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2015 is the centenary of Edith Cavell’s execution in Brussels by the occupying German army. A revised edition of my biography of her, with a new introduction will be published by Quercus in August. [ more news ]
I wanted to write about the 1940s. I was born in the Crown and Anchor Edmonton at the beginning of the blitz on London. I have inchoate childhood memories of ration books, air raid sirens, gas masks, Spam, and ITMA on the Home Service. The postwar years held the promise of a good society: welfare for all, state education, the national health service. In Murder at Wrotham Hill I took a true murder as the motor of my narrative
What prompted me to write about Edith Cavell was the idea of altruism, the concept of goodness. In two years of working on this book I kept unswerving respect for her.
Coconut Chaos is about how one small act – in this case the taking of a coconut by Fletcher Christian from the pile on the quarterdeck of HMS Bounty on Monday 27 April 1789 – has tangential ramifications that ripple through time.
For my first biography, Gluck, I saw a retrospective of her paintings one rainy lunchtime. YouWe, as she called it, a self-portrait of her head fused with that of her lover Nesta Obermer, intrigued me. Here was obsession, lesbian love, merged identity. Next day, out of the blue, a letter came from an editor at Pandora Press: she liked my reviews for City Limits. Was there a book I wanted to write? She’d give me a commission.
With Gertrude and Alice I played on the irony that the perfect marriage: loyalty, commitment, delight in each other til death do us part, was between two women. Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, first met in Paris on Sunday 8 September 1907 and from that day on were never apart until Gertrude’s death on Saturday 27 July 1946.
In Greta and Cecil I was intrigued by narcissism: the film star Greta Garbo, the photographer Cecil Beaton and how their absorption in each other was a reflection of self.
Hypocrisy is the core of Mrs Keppel and Her Daughter. Mrs Keppel, as mistress of King Edward VII, was ‘La Favorita’ of Edwardian high society. Her daugher Violet Trefusis was ostracised, forced into a sham marriage and banished to Paris because of her stormy love affair with Vita Sackville-West.
In Selkirk’s Island, which won the Whitbread Biography Award, I hoped to stretch the boundaries of biography. The hero is the island not the man marooned there. I went to Crusoe Island to write this book.
Natalie and Romaine was originally published as Wild Girlswhich was not my choice of title. I’d called my book about Natalie Barney and Romaine Brooks, with my own quasi-autobiographical interpolations, A Sapphic Idyll. The marketing men said no one would know what Sapphic meant, particularly the booksellers. I found it hard to say I was the author of Wild Girls and I am happier with Natalie and Romaine. The marketing men still baulk at A Sapphic Idyll.
Diana Souhami, a renowned English author of biographies, plays and short stories, was born on August 25th 1940. Souhami was brought up in London where, in the 1960s, she pursued philosophy at Hull University. She has become quite an iconic figure around the world owing to her eloquent award winning writings which have elevated her status and made her very famous. Souhami’s biographies, short stories and plays are just stunning, and flawless, which has attracted many people into reading them. Her life’s work stands out as a key encouragement to other females, that they too can make it in life and become who they want. This has made her one of the best mentors and a key figure especially in the lesbian community. Before turning to writing biographies, Souhami worked at the BBC for some years, specifically in the publications department. While working there, she wrote and published short stories and plays which were performed at the Edinburgh Festival, The Kings Head in Islington and broadcast as radio and television plays the BBC. She developed an exhibition, known as “A Woman’s Place: The Changing Picture of Women in Britain” for the British Council which toured a tremendous 30 countries in 1984. Penguin Books published her book based on this exhibition. In addition, she reviewed books and plays for several newspapers.
In 1986, Pandora Press approached Souhami and gave her a commission to write Hannah Gluckstein’s biography. The Life of Gluck was her first and the last book in which she used a birth-to-death approach. She became a round-the-clock author publishing biographies mostly exploring the most influential and titillating of 20th century lesbian lives. Her next book after Gluck was ‘Gertrude and Alice’, a story of the relationship between Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas, which was published in 1991. She followed this two books with ‘Greta and Cecil’ in 1994 which gave an account of the romantic relationship between Greta Carbo and Cecil Beaton, ‘Mrs. Keppel and her daughter’ in 1996, a twofold biography of Alice Keppel, a long-time paramour of King Edward VII, and her daughter, Violet Trefusis, and ‘The Trials of Radclyffe Hall’, a biography of Marguerite Radclyffe Hall, which won the Lambda Literary Award for Biography in 200 and nominated for the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.
In 2001, she published ‘Selkirk’s Island’, which was a depart from her usual genre, a description of Alexander Selkirk’s eons as a castaway on Robinson Crusoe Island. This book left librarians and booksellers puzzled, whether to classify it as fiction, fact, fantasy or fable, when it earned the Whitbread Biography Award in 2001.Souhami returned to lesbian biography in 2004, publishing ‘Wild Girls’, a dual memoir set in Paris, of Romaine Brooks ,an American artist and her romantic relationship with Natalie Barney.
In 2007, she published a book known as ‘Coconut Chaos’, which is both an enquiry into the lives of HMS Bounty insurgents and their progenies on Pitcairn Island, and a biography of her expedition to Pitcairn Island with a woman identified only as “Lady Myre.”Souhami’s next book was ‘Edith Cavell’ in 2010, a biography of the nurse who was executed during the First World War for playing a part in trafficking allied soldiers out of Belgium. Her next book was ‘Murder at Wrotham Hill’ a story of the 1946 assassination of Dagmar Petrzywalski and the ensuing inquiry and prosecution of the crime.
Souhami’s books have received prestigious awards over the years as well as great attention from the public. She believed in breaking the history on silence specifically regarding lesbianism. “Acceptance can’t happen without openness, and I believe we should all try to speak out in our own way…” Wise words indeed from Diana Souhami.