MAPP Books on Biography

MAPP co-founders and team members Claire Battershill and Helen Southworth have both recently published well-received books focusing on the concept of biography as it relates to Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press. Here is a brief introduction to both works, which epitomize the kind of rigorous historical research made possible through deep engagement with archival materials such as the ones MAPP curates on its continually-expanding site.

Claire Battershill’s Modernist Lives: Biography and Autobiography at Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press 1917-1946 was published by Bloomsbury in 2018. Focusing on the biographies and autobiographies published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press from 1917-1946, Battershill shows the importance of publishing history in understanding modernist literary work and culture. Modernist Lives draws on archival material from the Hogarth Press Business Archive and first editions from the Virginia Woolf Collection at the E. J. Pratt Library to show how the Woolfs’ literary theories were expressed in all aspects of their publishing: their marketing strategies, editorial practice and the literary composition of their acquisitions. Featuring the works of figures such as Christopher Isherwood, Henry Green, Viola Tree, Vita Sackville-West and the Woolf’s themselves, Battershill illuminates the history of Hogarth books from their composition to their reception by readers and critics. 

Helen Southworth’s Fresca: A Life in the Making. A Biographer’s Quest for a Forgotten Bloomsbury Polymath was published by Sussex Academic Press in 2017.  

Fresca is detective story, cultural history and love story. It tells a tale of unconventionality, multifarious creativity, and a quest for new ways of living and loving amidst the complexities of Interwar Britain. For Francesca Allinson life and making art were synonymous, though both were cut short. Her story captures the topsy-turvy quality of a life singularly led; it shows how biography too gets turned upside down in the making – how the story of a single individual can throw the literary and social perspective of the period into relief.

Southworth’s initial goal was to discover how Allinson’s fictional autobiography, A Childhood, made it onto Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s The Hogarth Press list in 1937. The result was to be immediately drawn in to the company of prominent artistic figures of the period. Writer, musicologist, puppeteer and pacifist, British-German Jewish Allinson (1902–1945) published with the Woolfs, dueled with Ralph Vaughan Williams over the origins of folk song and was psychoanalyzed by Adrian Stephen, younger brother of Virginia. Her connections register the cultural ferment of the Interwar years: a rich collaboration and unconsummated romance with homosexual composer Michael Tippett; an affair with Arts League of Service founder Judy Wogan; a friendship with designer Enid Marx; and an infatuation with poet Den Newton, 18 years her junior. Her life of promise, tragically cut short by suicide by drowning in 1945, is an eerie echo of Virginia Woolf’s suicide.

Allinson’s story spans the Twentieth Century, closing with Tippett weeping on stage at the Wigmore Hall during a 1992 performance of “The Heart’s Assurance,” the song cycle he dedicated to Francesca’s memory forty years earlier. In parallel, Allinson’s own A Childhood makes a second journey: a gift for a young woman living in recently liberated Belgium in 1942, the book comes alive again when she transforms it into an artist’s book. 

Please see the following excerpts from reviews of Southworth’s Fresca: A Life in the Making:

Arnold Whittall, The Musical Times Spring 2018

“extremely well-researched”

“a convincing portrait of [Michael Tippett] and some of the musical outcomes of his relationship with Allinson”

“The book culminates in an extended and moving account of The heart’s assurance, the composer’s memorial to his troubled friend, and of the Wigmore Hall concert marking Tippett’s 90th birthday in 1995--documentary writing at its best [...]”

“Focusing primarily on Allinson herself, Southworth’s narrative vividly evokes the trials and tribulations of middle-class life in interwar Britain; how young people with artistic tendencies and internationalist sympathies negotiated their way around the many ingrained conventions of class and culture that were shaken but not destroyed by the First World War”  “[An] absorbingly sad chronicle of a life that never managed to root itself securely.”


Kathryn Laing, Woolf Studies Annual 2018

A “virtuoso and occasionally vertiginous exposé of the practices and processes of an archival researcher and biographer who works, in the footsteps of Woolf herself, on the lives of the obscure [...] For researchers interested in literary, artistic, musical, pacifist, and other networks of the interwar years, this ‘biographer’s quest’ is a cornucopia [...] a richly rewarding [reading experience], full of surprises and illuminations.”