Anne Sebba is a journalist, biographer and former foreign correspondent with Reuters. She has written five biographies, including one of Mother Teresa and one of Laura Ashley, short stories and two biographies for children. She is currently working on a life of Jennie Jerome, Winston Churchill's American mother. Here, Anne kindly answers some of my questions.
Mark Thwaite What drew you to William Bankes and his life?
Anne Sebba I did not want to be branded for the rest of my life as someone who only wrote about Women and "Wimmin's Matters". In addition, my field is history more than English, so I wanted a historical subject and I am fascinated by the Romantic period. So I had been casting around for a while but everyone that appealed had been written about so much. I knew about Kingston Lacy from visits (dragging more or less willing children around National Trust homes is something I have always done) and thought this would make a great story which had n ever been told_ the papers were only deposited in the public domain when the House became National Trust in 1981. It was the romance of the story - a house decorated and created by a man who could never live there to admire it - which gripped me initially and then later, when I started to research, I was hooked by William himself.
MT Would you like Bankes to become a gay icon? Was it important to you to defend/proclaim his sexuality?
AS I did not think while I was writing the book that I must make him into a gay icon but I think it's fine if he becomes one - the problem was that I don't think he should be defined by his sexuality- what he created is more important than what he did in his private life. In particular, since he did not keep a diary, whatever I might write about how he felt about his homosexuality would have been an invention on my part. Nonetheless, Yes, it was important to me to defend rather than proclaim his sexuality for two reasons: firstly, that was why he suffered, a ridiculously harsh punishment, and why the story was so poignant in parts. He would not have been forced into exile if he had not been gay so there would not have been a story; he would have been another rich member of the landed gentry who decorated a beautiful house. Secondly, it was important to show the intolerance - and vindictiveness - of the then government, terrified that if it allowed homosexuality to flourish then all sorts of revolutionary ideals from France would come flooding into Britain. I think also that a parallel can be drawn: when a government starts using Morality to justify its policy then all sorts of abuses and hypocrisies are inevitable.
MT Bankes was a friend and contemporary of Lord Byron - presumably this a period in history you are particularly fascinated by? Why?
AS The relationship with Byron was intriguing and, with its vicissitudes, weaves in and out of Bankes' life. At first William Bankes was the superior partner. He was richer, more confident and one of the few to whom Byron listened in those early days. It was Bankes who introduced Byron to some unusual practices with choirboys and incense in his uniquely decorated Gothic set at Trinity. Later, he had to beg Byron to travel with him once Hobhouse became the close friend. Hobhouse saw very early on that friendhsip with Bankes could cause Byron problems and was to be avoided. He recognised him for the risk taker he was. At the end of Byron's life when he was disgraced, it was again Bankes who was the success story. The period is fascinating because it shows England on the cusp: all the great reforms begin in 1832-3 and yet Victorian Society is always thought of as repressive. It was a complex mix and far from sure of itself, which is why the treatment of William Bankes is so cruel and unenlightened for a society that was attempting reform in so many areas.
MT A good little while ago now you wrote the introduction to Little Boy Lost by Marghanita Laski. How did you get involved with that project? Any more plans to work with Persephone?
AS Little Boy Lost is an absolutely marvellous story about a cool and reserved Englishman unable to display his emotions until forced to by a child, his presumed son. I am a huge admirer of these beautiful and elegant grey books, lost treasures which are being re-discovered at the rate of two a month and so when the founder of Persephone, Nicola Beauman, asked me to write this afterword I was thrilled. It pleased me particularly since Marghanita Laski had given me a sparkling review for my first biography, of Enid Bagnold in Country Life and so I am forever grateful to her.
MT What are you working on now? What is coming next?
AS I am working extremely hard on the most fantastically intriguing biography with masses of documentation and new material; Winston Churchill's American mother, Jennie Jerome (1854-1921), the wife of Lord Randolph Churchill. There will be a number of surprises as she led a very full and passionate life and her role in nurturing Winston's genius is ripe for re-evaluation.
MT How do you write? Longhand, straight onto the computer?
AS Straight on to a pc - I can't imagine any other way now. They were called VDUs when I started using one at Reuters (my first job). Although I do still take notes in longhand in a number of yellow pads and then I have to search through them all when it comes to writing the biograpy and panic when I cannot immediately find what I want. I am getting better about using my laptop though in libraries and I hope that when I come to write Jennie, I will just do a globabl search and find and discover the quote that otherswise I would have spent the whole day searching for.
MT What is your favourite book/who is your favourite writer?
AS That's a terrible question - so many books I have loved - and I lurch from a modern American classic (Philip Roth) to Victorian (Mrs Gaskell) with non-fiction and short stories and everything else mixed in. Last Year I realised that Steinbeck and Updike had somehow slipped through my net and I am trying to rectify that. I want to re-read all of Graham Greene, who is the most brilliant craftsman. In the field of biographies I am a great admirer of Claire Tomalin and her two books reclaiming the lives of lost women, Nelly Ternan and Mrs Jordan, are small masterpieces. Favourite books recently are Amos Oz's Tales of Love and Darkness and Shirley Hazzard's The Great Fire.
MT What book do you wish you had written?
AS Far too many to single out one but really anything that makes people understand the world better ...
MT Do you have any tips for for the aspiring writer!?
AS Yes. Work at it don't talk about it.
MT Anything else you'd like to say?
AS Yes, I hope everyone likes The STORY William Bankes and that it helps towards understanding how these gems of country houses which dot around the UK landscape were put together ... And thanks so much for featuring the book.
MT No worries Anne. Thanks so much for your time!