CAREER: Writer. Worked as trainee producer for British Broadcasting Corp., then ITV; freelance journalist.
AWARDS, HONORS: University College London fellowship, 2003–05.
(With Christie Davies) Wrongful Imprisonment; Mistaken Convictions and Their Consequences, Archon Books (Hamden, CT), 1973.
A Capitalist Romance: Singer and the Sewing Machine, Lippincott (Philadelphia, PA), 1977, published as Singer and the Sewing Machine: A Capitalist Romance, Barrie & Jenkins (London, England), 1977, reprinted, Kodansha International (New York, NY), 1996.
The Dollar Princesses: Sagas of Upward Nobility, 1870–1914, Knopf (New York, NY), 1980.
The Spiritualists: The Passion for the Occult in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, Knopf (New York, NY), 1983.
The Burning Question: The Anti-Nuclear Movement since 1945, Heinemann (London, England), 1987.
The New Women and the Old Men: Love, Sex, and the Woman Question, W.W. Norton (New York, NY), 1990.
Being Divine: A Biography of Sarah Bernhardt, Mandarin (London, England), 1992.
The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini, Random House (New York, NY), 1993.
Surreal Lives: The Surrealists, 1917–1945, Grove Press (New York, NY), 1999.
AutoMobile: How the Car Changed Life, Macmillan (London, England), 2002.
The People's Chef: The Culinary Revolutions of Alexis Soyer, Walker & Co. (New York, NY), 2005.
Contributor to The Lost World of the Great Spas, Weidenfeld & Nicolson (London, England), 1979. Contributor to periodicals, including New Statesman, New Society, Nova, and London Times, Times Literary Supplement, London Evening Standard, and Independent.
Left, Right, and Centre (mystery novel), St. Martin's (New York, NY), 1986.
Out of Body, out of Mind (mystery novel), St. Martin's (New York, NY), 1987.
Tickling the Dragon, Jonathan Cape (London, England), 1995.
The Uncertainty Principle, Jonathan Cape (London, England), 1996.
Also author of detective novel The Gorgon's Smile.
WORK IN PROGRESS: A biography.
SIDELIGHTS: Ruth Brandon is a versatile freelance journalist and author who has published detective novels, literary fiction, social histories, and biographies. She began her career in radio and television, but found she preferred writing, and therefore moved into journalism. She stated on her home page, however, that she prefers to work on large projects: "I like the spaciousness of writing a book, the way one gets to live inside it." Brandon has proven her ability to write fiction, winning praise for her novels Tickling the Dragon and The Uncertainty Principle, yet she finds it most satisfying to work on biographies, particularly those that can provide insights into the larger issues of the historical eras in which her subjects lived. For example, her book Singer and the Sewing Machine: A Capitalist Romance explores the expectations, disappointments, and ambitions of nineteenth-century immigrants to America, as well as telling the life story of one of the inventors of the modern sewing machine.
Brandon's first novel takes on the weighty history of nuclear war. The title of Tickling the Dragon refers to physicists' slang for one of the delicate operations they had to perform while constructing the atomic bomb that eventually destroyed the Japanese city of Hiroshima. The book focuses on one physicist on the team, Zsygmond von Fischer, who is known as "Zigi" to his friends. The story opens with his memorial service, which reveals that he has become a prominent peace activist. The story then moves back in time to trace Zigi's life and his involvement with the bomb, using the device of Zigi's niece, a writer who is compelled to understand what motivated her uncle. Noting Brandon's association with biography and detective fiction, Mary Scott observed in New Statesman & Society: "What follows is an inspired mix of the two genres that throws new light on each, and on conventions of fictionality." Scott considered the narrative technique slightly flawed, but concluded: "The novel is still a bold and thoughtful analysis of how the pursuit of power corrupts the ability to be honest in relationships. It's ever so timely."
The Uncertainty Principle takes on the mystery of death. The central character, Helen, returns to her home in London to find that her husband, a biologist with controversial ideas, has died. She must then cope not only with his death but with the renewed memories of her daughter's death, which occurred years before. As she struggles with her grief, Helen comes to better understand her late husband's theories, which concerned parallel universes. These theories put him at odds with his colleagues and with Helen. Julie Wheelwright commented in a New Statesman review that the characters are "substantial enough to command attention," and concluded: "Brandon again proves herself as a writer with the depth and imagination to tackle both physical and spiritual realms without losing her grasp of the story."
In the realm of biography, Brandon sometimes writes about individuals, while in other cases she tackles entire groups of significant people. For example, Surreal Lives: The Surrealists, 1917–1945 discusses several key artists and writers within the surrealist movement, including Marcel Duchamp, Salvador Dali, Andre Breton, Man Ray, and Frances Picabia. Furthermore, Brandon seeks to show the ways in which surrealism's influence has reached beyond the visual arts and into all artistic media. She also contends that surrealism was not a bona fide artistic movement, but an outgrowth of the interconnected activities of these people. Booklist reviewer Veronica Scrol found that while there is little new information in the book, the author provides "a fresh read" of the facts with her vivid anecdotes about these artists. A Publishers Weekly reviewer observed that the book dwells on some of the more sensational details of the artists' lives, but nevertheless stated, "this account of the flawed and ambitious group of surrealists in enthralling."
Brandon examines the life of the world's most famous escape artist in the biography The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini. Beloved by his public, Houdini seemed to have a death wish, having himself repeatedly bound, handcuffed, and thrown into the sea or locked into a trunk. Besides being an efficient picker of locks, Houdini was also a consummate showman who would keep the audience in suspense even when he escaped with plenty of time to spare. Brandon analyzes what drove Houdini to repeatedly endanger his life, for although his escapes were not as magical as he made them seem, they nevertheless carried great risks. The author also seeks to sort out the truth from the many myths that swirl around the man, myths Houdini himself frequently started and encouraged. She reveals the tricks he used to make his great escapes work, yet even so, according to Booklist reviewer Donna Seaman, Houdini "still works his magic through the medium of Brandon's bold and magnetic interpretation." A Publishers Weekly reviewer recommended the book, saying that "Brandon draws the reader inexorably into the magical, slightly crazed world of the Great Houdini."
The life of the famous and flamboyant chef Alexis Soyer is examined in The People's Chef: The Culinary Revolutions of Alexis Soyer. Soyer started his career as a poor assistant cook in Paris, but rose to fame as the chef at the elite Reform Club in London during the mid-nineteenth century. Known not only for his fine cooking but also for his revolutionary ideas about nutrition, Soyer also rubbed elbows with such prominent figures as Florence Nightingale and William Makepeace Thackeray. Despite moving in such celebrated company, Soyer never forgot his own humble beginnings, and he did much to try to improve the lot of the poor, from developing nutritious recipes adapted to their circumstances, to designing efficient soup kitchens. Library Journal critic Courtney Greene credited Brandon with writing about her subject and his era "deftly, with subtle flashes of humor." A reviewer for Publishers Weekly commented that "Brandon engagingly depicts the flamboyant, self-made Soyer as a daring entrepreneur, brilliant inventor and compassionate philanthropist."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Atlantic Monthly, July, 1990, Phoebe-Lou Adams, review of The New Women and the Old Men: Love, Sex, and the Woman Question, p. 104.
Booklist, September 15, 1994, Donna Seaman, review of The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini, p. 96; August, 1999, Veronica Scrol, review of Surreal Lives: The Surrealists, 1917–1945, p. 2006; March 15, 2005, Mark Knoblauch, review of The People's Chef: The Culinary Revolutions of Alexis Soyer, p. 1254.
Entertainment Weekly, January 13, 1995, Rhonda Johnson, review of The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini, p. 57.
History Today, August, 2004, Michael Leech, review of The People's Chef, p. 56.
Kirkus Reviews, February 15, 2005, review of The People's Chef, p. 205.
Library Journal, May 1, 2005, Courtney Greene, review of The People's Chef, p. 110.
M2 Best Books, April 4, 2002, review of AutoMobile: How the Car Changed Life.
New Republic, October 10, 1983, Peter L. Berger, review of The Spiritualists: The Passion for the Occult in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, p. 38.
New Statesman, November 1, 1996, Julie Wheelwright, review of The Uncertainty Principle, p. 47; April 22, 2002, Edward Platt, review of AutoMobile: How the Car Changed Life, p. 52.
New Statesman & Society, October 15, 1993, Owen Dudley Edwards, review of The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini, p. 38; December 17, 1993, "Brief Lives," p. 66; August 18, 1995, Mary Scott, review of Tickling the Dragon, p. 31.
Publishers Weekly, June 8, 1990, Genevieve Stuttaford, review of The New Women and the Old Men, p. 40; August 8, 1994, review of The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini, p. 408; July 5, 1999, review of Surreal Lives, p. 47; March 7, 2005, review of The People's Chef, p. 60.
Spectator, April 6, 2002, Alan Judd, review of AutoMobile, p. 32; September 4, 2004, Elfreda Pownall, review of The People's Chef, p. 41.
Time, November 14, 1983, Stefan Kanfer, review of The Spiritualists, p. 104.
Ruth Brandon Home Page, http://www.ruthbrandon.co.uk (July 15, 2005).
Salon.com, http://www.salon.com/ (October 28, 1999), Lawrence Osborne, review of Surreal Lives.