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American biographer makes British best-seller list
STANFORD -- Her British editor was afraid Jane Emery would be "too American" to capture the life of British novelist Rose Macaulay, a traditional English eccentric.
But when Emery's Rose Macaulay: A Writer's Life was published this summer in England, the reviews were prominent and laudatory -- an "excellent and beautifully written book" said the Times Literary Supplement -- and the biography made the non-fiction best-seller list.
For Emery, a lecturer in the Stanford English Department, it was a "Cinderella" ending to 13 years of work, 11 spent researching in England, Ireland and the United States, and two writing.
Macaulay provided a lot of material for her biographers. In addition to writing 36 books, many of them novels that were both prize-winning and best-selling, she was a fixture on the London literary scene, with friends ranging from Virginia Woolf to E.M. Forster to Ivy Compton- Burnett. She was a tireless party-goer and wit, traveled extensively and appeared regularly on the BBC.
She never married but conducted a long, secret love affair with a married man, a former Irish Catholic priest.
In her 60s, she drove an ambulance during the London blitz. In her 70s, she went swimming regularly in Hyde Park in all kinds of weather.
Although she had been diagnosed two decades earlier as having a weak heart, she kept up her lively pace until she died at the age of 77 in 1958. In her last years, she published The Towers of Trebizond, which was awarded the James Tait Black Prize for the best novel of 1956; she was made Dame Commander of the British Empire and went on a Mediterranean cruise with a group of her friends. Two months after her return to London, and the night after attending a party, she died.
"I never got tired of her," Emery said of Macaulay. Emery began the work after finishing a book on Virginia Woolf and, at first, intended only a study of Macaulay's fiction. But she decided to do a full critical biography after a talk with Macaulay's last editor, Mark Bonham Carter. When Emery told Lord Bonham Carter that she was sorry that Macaulay had underestimated herself as a novelist, he replied that she had never underestimated herself as a character.
Macaulay very much valued her privacy and probably would not have wanted anything written about her. That knowledge didn't deter Emery, she said, but increased her determination to draw as full and fair a portrait as possible of her subject.
Even after gathering all the available facts, she said, "you realize you'll never have all the truth. You pray not to tell lies."
Emery, 74, is now "almost the age (Macaulay) was when she wrote her last novel," and she said she believes her age was an asset in helping her understand the British writer.
Emery launched her postgraduate academic career after rearing four children. She returned to school, earning her doctorate at the University of Chicago. She went to England as a Leverhulme fellow in the School of English and American Studies at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, and then to Australia, where she taught modern British and American literature as an associate professor at the University of Queensland.
After retiring from Queensland, she did much of her work on the Macaulay biography at Stanford, where she first came as a visiting scholar at the Center for Research on Women. She has taught in the English Department since 1983.
Good fortune has played a major role in the publication of her book, Emery said. She had written just two chapters when a friend, Gretchen Gerzina, who had done a biography of Dora Carrington, a member of Woolf's Bloomsbury set, asked if she could show those chapters to John Murray, Gerzina's British publisher.
Emery agreed and subsequently received a letter offering her a contract. The publishing firm, which occupies the old Murray town house off Piccadilly, is redolent with British literary history. Emery noted that she signed her contract in the room where Sir Walter Scott met Lord Byron.
American publishers are now considering the Macaulay biography, which Emery thinks is most likely to be issued by a university press.
Now she is contemplating her next project. She hasn't picked a subject yet but, she said, "I can't take on anyone else who lived 77 years."
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