We all have seem to have a fascination with the lives of other people, whether they’re an important historical figure or the latest pop star. How did they achieve their success? How do they maintain it? What was their downfall, their fatal flaw? What is their lasting legacy? How did they live their daily lives and how did they react when life became difficult?
Despite the prevalence of social media and the current obsession with sharing, we don’t really know the how another person’s mind works. This is where fictional biographies step in – a writer steps into a person’s life and tries to imagine what they must have gone through and how they felt. Of course, fictional biographies are still fictional – no amount of research can bring back casual conversations and lost letters. A really good author, backed with lots of research and study can transport you, the reader, to another time and place, bringing insight and understanding that isn’t possible from the outside.
Here are some exceptional titles to get you started:
Loving Frank (Frank Lloyd Wright) by Nancy Horan. In 1903 Mamah Borthwick Cheney and her husband, Edwin, commissioned the renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright to design a new home for them. During the construction of the house a powerful attraction developed between Mamah and Frank, and in time the lovers, each married with children, embarked on a course that would shock Chicago society and forever change their lives.
The Paris Wife (Ernest Hemingway) by Paula McLain. Meeting through mutual friends in Chicago, Mary Hadley is intrigued by brash “beautiful boy” Ernest Hemingway, and after a brief courtship and small wedding, they take off for Paris, where Hadley makes a convincing transformation from an overprotected child to a game and brave young woman who puts up with impoverished living conditions and shattering loneliness to prop up her husband’s career.
Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker (Mary Todd Lincoln) by Jennifer Chiaverini. Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley was born a slave. She earned her freedom by the skill of her needle and won the friendship of First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln with her devotion. In her sweeping historical novel Chiaverini illuminates the extraordinary relationship the two women shared, beginning in the hallowed halls of the White House during the trials of the Civil War and enduring almost, but not quite, to the end of Mrs. Lincoln’s days.
The Girl with the Pearl Earring (Johannes Vermeer) by Tracy Chevalier. In seventeenth-century Delft, there’s a strict social order -rich and poor, Catholic and Protestant, master and servant -and all know their place. When Griet becomes a maid in the household of the painter Johannes Vermeer, she thinks she knows her role. What no one expects is that Griet’s quiet manner, quick perceptions, and fascination with her master’s paintings will draw her inexorably into his world.
Other titles to try include Memoirs of a Geisha (based partly on Japan’s most famous geisha) by Arthur Golden, The Other Boleyn Girl (Anne Boleyn’s sister) by Phillippa Gregory (indeed, almost everything by Phillippa Gregory can be categorized as fictional biography), Clara and Mr Tiffany (Louis Comfort Tiffany) by Susan Vreeland, Wolf Hall (Thomas Cromwell) by Hilary Mantel, and The Aviator’s Wife (Anne Morrow Lindbergh) by Melanie Benjamin.
My choice this month is The Lady and the Unicorn about perhaps one of the most famous of unknown historical figures. No one knows who the lady is in the famous Lady and the Unicorn tapestries, now hanging in the Cluny Museum in Paris. Created in the late 15th century, there has been much speculation but no definitive answer about the mystery. This book, by Tracy Chevalier attempts to answer those questions. I’m looking forward to hearing her version of this story!
What about you? See anything that interests you? What will you be reading in November?