Richard Perceval Graves was born in Brighton in 1945.
He studied Modern History at St. John's College, Oxford and after teaching for some years at schools including Harrow and Ellesmere College, he became a full-time writer in 1973.
He is the author of several biographies, including Lawrence of Arabia and his World (1976); A. E. Housman: The Scholar-Poet (1979); and Richard Hughes (1994).
He has also written a 3-volume biography about his uncle, the poet Robert Graves, which was published as Good-bye to all That in 1995.
Since 2000, he has been a partner in Grave Web Services, a website design company, and has co-authored several Beginner guides in Computing.
In 1999 he was awarded a Hawthornden Fellowship, and from 2001-2005 he was Chairman of the Powys Society. He has also lectured extensively at leading literary festivals including Cheltenham, Hay-on-Wye, Hull and Toronto. In 2004 he attended, as a guest of the British Council, a literary festival held in Trouville-sur-Mer; and in 2005 he spoke in Paris at the Sixth International Robert Graves Conference.
Biographers ‘have a duty to be sympathetic to their subjects’, declares Richard Perceval Graves in the introduction to Robert Graves: The Assault Heroic 1895-1940 (1986), the first of three volumes about his famous uncle, ‘whom I knew and have loved since childhood’.
As he explains, he drew upon an uncompleted memoir by his father John, using the vast amount of family papers that he had inherited. He was therefore uniquely placed to show how Robert Graves’ foibles and wartime suffering must be set alongside the emotional costs of leaving his first wife and children to live with Laura Riding; with their ultimate consequences in landmark books such as I, Claudius and The White Goddess. Like his uncle, Richard Graves has been prolific and surprisingly diverse in his writings, which include other very readable biographies of A.E. Housman, the Powys brothers, and Richard Hughes. In them, he often finds links or comparisons with Graves, especially in what he calls ‘the difficulties of being brought up in the upper-middle class of Victorian society’. Again like his uncle, he is a charismatic lecturer, notably on the poets of the First World War as well as on all his biographical subjects. He even wrote ‘Beginner’s Guides’ during the early years of personal computers, a book about his old school Shrewsbury and, perhaps inevitably, a good deal of love poetry.
His family history and their distinguished connections have partially determined his direction. T.E. Lawrence, the subject of his first publication, Lawrence of Arabia and his World (1976), had not only been a friend of Robert Graves but also rescued him financially in the 1920s by suggesting that he write the best-selling Lawrence and the Arabs. By contrast, A.E. Housman: the Scholar-Poet (1979) appears to be an account of a much less glamorous life, dealing as it does with the fastidious life of a classics don at Cambridge. But it shows how intense were Housman's feelings for his friend Moses Jackson, that inspired A Shropshire Lad. The book also reveals the surprising extent to which Housman pursued his pleasures – for fine food and wines, as well as homosexual affairs - during regular holidays on the continent, being among the first tourists to fly to France. Housman is convincingly summarized as ‘a fine poet of nostalgia, of sorrow, of the bitterness of life … and of the courage to endure’.
The collective biography, The Brothers Powys (1983), focuses chiefly on novelists John Cowper, Theodore and Llewelyn, arguing that ‘the central quest of their lives was both religious and philosophical’. He observes of John Cowper Powys that his interest in dreams, magic, ‘his efforts to breathe new life into ancient mythologies’, can be compared to Robert Graves. Indeed, Powys and Graves ‘had crossed swords many years in the past … and he found it a disagreeable experience seeing things which were so important to him being strained through another’s mind’ in The White Goddess. The Welsh writer Richard Hughes had been a longstanding friend of the Graves family, and ‘I had first met him after one of my uncle Robert’s lectures when I was up at St.John’s, Oxford, in the mid 1960s’. Richard Hughes (1994) details an unusually adventurous writer’s life, with many travels and sea voyages, who ‘longed for the feel of a heaving deck under his feet’. Having barely withstood the emotional pressures from his possessive mother, and failed romances, Hughes’ writing of popular novels A High Wind in Jamaica and The Fox in the Attic were achieved despite busy public duties, and many years of writer’s block.
The Assault Heroic opens with an evocative picture of Robert Graves’ sea voyage to Egypt in 1926 with his wife Nancy Nicholson and their children, as well as ‘lady secretary’ Laura Riding. This is seen as symbolic of Graves’ ‘journey away from the traditional world’ of his childhood and wartime experiences, towards ‘a new world of his own making’ in poetry and mythology. The Graves family background is rightly viewed as a determining if ambiguous factor, particularly the religious persuasions of Graves’ father Alfred, an Irish romantic poet, and German mother Amy. Reading their letters to their children, Richard Graves remarks that ‘I cannot help feeling terribly sad that my father’s generation were subjected to such intense moral pressure’. The First World War naturally looms over this portrait of the artist as a young man (ten members of the family took part, on both sides). Graves was profoundly affected by the trenches, his shell shock and by the cynicism of the generals, as he recounted in Good-bye to All That. But he also developed personally, lecturing to large numbers of soldiers and modernizing his poetry through friendship with Siegfried Sassoon.
Robert Graves:The Years with Laura 1926-1940 (1990) goes into considerable detail about the complexities of Graves’ intellectual collaboration and personal relationship with Riding, a brilliant American poet and critic but also a ruthless manipulator. Richard Graves suggests that I, Claudius can be read as ‘subconsciously … a vehicle for expressing the dark side of his feelings’ for her, yet she also improved his work by acute literary criticism. Their move together to Majorca, Spain, provided the lifestyle that Graves adopted for the rest of his life. But, from then on, he became ‘centred upon the Celtic myths and legends which had fascinated his father and his grandfather’, culminating in The White Goddess, his hugely influential ‘grammar’ of poetic myth.
Robert Graves and the White Goddess: 1940-1985 (1995) is the most fascinating and poignant volume. At its outset, Graves is with his future wife Beryl, who ‘had saved him from a complete breakdown’. However, over the years a succession of ‘muses’, young attractive women who were often ‘neurotic casualties’, found their way to his door. Equally significant was the way that Graves had become a public figure, after his first lecture tour of the USA in 1957, ‘to shake the dollar tree’. Richard Graves remarks that ‘It has been strange to find myself becoming a character … in my own story, and to replay in my mind scenes which I did not fully understand at the time’. He memorably describes Canellun during the summer of 1967, when the air was ‘full of the sweet sickly scent of hashish’, like being in a waking dream. His uncle’s latter years were blighted by Alzheimer’s disease, which reduced him to being ‘a kind of "Holy Fool"', and eventually required full-time nursing care. By the end of the story, Richard Graves movingly bids ‘Farewell Robert … And farewell also to that magical Deya of my youth’.
Dr Jules Smith, 2006
I am sometimes contacted by people who want to show me their work and advise them whether or not to be a writer. After the experience of many years I now invariably answer: ‘No, if you have to ask me. Writing, like acting, is a kind of inescapable affliction. If you are a genuine writer, you will already know that you have the disease, and you don’t need me to tell you that you will write, come what may, because although you may occasionally escape into other occupations (a long time ago I did five years’ teaching, just as Aristotle said one should; and I have spent much of the past five years as a marketing man), writing will draw you back in the end. And if you are not a genuine writer, if you don’t feel an overwhelming compulsion to write, then there are many easier ways to make a living.’