There is nothing quite as inspiring or as humbling for an ordinary, run-of-the-mill writer such as myself, than to read a biography of a truly accomplished and successful author. I am working my way through two such books just now – Samuel Johnson, A Life by David Nokes and Ngaio Marsh, A Life by Margaret Lewis. I have to say right up front that, although both authors have been known to me for most of my lifetime, as far as I can remember I have read nothing by either of them.
In the case of Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), I might be forgiven. Even though he was a poet, essayist, moralist, literary critic, biographer, editor and lexicographer, his writing style is a bit dated and his subjects are not something the modern woman just picks up for light reading. Still, I feel that if I were truly an ‘educated’ person, I would know more about this icon who has been described as “arguably the most distinguished man of letters in English history.”
I’ve always thought that he was more-or-less joined at the hip with James Boswell whose biography of Johnson has been acclaimed as the greatest in all of English literature. I was amazed to learn in Nokes’ account, therefore, that the two men were a generation apart in age and, once they met, didn’t even spend all that much time together – less than 150 days total over Johnson’s long lifetime. That Johnson spent most of his life in debt, that King George III was among his admirers, that he was a friend of painter Joshua Reynolds, that he suffered from Tourette’s syndrome, were all interesting tidbits that Nokes covered in great detail.
Dame Ngaio (pronounced nigh-oh) Marsh (1895-1982) was almost 200 years closer to me in age and, what’s more, wrote books in a genre that I enjoy – crime fiction. Her 1932 mystery featuring gentleman detective Roderick Alleyn rocketed her to immediate success. She is considered one of the “Four Queens of Crime” along with Agatha Christy, Dorothy Sayers and Margery Allingham.
I had absolutely no idea that Marsh was also a painter of some repute or that she was well-respected for her contributions (as an actor/director/producer) to New Zealand theatre. Though she became world renown for her prolific writing – 32 novels, 6 non-fiction works, plus short stories, plays, television scripts and numerous articles – she also found time to travel, live for extended periods in England and on the Continent, care for her aging father, and devote untold hours to her garden.
It is the sheer volume of work that each of these widely disparate authors accomplished during their lifetimes that knocks my socks off. Neither began their writing careers especially early in life. Johnson was 46 when his famed Dictionary of the English Language was published and brought him his first taste of fame. Marsh didn’t begin writing until she was 40, but then wrote her first nine novels in just seven years. And both wrote everything in longhand – a method of necessity for Johnson and by choice for Marsh.
Humbling! Awe inspiring! And, mostly, it wears me out to think about it.