Michael Holroyd on Sydney Smith, The Smith of Smiths

Fired by a Canon

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The most popular and successful biographer in Britain from the mid-1930s to the end of the 1940s was Hesketh Pearson, who became well-known for his Lives of, among others, Gilbert and Sullivan, Oscar Wilde and Bernard Shaw. I got to know him in the late 1950s when writing my first book, a Life of his friend Hugh Kingsmill. To tempt publishers with a biography of a forgotten writer by an unknown author was not easy. But Pearson kept my spirits up with his encouragement and generosity. My Hugh Kingsmill was eventually published in 1964, the year in which Pearson died.

He had begun his career as an actor, but caused himself much damage by publishing a book in 1921 called Modern Men and Mummers that was insufficiently flattering about the contemporary theatre, its actors and actor-managers. In an attempt to make a living for himself, his wife and son, he began writing short stories for magazines and pen portraits of politicians for the press.

Then he had a devastating idea: why should he not combine fiction with non-fiction, adding instinct where facts were unobtainable through research, and producing a radical new narrative of Life Writing? The result of this experiment was a book called The Whispering Gallery published in 1926 which sold wonderfully well for a few weeks but unfortunately landed him in court charged with attempting to obtain money by false pretences. Though he was found Not Guilty (the jury having greatly enjoyed his humour in the witness box), no publisher wanted to risk publishing what he wrote. He had ruined his career as a biographer before it had begun.

The Reverend Sydney Smith, Canon of St Paul’s in the early nineteenth century, eventually came to his rescue. This unlikely clergyman turned out to be an ideal biographical subject. But it took Pearson seven difficult years to find him and then write The Smith of Smiths. It was published in 1934 when he was in his early forties. He had discovere

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About the contributor

Michael Holroyd suspects that his fondness for eccentricity comes from reading Hesketh Pearson’s biographies.

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