. As for the matter of misprints,...

One’s Self-Washed Drawers: Ida John

Rosemary Hill, 29 June 2017

She might have been happy enough had not her ‘beautiful warm face’ caught the eye of Augustus John. Then she knew what it was to have a grand passion and to be on the horns of a dilemma.

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Exit Humbug: Theatrical Families

David Edgar, 1 January 2009

Ellen Terry was the youngest daughter of two touring players, and began her own stage career at the age of six. Ten years later, she married a painter three times her age; they separated within...

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Charging Downhill: Michael Holroyd

Frank Kermode, 28 October 1999

When he came to write his autobiography, the biographer Michael Holroyd decided to restrict himself to what he calls ‘a good walk-on part’, assigning the leading roles to his family....

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John Sutherland, 5 November 1992

A man of many literary parts, Ian Hamilton came to biography late and triumphantly with his life of the dead but still warm Robert Lowell. Riding high, he went on to attempt an unauthorised life...

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Molly’s Methuselah

Frank Kermode, 26 September 1991

At the beginning of Mr Holroyd’s third volume Shaw, now 62, is expressing strong views, sensible but not attended to, on the conduct of the nation’s affairs in a difficult postwar...

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Baby Face

John Bayley, 24 May 1990

Who said of whom: ‘I have talent but he has genius’? Evelyn Waugh had been reading Futility, which first came out in 1922, but his favourite Gerhardie novel was to be Jazz and Jasper....

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Frank Kermode, 12 October 1989

Having followed Shaw on a largely unsuccessful pursuit of love in Volume I, Mr Holroyd in his second instalment sets him off on what turns out to be an equally frustrated pursuit of power. It may...

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Georgian eyes are smiling

Frank Kermode, 15 September 1988

There were already good biographies of Shaw, notably those of Frank Harris and Hesketh Pearson, both of whom knew Shaw and had the benefit of his energetic interventions. Pearson in particular...

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Is it a crime?

P.N. Furbank, 6 June 1985

As is well known, there is a curious association between bibliography and crime. It has something to do with a relationship to books as physical objects, and something to do with the fact that...

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Frank Kermode, 2 April 1981

Gerhardie is one of those writers who are periodically rescued from near-oblivion. In 1947, a temporary revival of interest was brought about by the publication of a ‘Uniform Edition’...

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It is odd that Lytton Strachey did not manage to strike up much fellow-feeling for Prospero. In an essay of 1904 on Shakespeare’s final period we find the puncturing remark...

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