Glendinning, Victoria 1937- (Victoria Seebohm)
Glendinning, Victoria 1937- (Victoria Seebohm)
Born April 23, 1937, in Sheffield, Yorkshire, England; daughter of Frederic (a banker) and Evangeline Seebohm; married Oliver Nigel Valentine Glendinning (a professor), 1958 (marriage ended, 1981); married Terence de Vere White (a writer), 1982 (died, 1994); married Kevin O'Sullivan (a consulting engineer), 1996; children: (first marriage) Paul, Hugo, Matthew, Simon. Education: Somerville College, Oxford, B.A., 1959; Southampton University, diploma in social administration, 1969. Hobbies and other interests: Gardening, walking.
Home—Somerset, England. Agent—David Higham Associates, 5-8 Lower John St., Golden Square, London W1R 4HA, England.
Part-time teacher in Southampton, England, 1960-69; part-time psychiatric social work in Southampton and in Dublin, Ireland, 1970-73; Times Literary Supplement, London, England, editorial assistant, 1974-78.
PEN (former president), Society of Authors, National Union of Journalists, Royal Society of Literature (vice president), Academy Club.
James Tait Black Prize and Duff Cooper Literary Award, both 1981, both for Edith Sitwell: A Unicorn among Lions; Whitbread Award for biography, 1984, for Vita: The Life of V. Sackville-West, and 1993, for Trollope; D.Litt. from Southampton University, 1994, University of Ulster, 1995, University of Dublin, 1995, and University of York; Commander of the British Empire, 1998.
A Suppressed Cry: Life and Death of a Quaker Daughter, Routledge & Kegan Paul (London, England), 1969, revised edition, Virago (New York, NY), 1995.
Edith Sitwell: A Unicorn among Lions, Knopf (New York, NY), 1981.
Vita: The Life of V. Sackville-West, Knopf (New York, NY), 1983.
Rebecca West: A Life, Knopf (New York, NY), 1987.
Trollope, Hutchinson (London, England), 1992, published as Anthony Trollope, Knopf (New York, NY), 1993.
Leonard Woolf: A Biography, Simon & Schuster (London, England), 2006.
The Grown-Ups, Hutchinson (London, England), 1989, Knopf (New York, NY), 1990.
Electricity, Hutchinson (London, England), 1995.
Flight, Simon & Schuster (London, England), 2002.
(Editor, with son, Matthew Glendinning) Sons & Mothers, Virago (New York, NY), 1996.
Also author of Hertfordshire, 1989. Author of introductions to numerous books; contributor to periodicals, including Times Literary Supplement, New Statesman, Irish Times, London Observer, London Times, Washington Post, and New York Times.
Electricity has been read as a serial on BBC radio, adapted as a radioplay broadcast in 1997 on BBC radio, and optioned for adaptation as a film.
Victoria Glendinning is a British biographer esteemed for her accomplished profiles of literary figures, especially women. Elizabeth Bowen, author of numerous novels, short stories, essays, and travel books, is one of the biographer's earliest subjects. Though never very fashionable in the United States, Bowen has been ranked by some critics alongside such authors as Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster, and Evelyn Waugh. According to Time reviewer Paul Gray, Glendinning "argues passionately that Bowen is important, not only for her writings but also for her timing." In the biographer's estimation, reported Gray, "Bowen was destined to be the last of the Anglo-Irish writers."
Bowen grew up in County Cork, Ireland, at Bowen's Court, the family home since the mid-seventeenth century. In her youth she suffered her mother's death and father's mental illness, then she married early and turned to writing, often focusing on relationships or emotional crises. Eventually becoming well-known in literary circles, Bowen taught in the States and in England; she also conducted a literary salon in London, made acquaintance with members of the Bloomsbury group, and became a popular hostess. Critiquing for Saturday Review, Lynne Sharon Schwartz praised Glendinning's Elizabeth Bowen: Portrait of a Writer as a "lively and sympathetic study link[ing] Bowen's childhood preoccupations with the major themes of her novels." Approval also came from Francis Wyndham in the Times Literary Supplement, who admired the biographer's "novelist's flair" and ability to go "beyond the artful assemblage of available material to construct a complex character and to hint at its essence."
After completing the Bowen biography, Glendinning turned her attention to Edith Sitwell. An English prose writer, experimental poet, and eccentric who died in 1964, Sitwell held a fluctuating literary reputation. Her life story, however, has always commanded attention. Often regarded as a self-made celebrity, Sitwell presented a forbidding appearance to the world: six feet tall, bony and angular, with a long, "glorious" nose, Sitwell's figure was wholly unfashionable for her time. Daring to adorn herself with clothes befitting her stature—mantled gowns, headdresses, and magnificent jewels—the author is said to have cut a regal, gothic figure admired by both the public and her literary peers: apparently Gertrude Stein described her as "a grenadier," Elizabeth Bowen compared her to "a high altar on the move," and Virginia Woolf likened her to the Emperor Heliogabalus. Reviewing Edith Sitwell: A Unicorn among Lions for Time, Melvin Maddocks speculated that "the Sitwell mystique centered on her extraordinary physical presence" but added that Glendinning "whole-heartedly … convince[s] her reader that the Sitwell persona could never have been created unless Edith deeply and passionately cared about poetry."
Glendinning's book fared well with the critics. It was commended by Alan Pryce-Jones in the New York Review of Books for being "perceptive about Edith's virtues: her generosity … her kindliness … her consideration … the inner humility which lay beneath a nervous aggressiveness." In the New York Times Book Review, Michael Holroyd professed that Glendinning "writes from love and has produced a … sophisticated and penetrating work [that] orchestrates Edith Sitwell's notoriety, chronicles the rows, revenges and ripostes by which she came to afflict the public."
The biography is notable, as well, for contending Edith and her literary brothers, Osbert and Sacheverell, staged media events largely to keep their work in the public eye. Indeed, Glendinning counters critic F.R. Leavis's famous 1932 assertion that "the Sitwells belong to the history of poetry and the history of publicity." Evaluating for the Washington Post Book World, Nigel Nicholson estimated that this declaration, coupled with Glendinning's belief that Sitwell's twelve best poems give her "an unquestioned, uncategorized place on anyone's Parnassus," has the biographer ascribing Sitwell "a more dignified place in English life and letters than her reputation for spikiness and conceit has generally allowed her."
Glendinning's next work, Vita: The Life of V. Sackville-West, focuses on another literary maverick. Better known for her unconventional marriage and sexual liaisons with women than for her work as novelist, poet, and critic, Sackville-West, according to Glendinning, is best understood in the context of "an adventure story." Vita "was rather less of an achiever than she in fact appeared or would have liked to think herself," related Fiona MacCarthy in another review for the London Times. The critic added: "This central irony, faced squarely and with sympathy, gives Victoria Glendinning's book its great pathos and its strength."
"One reads this biography at once fascinated and appalled," remarked Michiko Kakutani, critiquing for the New York Times. According to Kakutani, Vita—spoiled, willful, and determined to get what she wanted, including a romance with novelist Virginia Woolf—left her life well documented, particularly through journals and letters to her husband. With a wealth of information upon which to draw, Glendinning has rendered comments both "shrewd and percipient," reported a reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement. In his review for the Washington Post Book World, Leon Edel judged that Glendinning "substantially enlarges [Vita's] legend and provides us with names, dates, passions, recriminations and griefs … of Vita's lesbian loves, an outpouring of faded intrigues and stale perfumes of yesteryear. The biography is briskly and professionally … written and is a mine of Edwardian and Georgian gossip."
Glendinning also has written a life of author and feminist Rebecca West. While in her twenties, West distinguished herself as a social and literary critic, then proceeded to become a celebrated journalist as well as a novelist. Although many critics believe that her work has too long been overshadowed by her notoriety as the bearer of H.G. Wells's illegitimate son, Anthony, West is redeemed in Glendinning's biography. As Elaine Kendall noted in the Los Angeles Times Book Review: "Glendinning manages to rehabilitate Rebecca West's image in a work that succeeds both as a model of cool objectivity and as a capsule history of modern woman from 1892 to 1983, with West always in the vanguard of change." In critic Dennis Drabelle's opinion, expressed in the Washington Post Book World, the book "evinces a rapport between biographer and subject that sets it above the others." Drabelle added: "As captured in this balanced, stylish biography, Rebecca West seems not only ‘the most interesting woman of this century in England’ but also the most vital."
In her next biography, Glendinning examines the life of Anthony Trollope, the popular British novelist noted for his keen insight into Victorian mores and the interior world of domestic life. Published soon after two other Trollope biographies, Glendinning's book was generally well-received, with commentators praising Glendinning for her thorough examination of Trollope's works for details about the author himself and for her re-creation of a lost era. Glendinning portrays Trollope as an abused and neglected child, who upon adulthood settled into what he expected would be a lifelong dedication to public service in the post office. But his accomplishments as a civil servant fueled a growing self-confidence that propelled him toward the completion of his first novel.
John Gross wrote in the New York Review of Books that "one of the book's great strengths is its weaving together of personal detail and social history." Writing for the New York Times Book Review, James R. Kincaid found the work "rich" and "sweet," and lauded Glendinning for her vivid portrait of a remote subject. Noting differences between Glendinning's work and that of other Trollope biographers, Kincaid commented that Glendinning's biography offers "a far more detailed and insistent image of Trollope's wife and family, the dark subtleties of his domestic life and his sustaining fantasies. Ms. Glendinning's Trollope is less bluff and boisterous than any we have seen, more unsettled, depressed and courageously dogged."
The work also appears to recast Trollope's image as a predictable novelist and "archetype of the beef-eating, fox-chasing, no nonsense male," remarked Andrew Motion of the London Observer. Instead, Motion argued, Glendinning places "[Trollope] at the centre of a large and complex family, emphasizing his sympathy with women, defining the way the book explores the balance of power between the sexes, and generally turning a red-faced old fogey into a surprisingly supple thinker."
To Bryan Cheyette of the New Statesman, Glendinning's portrait is still not convincing. "Trollope, as both civil servant and writer, attempted to locate himself at the centre of a nostalgic Englishness," Cheyette observed, one that the reviewer considers to be rife with racist, sexist, and anti-Semitic attitudes. "But [Glendinning's] gushing enthusiasm makes it impossible for her to question the narrowness of Trollope's Little Englandism."
Glendinning took on another British institution in her next biography, the great satirist Jonathan Swift. Known for his sharp wit and for the many contradictions in his personal and professional realms, Swift provided substantial fodder for anyone chronicling his life. A cleric of the Anglican church who seemed to prefer coffeehouses to churches, he hoped for a favored spot in the hierarchy; but his abrasive personality led to his being assigned vicar of St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin. He detested Ireland, though he had been born there, but he showed a deep compassion for the plight of the common Irish people, who were terribly exploited by their British rulers. His sympathy is shown clearly in the disturbing, yet humorous essay in which he proposes that the "problem" of Irish overpopulation might be neatly solved by feeding Irish babies to the English.
In his personal life, Swift was also a man of paradox. He carried on a chaste relationship for many years with a woman named Stella, who was, in Glendinning's view, certainly the love of Swift's life. He may have even secretly married her, and she may have been his illegitimate half-sister. Despite his profound love for Stella, he also had a passionate liaison with a woman he called Vanessa, who was probably not satisfied with a nonphysical relationship. The details of Swift's unusual loves are examined by Glendinning, but with a restraint that several reviewers find refreshing. Phoebe-Lou Adams wrote in Atlantic Monthly: "A biographer who can resist the opportunity for elaborate sexual guesswork should be much admired." A Publishers Weekly reviewer credited Glendinning with capturing Swift's "witty, cantankerous personality and his lifelong frustrations," and Library Journal contributor Morris Hounion noted that after reading the book, "we may not like Swift, [but] we do respect his mind and character." "Swift was no saint," mused Diarmaid O'Muirithe in World of Hibernia, "and in this splendid biography, Victoria Glendinning has shed light on every aspect of his turbulent life." O'Muirithe concluded: "This biography is surely the greatest tribute ever paid him."
In Leonard Woolf: A Biography, Glendinning separates the writer from his wife, Virginia Woolf, noting his accomplishments in their own right. Woolf lived through two world wars, but he was against war. He was a socialist whose goal was to encourage international cooperation, a passionate man who never quite fit in but who was close to his friends in the Bloomsbury set. Woolf was very fond of gardening, children, animals, and women, for both their minds and their looks. He loved Virginia, with whom he founded the Hogarth Press, and her suicide devastated him, but Glendinning, like other writers before her, feels that the marriage was never consummated. He was devoted to her, however, looking over the household and his wife in her diminish- ing mental capacity. After his wife's death, Woolf had a close friendship with Trekkie Parsons, the wife of Ian Parsons, of Chatto & Windus, and he later turned the Hogarth Press over to that publishing house. He oversaw his wife's estate and papers and enjoyed his final years, in spite of the fact that his life was fraught with tragedy. Two siblings and a sister-in-law had committed suicide, and another sister was mentally ill. During the last decade of his life, Woolf wrote five volumes of autobiography. Booklist contributor Bryce Christensen concluded his review by calling Leonard Woolf "a satisfying portrait of a neglected figure."
In addition to her biographies, Glendinning has also written several novels. Her first, The Grown-Ups, features a pompous, egocentric author named Leo Ulm and the loving women whom he mistreats. To Jan Dalley of the London Observer, the story is "a good old-fashioned tale of the sex war—the men impossibly vain, the women infuriatingly masochistic—and of marriage." Donna Rifkind argued in her review for the Wall Street Journal that the story of women flocking to an abusive man would be more believable if Glendinning had "worked a little harder developing Leo's character." Joyce Slater commented in the Chicago Tribune that The Grown-Ups is "witty and insightful" but that one reads it "with a mixture of fascination and revulsion."
Electricity, Glendinning's second novel, is set in nineteenth-century Victorian England and focuses on Charlotte Mortimer, who is ambitious and willful, yet constrained by an era of limited opportunities for women. To escape a wretched family life, Charlotte marries Peter, one of the country's first electrical engineers and a symbol of the promises and disappointments of a new age. After Peter is accidentally electrocuted, Charlotte supports herself by offering spiritual advice, but she is ruined by accusations that she is a charlatan. At the story's conclusion, Charlotte is left with the choice of marrying one of two suitors or pursuing independence. Nicola Humble noted in the Times Literary Supplement that "it is a mark of the book's emotional and conceptual complexity that we have no idea which of the three she will select."
Kathryn Harrison, writing for the New York Times Book Review, found Glendinning's manipulation of the past uneven. "Sometimes Electricity is so graceful that we never question it; at other times … it loses that fine balance." Jan Marsh of the New Statesman argued that the lack of credibility lies "not in the unlikely happenings but the novel's conventional chronology." Yet Nancy Pearl, a reviewer for Booklist, declared that "the contradictions and dark corners of late-Victorian Britain are illuminated in [Electricity]…. Glendinning's historical and biographical skills … are clearly shown in her sure-handed evocation of a period when scientific discoveries by men such as Darwin and Faraday challenged fundamental British beliefs and behaviors."
The protagonist of Flight is Martagon Foley, a globe-trotting engineer who specializes in building with glass. While working as a consultant on an airport project in Provence, he becomes involved with Marina de Cabrieres, whose family estate will be remodeled to become the airport hotel. While Marina is away, Martagon finds himself drawn to the sister of a colleague. A Publishers Weekly reviewer wrote that in Glendinning's "capable hands, the love story once again displays its perennial vitality, but with a contemporary twist that provides a shattering finale."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 50, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1988.
Atlantic Monthly, June, 1999, Phoebe-Lou Adams, review of Jonathan Swift, p. 137.
Booklist, August 19, 1995, Nancy Pearl, review of Electricity, p. 1930; May 15, 2003, Mary Ellen Quinn, review of Flight, p. 1643; October 1, 2006, Bryce Christensen, review of Leonard Woolf: A Biography, p. 18.
Chicago Tribune, January 28, 1990, Joyce Slater, review of The Grown-Ups, p. 6.
Economist, September 16, 2006, review of Leonard Woolf, p. 94.
Financial Times, October 14, 2006, Claudia Fitzherbert, review of Leonard Woolf, p. 29.
Guardian (Manchester, England), September 16, 2006, review of Leonard Woolf.
Kirkus Reviews, September 15, 2006, review of Leonard Woolf, p. 938.
Library Journal, March 15, 1999, Morris Hounion, review of Jonathan Swift, p. 78; May 15, 2003, Caroline Hallsworth, review of Flight, p. 123; November 15, 2006, Alison M. Lewis, review of Leonard Woolf, p. 72.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 11, 1987, Elaine Kendall, review of Rebecca West: A Life.
New Statesman, September 4, 1992, Bryan Cheyette, review of Trollope, p. 41; April 14, 1995, Jan Marsh, review of Electricity, p. 41; September 18, 2006, Julia Briggs, review of Leonard Woolf, p. 63.
New York Review of Books, December 17, 1981, Alany Pryce-Jones, review of Edith Sitwell: A Unicorn among Lions, p. 62; April 8, 1993, John Gross, review of Anthony Trollope, p. 9.
New York Times, November 1, 1983, Michiko Kakutani, review of Vita: The Life of V. Sackville-West.
New York Times Book Review, June 14, 1981, Michael Holroyd, review of Edith Sitwell, p. 11; January 31, 1993, James R. Kincaid, review of Anthony Trollope, pp. 1, 23-24; October 22, 1995, Kathryn Harrison, review of Electricity, p. 15; August 17, 2003, Janice P. Nimura, review of Flight, p. 16; December 10, 2006, Claire Messud, review of Leonard Woolf, p. 16.
Observer (London, England), March 19, 1989, Jan Dalley, review of The Grown-Ups, p. 48; August 30, 1992, Andrew Motion, review of Trollope, p. 50.
Publishers Weekly, April 26, 1999, review of Jonathan Swift, p. 63; June 9, 2003, review of Flight, p. 35; September 11, 2006, review of Leonard Woolf, p. 46.
Saturday Review, January 21, 1978, Lynne Sharon Shwartz, review of Elizabeth Bowen.
Spectator, October 7, 2006, Hugh Cecil, review of Leonard Woolf.
Time, January 16, 1978, Paul Gray, review of Elizabeth Bowen; June 5, 1981, Melvin Maddocks, review of Edith Sitwell, p. 78.
Times (London, England), September 29, 1983, Fiona MacCarthy, review of Vita.
Times Literary Supplement, October 7, 1977, Francis Wyndham, review of Elizabeth Bowen: Portrait of a Writer; September 30, 1983, review of Vita; April 7, 1995, Nicola Humble, review of Electricity, p. 24.
Wall Street Journal, January 30, 1990, Donna Rifkind, review of The Grown-Ups.
Washington Post Book World, June 7, 1981, Nigel Nicholson, review of Edith Sitwell; November 27, 1983, Leon Edel, review of Vita; October 4, 1987, Dennis Drabelle, review of Rebecca West.
World of Hibernia, winter, 1998, Diarmaid O'Muirithe, review of Jonathan Swift, p. 137.
David Higham Associates Web site,http://www.davidhigham.co.uk/ (January 25, 2007), brief biography.