Ruth Scurr on the Art of Biography

The most challenging part of being a biographer for Ruth Scurr is finding the best form to tell a life. “You can’t go in there with a workmanlike attitude saying, ‘I’m going to do cradle to grave.’ You’ve got to somehow connect and resonate with the life, and then things will develop from that.” Known for her innovative literary portraits of Robespierre and John Aubrey, Scurr’s latest book follows Napoleon’s life through his engagement with the natural world. This approach broadens the usual cast of characters included in Napoleon’s life story, providing new perspectives with which to understand him.

Ruth joined Tyler to discuss why she considers Danton the hero of the French Revolution, why the Jacobins were so male-obsessed, the wit behind Condorcet’s idea of a mechanical king, the influence of Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments during and after the Reign of Terror, why 18th-century French thinkers were obsessed with finding forms of government that would fit with emerging market forces, whether Hayek’s critique of French Enlightenment theorists is correct, the relationship between the French Revolution and today’s woke culture, the truth about Napoleon’s diplomatic skills, the poor prospects for pitching biographies to publishers, why Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws would be her desert island read, why Cambridge is a better city than Oxford, why the Times Literary Supplement remains important today, what she loves about Elena Ferrante’s writing, how she stays open as a biographer, and more.

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Thumbnail photo credit: Dan White