Claire Harman began her career in publishing, at Carcanet Press and the Manchester-based poetry magazine PN Review, where she was co-ordinating editor.
Her first book, a biography of the writer Sylvia Townsend Warner, was published in 1989 and won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize for ‘a writer of growing stature’ under the age of 35. She has since published biographies of Fanny Burney and Robert Louis Stevenson and edited works by Stevenson and Warner. She writes short stories for radio and publication and was runner-up for the V. S. Pritchett prize for short fiction in 2008, runner-up for the Tom-Gallon Award in 2014 and winner in 2016. Her bestselling Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World was published in 2009 and her major new biography of Charlotte Bronte to mark the author’s bicentenary was published in 2015 by Viking Penguin UK.
In September 2015, Claire was awarded a Forward Prize for Poetry.
Claire has taught English at the Universities of Manchester and Oxford and creative writing at Columbia University in New York City. She is now Professor of Creative Writing at Durham University. Claire has appeared on radio and television and writes regularly for the literary press on both sides of the Atlantic, reviewing books, films, plays and exhibitions.
She was elected a Fellow of the RSL in 2006 and became President of The Alliance of Literary Societies in 2016.
Lorna Sage was known for most of her life as a literary critic and teacher, so it was rather astonishing when she broke cover with this bleak and hilarious memoir when she was dying, in her fifties. From its first sentence about her grandfather's skirts to its sombre but open conclusion, Bad Blood is an assured, stylish and riveting piece of storytelling, nailing a particular time and place (Shropshire in the 40s and 50s) and female fate (teenage pregnancy) with wry objectivity and a sort of ghoulish glee. Sage's love of literature gave her escape routes from what could otherwise have been a tragic childhood; books were the family she could really feel at home with and wants to include us in, and part of what makes Bad Blood so affecting and is its witness to the enduring power of stories and the imagination.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
The least famous Brontë sister wrote this powerful novel about a miserable marriage at a time when few authors dared look at domestic abuse, or even admit it existed. Brontë's heroine Helen Huntington is forced to flee from her alcoholic husband and try to make a living on her own with her young son in a new place and under false names. There's an urgency and earnestness about the writing that comes from raw personal experience: Brontë wrote the book while her own brother, Branwell, was dying from drink and drugs, and though she felt he was beyond help, she wanted to warn and perhaps save others. The novel combines mystery elements, romance, suspense and fabulous writing, but the thing that stands out today is the author's bravery in breaking the silence around what went on behind closed Victorian doors.
This story of an emigré Russian teaching on an American campus in the 50s is an extraordinarily poignant and peculiar one. Pnin himself seems at first too reserved and eccentric a character to make you even like him, but Nabokov is such a skilled manipulator of his readers that you end up in complete sympathy, not with him (Pnin remains a chilly enigma) but with his situation, his fate of being himself. I found myself weeping over this middle-aged nobody and his dreadful dinner party, his surprising croquet match, and sending up thanks that I had eventually got round to reading this book, which is not among Nabokov's most talked-up today, but, like all works by that master, a very carefully-constructed and beautifully-filled box of delights.
In 1703, a Scotsman called Alexander Selkirk chose to stay on the island of Juan Fenandez, 360 miles off the coast of Chile, rather than continue on what he judged to be a doomed voyage in a leaking privateer. He remained there alone for four years, hunting and killing all his food, building his own hut from sandalwood and learning survival skills in the hardest imaginable ways. His bizarre experiences, and the philosophical questions that his isolation provoked, inspired Daniel Defoe to write Robinson Crusoe and this conjunction of a real man, a real island and a very famous novel makes a fascinating story that Diana Souhami tells with effortless wit and style. I think any book group would find plenty to love here; you find out so much about Selkirk and his world, the flora and fauna of his Pacific prison, the stories that were told by and about him later, but it's also a moving and large-spirited meditation on survival.