While the love of a favourite author can sustain a reader’s interest through a more in-depth biography (for example, I wouldn’t give up my copy of Ian MacNiven’s 800-page monster on Lawrence Durrell for the world), it’s not really practical to read one of these for every author who takes your interest. You can get some information from Wikipedia but—potential inaccuracies aside—there’s only so much detail you can get from a web page (and you can’t read them in the bath, or on the beach). Enter the new Brief Lives, a series of bite-sized author biographies from Hesperus Press…Taking a leaf from the OUP’s Very Short Introductions, the Hesperus Brief Lives neatly fill the gap between Wikipedia entries and breeze block biographies. Following the Hesperus tradition of short, snappy reads, each volume comes in at just over a hundred pages. They’re written by academics, translators, and other specialists in their respective fields, and they provide a superb introduction to the writer, along with a context for their work. The first three titles deal with Charles Dickens, Anton Chekhov, and Oscar Wilde, with upcoming titles looking at Jane Austen and others. (I can’t tell you which others because the Hesperus website is being redesigned. But once that’s finished, you’ll find the information here. I expect there will be one on Virginia Woolf, as the Hesperus list these days occasionally resembles a partwork of her lesser-known writings…)
These launch titles are—and should be—a mixed bag: the Chekhov is simultaneously the most interesting of the three and the one most in need of editing; the Dickens is the most successful and polished; and Richard Canning’s contribution on Oscar Wilde mysteriously accuses previous biographer Richard Ellman of “a lack of subtlety in respect of homosexuality”, which doesn’t seem entirely inappropriate, given the subject. But each has its own merits, and is different enough from the others to make each book an interesting read, almost regardless of your level of interest in the author in question. They’re also attractive editions, but that goes without saying; they’re from Hesperus.