In ‘Tom Stoppard,’ Hermione Lee Takes On a New Challenge: a Living Subject

Every other year, at a botanical garden in the Chelsea neighborhood of London, the playwright and screenwriter Tom Stoppard throws a lavish, all-day party for his many friends and their families. There are bands, puppets, jugglers, stilt-walkers, staggering amounts of food and drink. Among the hundreds attending in 2013 were the biographer Hermione Lee, who was at the time also the very busy president of Oxford’s Wolfson College, and her friend Julian Barnes, the novelist. As they were leaving, Barnes recalled recently, Stoppard ambled up and asked Lee if she had any interest in writing his life.

“Why me?” she said, taken aback.

“Because I want it to be read,” he replied.

That Stoppard wanted a biography at all was a surprise. He used to be hostile to the whole idea. In his play “Indian Ink,” a character calls biography “the worst possible excuse for getting people wrong,” and in “The Invention of Love,” Stoppard has Oscar Wilde describe biography as “the mesh through which our real life escapes.”

Stoppard came around, Lee thinks, because he knew a biography was probably going to get written anyway, and because at the time he asked her he was entering into what she calls the “tidying up” phase of his life — approaching 80, moving house, beginning a new marriage. And in choosing Lee, though she is too modest to say so, he wasn’t taking any chances. Lee’s “Tom Stoppard: A Life” came out in England last October (Alfred A. Knopf will publish it here on Feb. 23), and at the time Stefan Collini wrote in The Guardian, “It seems unfair that a man of such outrageous gifts should also have been allowed to magic up the perfect biographer to write his life.”

Lee, or to be formal, Dame Hermione (she was awarded the title in 2013 for “services to literary scholarship”) is a leading member of that generation of British writers — it also includes Richard Holmes, Michael Holroyd, Jenny Uglow and Claire Tomalin — who have brought an infusion of style and imagination to the art of literary biography. She is probably most famous for her 1997 life of Virginia Woolf, which upended much of the received wisdom about Woolf and demonstrated that there was much more to say than that she was a depressive in a cardigan wading into a river. In similar fashion, her 2007 biography of Edith Wharton rescued Wharton from her snobbish, old-fashioned reputation and reimagined her as a modern.

Lee said yes to Stoppard, of course. How do you say no to someone so famous for charm? And then, as she recalled over Zoom last fall from her house in Oxford, she immediately thought to herself, “Oh my God, what have I done?”

Lee, who turns 73 later this month, did not set out to become a biographer. She grew up in London in a house filled with music and books, and became a “culture hound,” she once told The Paris Review, the kind of teenager who would rather listen to Bartok than Elvis. She read all the time, but mostly novels, and had little or no interest in the lives of the people who wrote them.

When her dreams of being an actress didn’t pan out, she became an academic, studying at Oxford, where she eventually became the first woman in the prestigious role of Goldsmiths’ Professor of English Literature. In the 1980s, though, she became uncomfortable with what was happening to the teaching of literature. “I think I was very ill-equipped to take on structuralism and deconstruction and French critical theory,” she explained. “I didn’t really buy the death of the author, and I think I went toward biography, perhaps not terribly consciously, as a sort of resistance.”

Lee’s previous subjects — besides Woolf and Wharton, she also wrote about Willa Cather and Penelope Fitzgerald — were all novelists, all female and all dead. Stoppard, obviously, was none of those things. He was also someone both fortunate and beloved, with hundreds and hundreds of friends and admirers, all protective of him. “She always has a natural and healthy anxiety,” Barnes said. “‘Can I do it?’ But this time I think there was also: ‘Will he like it?’”

Lee was not a theater person. But she was an avid playgoer, at least, and had acted a bit when she was young. So she felt reasonably confident about handling that part of Stoppard’s life, though in the end writing about the plays themselves required a tremendous amount of homework. Nor was Stoppard’s being male something she worried a lot about. “Maybe I should have,” she said, “but I didn’t feel that in writing about a man I was entering into some strange, uncharted territory.”

By far the hardest part of writing the life of Stoppard, she said, was that Stoppard, now 83, was still living it. How do you end such a book? She originally thought she might conclude with Stoppard’s 80th birthday, in July 2017. But in 2020, he finished “Leopoldstadt,” a series of three plays that are his most personal and emotional, touching on his Jewish heritage, and practically as soon as it opened the run was ended — for the time being, anyway — by the coronavirus. So instead, Lee’s book ends with a vanishing — Stoppard’s recollection of a famous outdoor production of “The Tempest” in which Ariel seems to run across water and then disappears into the dark.

Lee worked on the book for seven years, interviewing not just Stoppard but more than 100 of his friends and colleagues. “I’m sure there were times when he said, ‘Oh, the hell with this,’ and ‘Crikey, she’s being thorough — she’s excavating my whole life,’” she said. “I think what happens is you don’t see it coming, really. You agree to be interviewed and you’re obliging about material and all that, but what you don’t imagine is that this person is going to be talking to practically everyone you know, and that inevitably every one of those people will ring you up and tell you.” Only when Lee was well along in her research did Stoppard trust her with what became her two most crucial sources: the almost weekly letters he wrote to his mother until her death, in 1996, and a journal he kept for his son Ed.

Lee is sure that when Stoppard finally read the book, he inwardly groaned. Because there was so much to read — 834 pages, including notes — and because there were things that must have embarrassed him and that he wished had been left out. But he asked for only one change: that she not reveal the name of an actor who had been fired from the revival of one of his plays. “I was very impressed by that,” Lee said of Stoppard’s minimal demand. “And of course I agreed.”

Most of Lee’s biographies have a shape related to their subject. Her life of Woolf is Woolfian, formally experimental and arranged thematically rather than chronologically. It begins with a question asked by Woolf herself: “My God, how does one write a biography?” Her biography of Wharton resembles a Wharton novel, with a lot of richly furnished rooms: the French room, the Italian room, the Henry James room. And her life of Penelope Fitzgerald is shorter and sparer than the others — like Fitzgerald, who was elusive and a little mysterious, a great writer of concealment.

Lee’s life of Stoppard starts with a chapter called “First Acts,” and is divided into five parts. But in the beginning it reads less like a play than a boy’s adventure story, with 2-year-old Tomas Straussler fleeing with his parents and brother from their native Czechoslovakia to Singapore in 1939. When that city falls to the Japanese, they flee again, this time to India, with the father dying on the way, and remain there until 1945, when Mrs. Straussler meets and marries Major Kenneth Stoppard. A year later, the family is living in Nottinghamshire and, overnight, Tomas has become an Englishman — the luckiest thing, he always said, that ever happened to him.

Lee’s 97-year-old father read that part of the book before he died and told her that it wasn’t written in her usual style. “He was always my sternest critic,” she said, and added, laughing, “I could never work out whether this was a compliment or a criticism. The plan, anyway, was that I really wanted this part to come along and whoosh. You get on the journey and away you go.”

The rest of the book describes a life of extraordinary busyness, with Stoppard not just writing (and rewriting and rewriting) his plays but serving on committees, plunging himself into the politics of Eastern Europe, working for Hollywood — and not just on the movies we know as his, like “Shakespeare in Love” and “Empire of the Sun.” He also did work — uncredited but handsomely paid — on such unlikely projects as “The Bourne Ultimatum,” “Sleepy Hollow” and “102 Dalmatians.” There are stretches in the book when he takes the Concorde back and forth across the Atlantic as if it were a cab.

To judge from the British reviews, some readers picked up “Tom Stoppard: A Life” just for the gossip: the parties; the friends; the hobnobbing with the likes of Prince Charles, Princess Margaret, the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, Mick Jagger and David Bowie; the three marriages; the love affairs, including a not-so-secret one with Sinead Cusack, the wife of Jeremy Irons. There were others who skipped that stuff and wanted to read instead all about the influence of Isaiah Berlin on “The Coast of Utopia.”

“I suppose I always felt it was a sort of double narrative,” Lee said. “I’d rather be boring than faulty. I could well imagine people saying, ‘Do you really have to go on about the plays at such length?’ I wanted to make people feel they were reading the plays as they were reading the book, as it were, or watching them again. I was also trying to do a service to myself, getting these plays clear in my head and trying to understand how they worked in his life at the time.”

Over the years, Lee has thought a lot about biography, and even about how much, paradoxically, she would resist the idea of anyone writing her life. In her brief book “Biography: A Very Short Introduction,” a sort of biography of biography, she argues that in some ways the form has evolved less than we think, and that the same questions keep coming up about the responsibilities and limitations of the form. “I’m perfectly aware that there are many things we can’t know,” she said. “I’m sure in Tom’s case there are one or two affairs that I don’t know about, that nobody knows about. And maybe nobody ever will know. I like that, actually.”

She added that she already had a new subject in mind — “just a glint in my eye, though, and too soon to be talking about it.” But she did volunteer three clues. Not a man. Not a playwright. And, yes, dead.

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