A History of the Biographers’ Club, by Andrew Lownie, President
It all began in September 1997. As a literary agent specialising in biography, I had arranged several lunches at Elenas Etoile in Charlotte Street for my authors to meet film producers, publishers and journalists. It was an expensive business entertaining twenty to lunch but everyone thought it was a worthwhile networking exercise and said they would be prepared to pay their way. And so was born the Biographers’ Club.
It met first at Elenas Etoile, then the Sloane Club and another private club, The European Academy, at Hyde Park Corner before settling for many years at Veronicas, a Notting Hill restaurant specialising in historic British food run by an author of mine called Veronica Shaw. When she sold the restaurant, we tried a succession of restaurants and clubs the Savile Club was a favourite for a time and that has been the practice since.
We have had summer parties in the gardens of our members (such as Brenda Maddox and Princess Michael at Kensington Palace), annual dinners in Oxford and Cambridge colleges (with Jan Morris and Piers Brendon as speakers) and as a personal guest of the Marquess of Bath at Longleat and had a summer outing and personal tour of Boughton by committee member the Duchess of Buccleuch.
At one point, we were meeting once a month alternating dinners and lunches and large functions with more intimate gatherings of fewer than a dozen members. I remember, in particular, a fascinating discussions on royal biography with royal writers Kenneth Rose, Robert Lacey, Sarah Bradford, Philip Ziegler, Ben Pimlott, Andrew Morton and two former private secretaries to the Princess of Wales Oliver Everett and Patrick Jephson present.
Since 1997 we have had a wide variety of speakers: Michael Holroyd suggesting that biography was a spent force; Sally Cline on Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald; Michael Crick, the biographer of Jeffrey Archer and Rupert Murdoch, talking about the problems of writing on controversial figures; Hilary Spurling on the differences between French and British biography; Roy Jenkins discussing political biography as an author and political insider; Gillian Tindall and Alison Weir on the relationship between biography and fiction; Artemis Cooper on The Biography of Place; the doyen of ghostwriters, Andrew Crofts, on ghostwriting; the biographer of R.D. Laing on the strengths and weaknesses of psycho-biography; Ann Wroe, who has written lives of Pilate and Perkin Warbeck, on ‘Unknowable Lives’; Frances Osborne on writing about family members; David Twiston Davies, formerly Daily Telegraph obituaries editor, on writing obituaries; Lisa Chaney discussing her life of J.M. Barrie; spy writer Nigel West talking about the challenges of researching and publishing intelligence biographies; David Starkey on the importance of the early life in biography; Jane Ridley, who runs a course on biography at the University of Buckingham, on whether or not biography can be taught; Earl Spencer on the Spencer family and Althorp; Kate Williams on the Young Victoria in the very room at Kensington Palace where she was born and topics such as Biographers in Fiction’, libel, publicity and serial.
The aim has been to offer a broad range of talks and have a wide range of members from academic to popular biographers, agents, publishers, television producers, archivists in short, anyone with an interest in biography. Membership has been deliberately kept non-elitist and low to maintain the sense of a club but, after the tenth anniversary dinner when a committee was formed and the club became a charity, there was a push to recruit more members.
In 1999 I founded The Biographers Club Prize for the best uncommissioned proposal for a biography from a previously unpublished author. It is unique in being awarded to an author before their book is written but I felt, from my experiences as an agent, that the time many authors require funding is when preparing a proposal. The prize for £1,000, which I originally funded but was then sponsored by the Daily Mail and now by the Duchess of Buccleuch in memory of her mother, seems to have made an impact with almost all the winners securing book deals and one runner-up, Jessie Childs, winning the 2007 Elizabeth Longford Prize.
Two new annual prizes were launched in 2009: the prize for the best first biography, won by Roland Chambers in 2009 and Wendy Moffat in 2010 for their lives of Arthur Ransome and E.M. Forster, and a prize awarded to a person who has shown outstanding services to biography during their career given first to Sir Michael Holroyd and then Philip Ziegler. The website has been relaunched, more emphasis given to outreach and mentoring and linking with other organisations and I now sit on the committee of BIO, a worldwide organisation for biographers. These are exciting times for biography and the Biographers’ Club intends to continue to play a full role in helping shape that future.