- Johnny Ring
Jenny Uglow grew up in Cumbria and Dorset and studied English at Oxford. Until 2012, she was Editorial Director of Chatto & Windus, part of Random House. At Chatto, she edited such stellar titles as AS Byatt's novels since Possession, Edmund White's Genet, David Kynaston's four-volume history of the City, and Virginia Woolf and Edith Wharton by her close friend since college, Hermione Lee.
Her books include George Eliot (1987); Elizabeth Gaskell: A Habit of Stories (1993); Henry Fielding (1995); Hogarth: A Life and a World (1997); Dr Johnson, His Club and Other Friends (1998); The Lunar Men: The Friends Who Made the Future 1730–1810 (2002). Palgrave Macmillan Dictionary of Women's Biography (2005); Nature's Engraver: A Life of Thomas Bewick (2006); Words and Pictures: Writers, Artists and a Peculiarly British Tradition (2008); A Gambling Man: Charles II and the Restoration (2010); The Pinecone: The Story of Sarah Losh, Forgotten Romantic Heroine—Antiquarian, Architect, and Visionary (2012); In These Times: Living in Britain Through Napoleon's Wars, 1793-1815 (2015)
She's also editor of the Palgrave Macmillan Dictionary of Women and The Vintage Book of Ghosts, and author of short studies of George Eliot and Henry Fielding, as well as A Little History of British Gardening and Words & Pictures, a look at relationships between writers and artists, from the illustrators of Milton and Bunyan, to Dickens and Phiz and Lewis Carroll and Tenniel.
Jenny also reviews for press and radio and has been a historical consultant on BBC classic serials, including Wives and Daughters, Daniel Deronda, The Way We Live Now, He Knew He was Right, North and South, Bleak House, Lost in Austen and Little Dorrit, as well as the films of Pride and Prejudice, Amazing Grace and Miss Potter.
She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and was created an OBE in 2007. She is married to Steve Uglow, Professor Emeritus at Kent Law School, the University of Kent. They live in Canterbury and Cumbria and have four grown-up children — Tom, Hannah, Jamie and Luke - and six grand-children - Matilda, Max, Felix, Billy, Cassie and Dash.
Over the last thirty years Uglow has earned a place as one of Britain’s most distinctive literary and cultural biographers. Focusing typically on her the intellectual life of Eighteenth and Nineteenth England, she has become particularly well known for her illuminating group portraits charged with what A.S. Byatt has called “a novelist's imagination as well as a historian's”
Uglow has spoken of several guiding principles that underlie her choice of subjects and her approach to biographical writing. The first of these is a commitment to what she has called a “people’s culture,” emphasizing an unfamiliar and everyday cast of protagonists, with more than likely a provincial setting.
But equally clear is a fascination with the history of passionate ‘curiosity’: a property in subjects whose energies span the worlds of art, literature and science. “Looking at different times”, she has noted, “I always find curiosity an engaging quality," and her books have done justice to this quality with an intensely detailed curiosity of their own as they document the neglected reaches of Britain’s intellectual past.
Her career began with single-figure studies of some of the major cultural figures of the Victorian period. After a well-received study of George Eliot in 1987, her breakthrough success was 1993’s Elizabeth Gaskell: A Habit of Stories, in which she celebrated the iconoclast behind the misleadingly staid name of ‘Mrs Gaskell’: the one who “shocked Victorian readers … stood at odds with orthodoxies and eluded pigeon-holes.” As the preface pointed out, “Conservatives and radicals, Christians and sceptics, Marxists and feminists, all acclaimed different aspects of her work” but Uglow’s own point of entry was firmly based on Gaskells’ habits of ventriloquism, storytelling and ‘charm’. It was a striking early success, with reviewers such as Katherine Franks comparing it in the Literary Review to “the best of Gaskell’s novels: compelling, affectionate, by turns funny and sad, gently subversive, committed and unobtrusively wise.” The book established Uglow’s prize-winning potential, carrying away the Portico Prize and the British Academy Rose Mary Crawshay Prize.
This reputation was confirmed with her next study, a biography of the Eighteenth-Century artist Hogarth. The 1997 work was shortlisted for the Whitbread Prize, and gained high praise from critics, including from Michael Holroyd, who saw in it confirmation that Uglow was “one of the most talented of contemporary biographers, Hogarth is her masterpiece.. She recreates Hogarth’s mercurial genius most dramatically, as well as the turbulent and sophisticated world he inhabited. You can feel his presence in this book. It is a wonderful achievement”
In several ways Uglow found in Hogarth a kindred spirit. First was the quality he shared with Gaskell of sitting uneasily in conventional critical categories: “Like a sharp-elbowed, awkward-angled peg, Hogarth refuses to fit neatly into any slot.” Second was his capacious vision, the legendary ways in which, as she put it “he drew ordinary, flawed people in everyday settings and told powerful stories … he eyed his city, its posturing rich and flailing poor.”
Above all, perhaps, Uglow seemed to gain from Hogarth a new sense of the panoramic potentials of group portraiture. As she told a recent reviewer, “I want to show the lives of ordinary people, in all classes – men, women and children, weavers and bankers, farmers and aristocrats, soldiers and sailors – with the kind of detail that brings them alive. And as in Hogarth’s prints … he homes in on individual comedies and tragedies against a swirling background – it would be great to think I could try to do this too.” (The Curious Files, faberbooks.net). And as the subtitle of her biography – A Life and a World - suggested, hers was a social vision of artistry embedded within an age, placed back within the networks of individuals whose interconnections helped underpin lasting artistic achievements.
This helped point the way towards the emphasis on an ensemble approach that has characterized a number of her more recent successes. In her piece on ‘Writing Group Biography’ in the Guardian in 2005, she pondered her relation to what was clearly an emerging trend for crowded and clustered biographical creations:
Why, at this moment, are we so interested in groups, in cliques, in movements? Can we ever say that a group has a ‘life’, like a single living organism? Why are so many writers turning to this genre? I don’t want to make a case for the virtues of group biography as opposed to a single life: this feels nonsensical, like saying a bouillabaisse is ‘better’ than a single beautifully cooked sole. They are different exercises, and the subject itself throws up the form. That said, books about groups do offer peculiar challenges and delights, and there is a lot to be said for not looking at an individual's work in isolation.”
For Uglow, sketching lives en masse, in tightly or loosely wound groups, was actually a way of doing justice to the sui generis elusiveness that she had celebrated in Hogarth and Gaskell. “We can shape lives, without bending truth or fact, into comprehensible patterns” she argued, “but we must also accept their singularity. And groups, because of their varying dynamic, have a serendipity that defies form; the labels come unstuck.”
The work that secured her reputation in this mode was 2002’s The Lunar Men: The Friends who Made the Future 1730–1810.The book brought the world of the British Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution to life through the cast of characters who made it possible. The ‘club’ of its title was the so-called ‘Lunar Society’ a loose discussion group of correspondents that met monthly in Birmingham during full moons and whose passions and achievements were part of a wider decidedly collective and collaborative effort at re-orienting chemistry, mechanics, geology, electricity and botany, manufacturing and politics during this tumultuous period of British and global history.
In generous fashion, Uglow showed the multiple social and geographical sources of this immense creativity and ingenuity. Rather than rehearsing once again familiar tales of the genius of places such as Glasgow, Edinburgh, London’s Royal Society or Benjamin Franklin’s Philadelphia, Uglow chose to tell the story of a less well-known group of men such as Erasmus Darwin settled in the underestimated towns of Birmingham, Lichfield, Derby and Stoke:
Amid fields and hills the Lunar men build factories, plan canals, make steam-engines thunder. They discover new gases, new minerals and new medicines and poprose unsettling new ideas. They create objects of beauty and poetry of bizarre allure. They sail on the crest of the new. Yet their powerhouse of invention is not made up of aristocrats or statesmen or scholars but of provincial manufacturers, professional men and gifted amateurs – friends who meet almost by accident and whose lives overlap until they die.
Part of Uglow’s intention in re-convening this group was to argue for the power of interdisciplinary collaborations that spanned what were to become the two cultures. “''At the time,” she stresses “'science' meant knowledge; interest in the material world was 'natural philosophy,' … and when people spoke of the 'arts,' they did not mean only the fine arts but also the 'mechanic arts,' the skills and techniques in agriculture, say, or printing. So the relationship of philosophy to the arts could mean the usefulness of natural knowledge to industry -- almost the opposite of what we mean today.''”
Critics celebrated both its originality and the clarity of its intellectual vision. To the Literary Review, the book was both “a superbly original idea … and a considerable historical achievement;” the Economist thought it “an absolute wonder of a book.” To Richard Eder in the New York Times, Uglow particularly captured the “exuberance” of scientific discovery, and the “quirks, emotions and fellowship” of those who make it happen.” The Cambridge science historian Simon Schaffer saw its as achieving no less than “the recovery of the repute and reality of [the] visionary milieu of science, industry and art from Romantic contempt and the ‘icy evangelicalism’ which followed.” (London Review of Books, 2002). The Lunar Men went on to win the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for biography (2002), and the Hessell-Tiltman Prize for history from International PEN (2003).
Since that celebrated work, Uglow has written a series number of acclaimed and pleasingly crowded cultural histories. And in each, she has balanced the individual and the group. In the relatively short and handsomely illustrated Nature's Engraver: A Life of Thomas Bewick (2006) Uglow told the story of one of Britain’s most popular engravers, and showed how a farmer’s son from Tyneside helped revolutionise illustration and publishing history. Once again, the context was proudly non-metropolitan, connecting the relatively unfamiliar settings of Bewick’s late Eigtheenth-Century Newcastle workshops and mines with the wider radical politics of Britain and Europe. As Paul Riddell observed in a review in the Scotsman, Uglow’s achievement was to make Bewick’s life and work speak powerfully to the “philosophical and political cross-currents of his times. . . . Uglow already has a justifiable reputation as one of the country's best biographers; this fabulous book will only enhance it."
For her much larger 2009 work Gambling Man, Charles II and the Restoration, the scene shifted again. The focus this time was on the characters of the royal court, and on the role of the monarch as heart of a revitalized cultural milieu and world of social and artistic experiment during the turbulent and contradictory 1660s. Under his fledgling Restoration, Royal Society scientists jostled with courtiers and international speculators, fanatics and conservatives, with the enigmatic figure of the “slippery sovereign”“ at the story’s heart. As Uglow presents it, this is a tale of chance and peril. “He was not a wild player at dice or cards – he left the big stakes to his courtiers. But he took risks, judged odds and staked all, including his kingdom … many asked who whether Charles was playing for himself, or for the nation. And who were the winners and losers?”
Though on its face a study of monarchical history and policy this was, as Graham Parry recognized in the Guardian, in reality a return to the democratic canvas of the Lunar Men: “panoramic history of a high order. Uglow evokes the tumultuous events of the 1660s, and catches the feel of men and women living at the extremes of danger, pleasure and recklessness... Yet from first to last it is the king who lives again through these pages, holding the age together, making his own history through calculation, compromise, whim and ingenuity. To understand how Charles learnt the difficult art of kingship, read this book.”
For her most recent group portrait, Uglow brought to life the social ramifications of Britain’s existential struggle with post-Revolutionary France. In These Times: Living in Britain through Napoleon’s Wars, 1793-1815 (2015) was a widescreen survey of a nation under the spectre of war and invasion. It followed a group of individuals from pious Shropshire families to Norwich bankers, Birmingham gunsmiths, Bristol mariners, County Durham farmers and Manchester factory boys. And it amounted to a vivid and novelistic home front tableaux that stretches across classes and regions.
As Iain Gale noted in the Scotsman, both the technical achievements and the contemporary resonances were remarkable: “The detail is astonishing. We are told about bankers’ salaries and early pension plans and often the period seems alarmingly familiar: social unrest, a protracted war justified by the government; technological innovation advancing in leaps and bounds; a cult of celebrity and scandal; a royal family on the verge of crisis; a golden age of satire.” To Nicholas Shakespeaere in the Telegraph, Uglow’s vision of Napoleonic-era Britain was “as crowded and bustling as a Gillray drawing, In These Times is history portrayed as a torrent, with the opposite bank as well as some of the chief characters slipping from view. At its impressive best, it has the dense feel of Turner’s Battle of Trafalgar, where Nelson is a tiny figure; or of Turner’s 1812 Snow Storm, ostensibly featuring Hannibal crossing the Alps”
Uglow is both a respected exponent of cultural biography, and one of the most self-reflexively articulate of protagonists. As a result, the pleasures of each of her books has rested not only in the depth of research and generosity of her vision, but also in the questions she asks of the process of social history itself.
Uglow noted has noted, “A critic wrote recently that biographers are always going on about their art, and are, perhaps the only people interested. Maybe but sometimes it feels like the opposite: we are asked so many questions that we are forced, sometimes uncomfortably, to look at what we are doing.” (‘Writing Group Biography, Guardian, 2005) Each of her works serves as something of an essay on this process, and models of how to fashion the broadest amount of historical ‘curiosity’ into compelling narrative ensembles.
Dr Tom Wright