The Art of Biography: Exclusive Interview with Acclaimed Author John Stubbs

This is how history should be written.  John Stubbs, the young Oxbridge scholar who has numerous awards to his name for a pair of critically-acclaimed literary biographies, is a gift to history readers.    I have never heard of a historian who has been so widely and thoroughly praised for his first two books, in the US and UK, by such heavyweights as Harold Bloom and Peter Ackroyd, both of whom have dubbed him the next Harold Bloom and Peter Ackroyd.  He writes beautifully and richly, bringing readers to a foreign time and place in a way that few can.  Literary biography does not get any better than this.

Full disclosure: Stubbs is a dear friend of mine, so you’ll have to take my word when I say that my praise for his work is objective.  This is easier to take a reviewer’s word on when his sentiment reiterates what a long list of storied, renowned, and often sharp critics have already written (if I had not loved the books, I simply would have abstained from writing about them).  To say that Stubbs is critically-acclaimed is a gross understatement.

He has been sung to the Heavens in such a wide variety of publications, and by such a swath of critics and fellow historians (from Jonathan Bate to Andrew Motion), that one may be under the impression that they are all on his payroll.  But nothing of the sort: these critics are just as liable to sharpen their knives at the thought of such a young historian daring to enter their domain.  And yet Stubbs’ work has silenced any objective critics.

The subjects of his books certainly do run the risk of being handled in a dry manner.  His first book, written shortly after his doctorate, is John Donne: the Reformed Soul, a biography of the great preacher and poet.  His latest book, just out in the US, is Reprobates: Cavaliers of the English Civil War.  The former won the Royal Society of Literature/Jerwood Award as a work in progress, was a finalist for several other literary prizes, and won the Glen Dimplex/Irish Writers’ Centre New Writer of the Year Award in 2007.  His new book was a finalist of the BBC Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction, and was featured in the BBC Culture Show special on the finalists.  Other awards will surely follow, for unbelievably the new book was even more widely praised than the first.

John Donne: the Reformed Soul

John Stubbs

Penguin (2007)

Reprobates: Cavaliers of the English Civil War

John Stubbs

Viking (2010)

So what, precisely, makes his work so good?  Reprobates tells the story of a group of lesser-known soldiers who were also bon vivants, courtiers, and occasional poets during the English Civil War.  It does not feature a household name, like John Donne, nor for American readers does it paint a picture of a period that Americans know much about: the English Civil War.  We’ve heard of Oliver Cromwell, King Charles I, maybe a bit about Roundheads, but that’s about it.  It is therefore a particularly difficult task to convince non-English readers to go on a journey to a time and place that does not have an automatic hook to it.

By the same token, Stubbs makes this foreign time and place feel wonderfully new and exotic.  In 17th century England he might as well be discussing 6th century Persia, and yet we feel that we are there.  It’s not just the bullet point, skyline view of history that so many writers provide (and which is often just fine).  Stubbs provides both a macroscopic and microscopic view, zooming into the battlefields, to the cut of cloth on the sash of a sweat-drenched horseman, to the taste of the wine, the complex sociology of court life.  He evokes all the senses, not just a mass of names, of who-did-what-and-when.  That sort of history can be perfectly acceptable, easy to read, and to be fair most history books present some version of that.  But the best history books evoke a lost time and place populated by three-dimensional human characters.  Instead of providing a simple physical description of Charles I, along with a short list of two of three odd character traits that will allow the reader to slot him away, Stubbs goes to great lengths to make clear who Charles was, why he behaved the way he did, what he loved and why he loved it—in short developing truly vivid, human characters whom you’d recognize if they walked in the room, or spoke to you in darkness for long enough, because you begin to understand what makes them tick, inside and out.

There are few better writers at handling battles and the swash-buckling that one expects in true historical adventure stories, which is what both of his literary biographies really are.  From the abortive military campaigns in which John Donne participated to Charles I’s impetuous journey to woo the Spanish Infanta, in which he set off with only one bodyguard, incognito on horseback from England to Madrid, there is bite and energy to this history, an immediacy that is wonderful to read, dense with information and detail, and which provides a great exemplary lesson to aspiring writers of history (this author included).

Stubbs lives in Slovenia with his Slovene wife and children, and I had a chance to interview him exclusively for ArtInfo while there.  Stubbs also just went live with his website:

Q: How did you come to choose a group biography of cavalier poets?

To begin with I was simply interested in writing a book about the civil wars of the mid-seventeenth century, and the generation caught up in them. And the way to do that seemed to be to write a book of lives meeting and overlapping, because the civil war period involves so many different perspectives. If you write a big biography – Cromwell, Milton, Charles I – you get just one extremely strong point of view. If you write a general history, you lose individual voices. Then gradually I found that I was looking at a group or class of people, men mostly, who led rather disreputable but still privileged and influential lives from the 1620s onwards. These were the original cavaliers: the word was used at that time as a term of abuse for a dandified, decadent, gambling, play-going person, a prodigal son frittering away his father’s estate. The king’s enemies then took that word and started hurling it at defenders of the royal camp, as at term of abuse. But the the title and subtitle of the book refer to these first reprobates, these original cavaliers and their successors, that the book follows. These cavaliers were also, many of them, poets and writers, and thus superbly articulate witnesses of what happened at that time and the society it happened to.

Q: How did you find the process of researching and writing a group biography as opposed to a single person’s biography?

My experience so far is that you find the material determines the form the book takes. With the book I wrote on John Donne, devoted to a single figure, I found that the biography necessarily became a defence of the life, and it took on a form quite close to a humanist apology, even a Life of a Saint. The latter hagiographical aspect came through even more strongly perhaps because of the course Donne’s life took – from ‘sinner’ (in his own eyes) to patriarch, from erotic poet and satirist to Dean of St Paul’s, and as such one of the Church of England’s unofficial literary saints. Hence the title The Reformed Soul.

A similar principle took over with Reprobates. In trying to write about a group, a generation, even, the book became rather like one of the late medieval-style romances that the figures in the book enjoyed reading and parodying. That is to say, the book is structured by stories building up and then overlapping, as the lives and challenges of each ‘knight’ in the book cross over and complement one another. Such an approach might infuriate some orthodox intellectual historians who look for synthesis and categorisation, but I found that in illustrative, story-telling historical terms it allows you to put a lot in that would otherwise be lost by slightly more academic methods. And on entering a book about a period, and with an overall narrative such as those the civil wars involve, with so many varying perspectives, it’s right, I think, that you should get lost, find clarity in clearings before being plunged back into the forest, and then build your own system from what you read, make your own map of the maze.

The front cover of the book indicates the unifying factors. All the people inside are ‘reprobates’, not only those labelled disreputable or antisocial types. All thinking people at that time felt in some way the weight of the doctrine of ‘reprobation’ upon them: they sensed, that is to say, that God had earmarked a certain number for damnation, and there was no saying who would be among it. And all saw the civil wars as a mark of universal sinfulness, degeneracy: there was a sense in which the whole country had been ‘cavalier’ with its inheritance, and thus that label could not be confined to a faction. This produced guilt and blame which lasted generations.

Q: How did you choose the poet upon whom you largely focus?  What distinguished him from the others in your mind?

There isn’t exactly a leading man so much as a central double act – Sir William Davenant and Sir John Suckling. Both reached maturity – of a sort – in the 1630s, both displayed the sort of disreputable cavalier characteristics that so many found maddening, and both came to prominence as poets and dramatists. But to me they came to typify alternate reactions to the onset of civil war, and the seeming disintegration of the kingdom, in the early 1640s. Suckling was a playboy and a gambler who struggled to be everything the idea of the “Renaissance man” involved – which led him into outrageous and dastardly social machinations and an absurd sortie as a cavalry commander. Davenant, on the other hand, although he was also given to walking on the wild side – his nose was eaten away by a mercury-based cure for syphilis – displayed a more pragmatic attitude to catastrophe. He was the sort of person who, without getting too caught up in finer ethical points, manages to keep society operational during a crisis. He was a survivor in the sense that John Donne was – ‘reforming’ himself as circumstances dictated.

Q: Describe your research and writing process, if you would?

I just try to read and look up as much as I possibly can; and then turn it over and over in my head and then on the page until it makes some sort of sense. You go from trying to arrange epochs to worrying about commas. The research has to be pretty carefully planned and disciplined – the writing needs to internalise all that and be spontaneous and creative with it.

Q: You have had considerable success in a specialized field of literary biography.  Which other  literary biographers or historians do you most admire?

The biographers I admire would form a list of ‘usual suspects’ – writers such as Peter Ackroyd, Richard Holmes, Victoria Glendinning, Fiona McCarthy, Miranda Seymour, Jenny Uglow; more generally among historical and non-fiction writers I love Jan Morrison, Simon Schama and Simon Winchester. And then the civil war period has a genre all of its own. There are many books that are simply inescapable, from Clarendon’s contemporary history of the rebellion, through to John Adamson’s recent incredibly fine, day-by-day account of the outbreak of war, The Noble Revolt. The wars didn’t just leave a huge mark on English history; they are indelible in English literature and mythology. Each book and article or film about the wars makes an entry in that oeuvre and helps refresh the public sense of a period that is massively important to where we are as a modern society.

Q: Your book was selected as a finalist for the Samuel Johnson Award, run by the BBC.  What was the experience of being a finalist like?

It was tremendous – it was like being on Oscars for boffins: very exciting, a great honour, and a huge boost for the book. The most enjoyable thing was doing a short clip for the BBC Culture Show program about the award, working with John MacLaverty and his crew down in Kent. This was really educational. It was a great privilege to see firsthand the precision and craftsmanship that goes into making the good television we simply take for granted; which makes it all the more painful to hear of the cutbacks and redundancies being made now in British broadcasting.

Q: You won the Glen Dimplex Irish Writer’s Centre award and a Royal Society of Literature Jerwood award, and were a finalist for the Costa Biography, Guardian First Book, and Samuel Johnson Awards.  What does being a finalist and winning an award like this mean to you and does it effect what you write about, giving you more freedom as an author?

It means feeling very flattered, and also very grateful, because historical or biographical non-fiction reaches such a small readership, relatively. It’s very expensive to do, too, in terms of the time it takes and the costs the research brings, the nurture it requires: it’s like running a one-man panda sanctuary, not something that is completely practical in economic terms, but perhaps does have value as an endeavour in other terms. So awards bring essential patronage and publicity. I’m always a bit miffed when I hear people who claim to care about books saying, ‘oh, there are so many literary awards, they don’t mean anything’ – when in fact they do, since they help an awful lot of writers in non-bestselling genres keep going.

Q: Your biographies bring a period to life in a very rare way, touching on all of the senses.  So many fine biographies are merely lists of events with some description and commentary, whereas yours provide a truly cinematic, three-dimensional encounter with an exotic time and place.  Could you discuss how you create that effect?

You obviously need both kinds of work. The books that seem quite dry are often that way because the author’s priority was to get new evidence together and get the historical record straight. They aren’t seemingly so vivid because they were written, often over very long periods of time, by scholars whose goal and perhaps gift didn’t lie with being colourful, evocative or overly explanatory, because they saw their readers as being fellow specialists. R.C. Bald’s immense John Donne: A Life is a classic of this kind. But in order to keep a wider public in touch with literary and historical topics they might not otherwise know about or value, I think you really do need a second class of historians and biographers who do more to fill in background and flesh out context. Some people, though, rank high in both tribes. The writers I mentioned above are all superb scholars but also set a very high standard in this second dimension.

I belong to the second camp, and I think of it as being more like an illustrator. In talking about Donne’s poems, or the poems by some of these cavaliers, I don’t think for a second that I’m fixing or exhausting their meaning; rather my aim is to situate them, draw a picture to accompany them, or give the reader a frame through which to see them. Elsewhere I just try to give an idea of what things looked and felt like at the time. There’s no great mystery about it. It just means using aspects of the sources that a more academic kind of writing doesn’t put in, because there isn’t space or because the writer assumes that fellow researchers who know the sources already will supply that sort of detail for themselves.

Q: If you were to choose a topic for a future book completely on your own, regardless of “saleability,” and it would be published straight away, what might you choose?

I would write a history of Plympton, the little town outside Plymouth where I grew up and went to school. It would be about how a place sinks into time, a river silting up, a medieval town becoming a postmodern suburb.

Q: Oxford or Cambridge?  You’ve sampled both, but is one the winner in your mind?

I was an undergraduate at Oxford, and it was a crucible experience; and then I met my wife at Cambridge, so both cities are very important to me in personal terms. Both are incredible places for discovering how much your mind can do – and how little, too, in terms of what others are doing. They show you the variety and frightening depth of intellectual pursuits; but also bring you to appreciate the non-academic things that make you who you are.

Thank you for your time, John.

Thanks very much.  My great pleasure.

Noah Charney is a best-selling author of fiction and non-fiction and a professor of art history specializing in the history of art crime.  He also writes a regular column for ArtInfo called “The Secret History of Art.”  His latest book is The Thefts of the Mona Lisa, profits from which support charity.

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