Gordon, Lyndall 1941-

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Gordon, Lyndall 1941-
(Lyndall Felicity Gordon)


Born November 4, 1941, in Cape Town, South Africa; daughter of Harry Louis (a lawyer and sports commentator) and Rhoda (a poet and teacher) Getz; married Simon Gordon (a professor of cell biology), April 7, 1963; children: Anna, Olivia. Education: University of Cape Town, B.A. (honors), 1963; Columbia University, Ph.D., 1973. Politics: Pacifist.


Home—Oxford, England. Agent—Georges Borchardt, 136 E. 57th St., New York, NY, 10022. E-mail—[email protected]


Educator and writer. Columbia University, New York, NY, assistant professor of English, 1975-76; Jesus College, Oxford, England, lecturer in English, 1977-84; St. Hilda's College, Oxford, tutor in English, 1984-95; senior research fellow, 1995—.


Royal Society of Literature (fellow), PEN.


Rhodes fellow; Rose Mary Crawshay Prize, British Academy, 1978, for Eliot's Early Years; James Tait Black Prize for biography, 1985, for Virginia Woolf: A Writer's Life; Southern Arts prize, 1989, for Eliot's New Life; Cheltenham Festival Prize for Charlotte Brontë: A Passionate Life; T.S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life was chosen by the New York Public Library as one of "25 Books to Remember from 1999;" Vindication was selected by the New York Times as one of "100 Best Books of 2005," by the New York Public Library as one of its "Books of the Year," and it was longlisted for the Samuel Johnson prize.



Eliot's Early Years (also see below), Oxford University Press (London, England), 1977, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1988.

Virginia Woolf: A Writer's Life, Norton (New York, NY), 1984, reprinted, 2001.

Eliot's New Life (also see below), Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1988.

Charlotte Brontë: A Passionate Life, Chatto (London, England), 1994, W.W. Norton (New York, NY), 1995.

A Private Life of Henry James: Two Women and His Art, Chatto (London, England), 1998, W.W. Norton (New York, NY), 1999.

T.S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life (revised and updated edition of Eliot's Early Years and Eliot's New Life), Vintage (London, England), 1998, W.W. Norton (New York, NY), 1999.

Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2005.


Shared Lives (memoir), W.W. Norton (New York, NY), 1992, reprinted, Virgo, 2005.


Lyndall Gordon is widely known for her biographies of literary figures. In 1977 she published Eliot's Early Years, an account of poet T.S. Eliot's life from birth to his late thirties, when he converted to Anglo-Catholicism. Included in this volume are accounts of Eliot's schooldays in Boston; his friendships with fellow writers such as Ezra Pound and Virginia Woolf; and his disastrous first marriage, which culminated in Eliot's mental breakdown, after which he left his wife, Vivienne Haigh-Wood, who was herself emotionally unstable. Also featured in Eliot's Early Years are analyses of some of Eliot's greatest poems, notably "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" and "The Waste Land." Edward Herscher, writing in the Washington Post Book World, noted that "Gordon's discussion of the composition of [‘The Waste Land’] is of great interest to both the general reader and the scholar."

Herscher was among the many champions of Eliot's Early Years, which he found both "a compelling account of the struggle of a young poet to come to terms with himself … [and] a very suggestive interpretation of Eliot's poetry." He also lauded Gordon as "a scrupulous, sensitive and intelligent interpreter of Eliot's life and work." Another critic, Doris Grumbach, wrote in the New York Times Book Review of Gordon's "model of lucid and graceful criticism," while Christopher Butler, in his Times Literary Supplement review, acknowledged that Gordon's book provides "often original interpretations." In 1988, Gordon published Eliot's New Life, a sequel to Eliot's Early Years. In the second volume, she chronicles the poet's life in Britain, where he enjoyed widespread renown as the English language's greatest poet since William Butler Yeats.

In 1999, these two volumes on Eliot were revised and combined to create T.S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life. Booklist contributor Bryce Christensen assured readers that T.S. Eliot is more than a "mere abridgement or revision" of Gordon's earlier biographies, but a work that "offers a wealth of new material and fresh insights." Gordon used a great deal of material that was unavailable during the writing of her first two books, which "provided interesting new details and anecdotes and enabled Ms. Gordon to bring out more clearly the dynamics of some of Eliot's friendships," according to a reviewer for the Economist. The reviewer explained that Gordon views Eliot's career as "a lifelong journey towards spiritual salvation," and noted that the author "deftly narrates Eliot's life in a way that supports her own thesis. Though the canvas is narrow, the picture Ms. Gordon presents of Eliot is bold, consistent and in many respects perfectly convincing." A Publishers Weekly contributor wrote: "Gordon's book is the most authoritative life of Eliot thus far, and is certain to spark new controversies."

Gordon is also author of Virginia Woolf: A Writer's Life. In this biography, Gordon draws upon Woolf's unfinished memoirs, unpublished works, and little-known pieces to explore Woolf's literary accomplishments. "Gordon has a fine, critical gift for describing narrative patterns," commented Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times, "an easy familiarity with the social and cultural forces that shaped the modernist movement, and a talent for discerning the private self that lies beneath a writer's public poses." Gordon studies unrecorded events that "mark the significant moments" in Woolf's life, according to Carolyn Heilbrun in the New York Times Book Review. Gordon "has given us a ‘writer's life’ that is measured, and brave in its imaginative interpretations." Enthusiasts of Virginia Woolf included Hermione Lee, who observed in the Times Literary Supplement that Virginia Woolf is a "sensitive and original" work; and a Washington Post Book World reviewer, who affirmed that "by approaching Woolf's life through her work, and especially her fiction, the book contributes fresh insights."

Gordon took on another literary giant with her biography A Private Life of Henry James: Two Women and His Art. This book focused on two of the most important women in James's life: his vivacious cousin, Minny Temple, and Constance Fenimore Woolson, a fellow writer whom James met while living in Europe. Neither relationship was romantic, says Gordon, who suggests that James was a passionate celibate. Yet each was vital to his life, especially his life as a writer. Minny, who died an early death from tuberculosis, served as the model for many of his characters, including Daisy Miller and Isabel Archer. Constance (or ‘Fenimore,’ as James called her) inspired his imagination with her own work, which was at that time more successful than his own. A contributor to the Economist stated that Gordon "shows how [James] made ruthless use of both [Minny and Fenimore] as artistic fodder. But she also lays bare his private self, revealing a James who is more vulnerable and more emotionally engaged than we would ever have suspected."

In addition to her literary biographies, Gordon wrote Shared Lives, a memoir that includes renderings of her longtime friendships dating from her childhood in South Africa. Notable here are her portraits of three women friends who died young. But Gordon also writes about her marriage; her teaching career, including her stint at Columbia University, where she encountered sexism; and her literary endeavors. Nora Sayre, writing in the New York Times Book Review, proclaimed Shared Lives a "rich, moving and witty book."

Gordon told CA: "I see [ Shared Lives] as an ambitious book about the gaps in women's lives—how little we know even about women of the immediate past. It's also an exploration of women's friendship."

In the biography Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft, Gordon explores the life of the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Published in 1792, Wollstonecraft's book predated modern women's rights activists by denouncing marriage as only one of many societal conventions designed to keep women in their roles as second-class citizens. Gordon recounts the many vicissitudes of Wollstonecraft's largely tumultuous life, including her attempts at suicide due to a love affair with the American artist Gilbert Imlay that produced a daughter out of wedlock, her bouts of melancholia, and her struggles with money throughout her life. Wollstonecraft died at the age of thirty-eight after giving birth to her second daughter, Mary Shelly, who would go on to become the author of Frankenstein and also have her own tumultuous love life.

Commenting on Vindication in the Weekly Standard, Charlotte Allen wrote: "Lyndall Gordon … tries to do something different, to synthesize the two Mary Wollstonecrafts: the politically radical, defiantly independent Mary who disdained marriage and social convention, and the emotionally needy Mary who wrote frantic daily letters to Imlay and held herself out as his wife." Allen also noted that Gordon "writes with grace and passion and has (as her copious endnotes show) exhaustively researched the primary and secondary sources relating to Wollstonecraft." In her review of the book in Biography, Kelly Vos noted that the author "provides a finely balanced view" of her subject. A Reference & Research Book News contributor commented that Gordon "goes beneath and beyond the obvious."



Gordon, Lyndall, Shared Lives, W.W. Norton (New York, NY), 1992.


America, February 19, 2000, review of T.S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life, p. 25.

Biography, fall, 2005, Jo-Ann du Plessis and Kelly Vos, review of Mary Wollstonecraft: A New Genus, p. 730.

Booklist, July, 1992, Hazel Rochman, review of Shared Lives, p. 1914; January 15, 1995, Donna Seaman, review of Charlotte Brontë: A Passionate Life, p. 890; March 15, 1999, review of A Private Life of Henry James: Two Women and His Art, p. 1284; July, 1999, Bryce Christensen, review of T.S. Eliot, p. 1917.

Books & Culture, November, 2000, Jewel Spears Booker, review of T.S. Eliot, p. 34.

Economist, January 5, 1985, review of Virginia Woolf: A Writer's Life, p. 72; October 1, 1988, review of Eliot's New Life, p. 99; December 12, 1998, "Literary Biography: Understanding Henry," p. 6.

Library Journal, February 15, 1985, Keith Cushman, review of Virginia Woolf, p. 169; September 1, 1988, Daniel L. Guillory, review of Eliot's New Life, p. 168; May 1, 1992, Ellen Finnie Duranceau, review of Shared Lives, p. 90; July, 1999, Denise J. Stankovics, review of T.S. Eliot, p. 89.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 3, 1985, Slocom Susan Hinerfield, review of Virginia Woolf, pp. 3, 6.

National Review, November 7, 1988, James W. Tuttleton, review of Eliot's New Life, p. 65.

New Leader, January 14, 1985, Phoebe Pettingell, "Woolf and Plath Revised," p. 12.

New Republic, December 12, 1988, Donald Davie, review of Eliot's New Life, pp. 28-32.

New Statesman & Society, September 30, 1988, Sean French, review of Eliot's New Life, p. 41; March 11, 1994, Jan Marsh, review of Charlotte Brontë, p. 39.

New Yorker, March 6, 1995, review of Charlotte Brontë, p. 126.

New York Review of Books, November 10, 1988, Robert M. Adams, review of Eliot's New Life, p. 3; November 2, 1995, Millicent Bell, review of Charlotte Brontë, p. 24.

New York Times, January 16, 1985, Michiko Kakutani, review of Virginia Woolf.

New York Times Book Review, July 17, 1977, Doris Grumbach, review of Eliot's Early Years, p. 18; February 10, 1985, Carolyn Heilbrun, review of Virginia Woolf, p. 12; November 23, 1986, Patricia T. O'Conner, review of Virginia Woolf, p. 42; October 16, 1988, Dennis Donoghue, review of Eliot's New Life, p. 1; October 4, 1992, Nora Sayre, review of Shared Lives, p. 16; January 22, 1995, N. John Hall, review of Charlotte Brontë, p. 9; May 16, 1999, review of A Private Life of Henry James, p. 10; September 12, 1999, Sarah Harrison Smith, review of T.S. Eliot, p. 26.

Philadelphia Magazine, July, 1985, Constance Adler, review of Virginia Woolf, p. 161.

Publishers Weekly, July 22, 1977, Genevieve Stuttaford, review of Eliot's New Life, p. 47; January 4, 1985, review of Virginia Woolf, p. 64; April 20, 1992, review of Shared Lives, p. 46; November 21, 1994, review of Charlotte Brontë, p. 60; March 1, 1999, review of A Private Life of Henry James, p. 51; July 5, 1999, review of T.S. Eliot, p. 51.

Reference & Research Book News, August, 2005, review of Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft, p. 266.

School Library Journal, August, 1995, Susan H. Woodcock, review of Charlotte Brontë, p. 172.

Times Literary Supplement, October 28, 1977, Christopher Butler, review of Eliot's Early Years, p. 1271; December 21, 1984, Hermione Lee, review of Virginia Woolf, p. 1480.

U.S. News and World Report, October 3, 1988, Alvin P. Sanoff, interview with Lyndall Gordon, p. 99.

Washington Post Book World, September 4, 1977, Edward Herscher, review of Eliot's Early Years, p. 3; February 10, 1985, review of Virginia Woolf, p. 7.

Weekly Standard, May 16, 2005, Charlotte Allen, review of Vindication, p. 31.


Lyndall Gordon Home Page,http://www.lyndallgordon.net (May 23, 2006).

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