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.
Listen to the full conversation
Recorded July 12th, 2021
Read the full transcript
TYLER COWEN: Hello, everyone, and welcome back to Conversations with Tyler. Today I’m here with Ruth Scurr, a historian at Cambridge. Ruth’s latest book has received rave reviews, and it’s called Napoleon: A Life Told in Gardens and Shadows. She is also a biographer of Robespierre, has written a wonderful book on the 17th-century British figure John Aubrey, and is a frequent writer for Times Literary Supplement and just about everywhere else.
RUTH SCURR: Thank you so much, Tyler.
COWEN: Who was the hero or heroine of the French Revolution?
SCURR: I’m going to say it was [Georges] Danton because he was a revolutionary who saw the error of his ways after he had directly participated in setting up the Revolutionary Tribunal, and before he went to his death, he begged forgiveness for the part that he had played. For me, he is a hero because he travels the full spectrum of the Revolution, and he also takes very clear responsibility for what had happened.
Robespierre is a more complicated figure. By the end of his life, I think he was in no position to be taking responsibility, and for me, he also was far more deluded by the end of his life than Danton ever was.
COWEN: Is there a counterfactual path where the French Revolution simply works out well as a liberal revolution? If so, what would have needed to have been different?
SCURR: In terms of counterfactuals, the one I thought most about was, What would have happened if Robespierre hadn’t fallen at Thermidor and the relationship between him and [Louis Antoine Léon de] Saint-Just had continued? But that’s not the triumph of the liberal revolution. That would have merely been a continuation of the point they had gotten to. For a triumph of the liberal revolution, that would have needed to be much, much earlier.
I think that it was almost impossible for them to get a liberal constitution in place in time to make that a possibility. What you have is 1789, the liberal aspirations, the hopes, the Declaration of Rights; and then there is almost a hiatus period in which they are struggling to design the institutions. And that is the period which, if it could have been compressed, if there could have been more quickly a stability introduced . . .
Some of the people I’m most interested in in that period were very interested in what has to be true about the society in order for it to have a stable constitution. Obviously when you’re in the middle of a revolution and you’re struggling to come up with those solutions, then there is the opening to chaos.
COWEN: Was Crane Brinton correct that all revolutions impose some kind of period of puritanism?
SCURR: I think that depends on what you mean by puritanism. If you mean something approaching political fanaticism or a moralistic expectation of not just the people participating in the revolution but also those in whose name the revolution is being carried out, then yes, absolutely. That is a necessary part of the revolution.
Is that what you meant by puritan?
COWEN: Yes. You see it after the Russian Revolution, for instance.
Robespierre, who seems quite rigid, right? He rises to power. He’s not that old; he’s not really a member of the previous elite. Why is it, other than his ability to give a lot of ideological speeches, does he become, at least for a while, the apparent leader?
SCURR: Well, you’re talking about a very, very short space of time. That was the thing that struck me most, working on his life. You could say there was elements of luck and timing involved. He did have a very distinctive rhetoric, the rhetoric of speaking for the people, of sacrificing his personal interest for those of the people. That was powerful in the circumstances. It resonated with some of his fellow revolutionaries.
But I think when you look at the period and you reconstruct it on a day-by-day, week-by-week, month-by-month basis, what you understand is this is a tremendous scrabble, and his ascendancy was always insecure. I don’t think it’s correct to ever describe him as a tyrant. He’s basically one of the people struggling to ride that revolutionary wave.
COWEN: If we think of the thought of Robespierre, it seems in some areas he was extremely radical, but in other areas, such as family and gender, he was remarkably conservative — arguably more conservative than the status quo ex ante. What’s the principle that delineates where he becomes radical and where he becomes conservative?
SCURR: It’s much easier for him, and I think for everybody else, to be radical in opposition. In the early years of the Revolution, he is an ardent critic of those people who are trying, for example, to defend some kind of distinction between active and passive citizens. He’s an advocate of more public surveillance of the debates. He’s a pioneer. He’s definitely a radical at that point.
Once he is himself in power, once he is trying to stabilize the Revolution, then he becomes much less radical. He’s basically recognizing the need to impose order because he is now on the inside. He is a person who has taken on the role and the responsibility for trying to impose order on the Revolution.
COWEN: Why were the Jacobins, in general, so male-obsessed? It’s a very male movement. Ideologically, there’s not much talk about freedom for women. For all the changes that were made, it seems reactionary on that issue.
SCURR: Well, certainly, you have other intellectuals who identify themselves in the opposing group, the Girondins — [Nicolas de] Condorcet, for example — who, right from the very beginning, is fighting the gender distinctions. He is the person who says very, very clearly, straight off from the Declaration, a universal Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen: it makes absolutely no sense not to extend these to women.
He’s arguing in a context where there are the usual excuses for not doing that. You have very forward-thinking members of the Jacobin party saying, “Well, in principle we would like to do this, but now is not the time,” and “That can wait.”
COWEN: Should we adopt Condorcet’s idea of a mechanical king? Why did that make sense to him?
SCURR: Well, that’s a humorous contribution from him. Actually, I’m completely with him on that. I have no problem. We have these debates in Britain about the role of the monarch and how important — Condorcet was like, “Hey, you just need an automaton, and you can bring him out or her at Easter and any other time you feel like, Wimbledon or for the football, and it doesn’t need to be an actual person.”
I think he was, obviously, being very witty — but he’s a republican. He’s one of the first to come out as a straightforward republican.
COWEN: How was Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments influential during the Terror?
SCURR: Well, that is a really interesting question. Actually, I did some work on this exact topic. There were people who had been influenced by Adam Smith before the Revolution. The Abbé Sieyès is one of the most prominent. His archive is full of notes and annotations to The Theory of Moral Sentiments.
The Abbé Sieyès has colleagues and friends who have been influenced by him, and they are interested in trying to understand how you think about the stability in a society that occurs naturally and spontaneously and what the gap is between that and political order: how you tailor your political institutions to effectively fit with your expectation of spontaneous sociability or social order.
Definitely, they look to Adam Smith. Condorcet’s wife, Sophie, translates The Theory of Moral Sentiments. It’s not quite finished during the Terror, but when they survive — Condorcet does not survive the Terror. He dies in prison, either a suicide or an assassination. But afterwards, his widow continues with that translation, and the people who do survive and are interested in social theory build on what they think Adam Smith had already understood.
COWEN: If we think about 18th-century French thinkers, they seem obsessed with a particular theme: the notion of what kind of virtue is required for commercial states to persist. Why is that such an important question at that time?
SCURR: They’re trying to understand the forms of government that are going to fit with the emerging markets. They are very aware that international competition for trade is becoming hugely politically important, and they want to understand what needs to be true about a society and its political institutions in order to fit with those market forces.
COWEN: As you know, France is right next to Switzerland. The Swiss have no king or queen. There were plenty of reports coming from the Jesuits and others that the Native Americans in the New World typically don’t have kings; they might have chiefs.
Why wasn’t the notion of dispensing with the monarchy more central to French liberal thought leading up to the Revolution? The physiocrats: they’re obsessed with the king. Why is the king so important to the French?
SCURR: In the lead-up to the Revolution, it’s absolutely right that there are very, very few people who even consider that you could get rid of the monarchy. In contrast to America, they recognized that this is a very well-established, old monarchy; that it’s integrated into the society.
They can see that in America there has been an opportunity to experiment with a completely new form of government, and they recognize that they’re not going to have that opportunity in that completely pure form, that they’ve got a monarchy and they’re focused upon reforming it. That’s the energy that’s going into it.
The physiocrats, as you mentioned, other groups — for them, the question is, “How do we reform? We can take ideas from the republican tradition; we can think about how to maybe come up with some sort of hybrid.” But essentially (for them) it’s a reform project — until suddenly it’s not.
COWEN: Here’s a thinker near and dear to your heart — forgive my pronunciation, but Pierre Louis Roederer: Why is he still a political thinker of relevance?
SCURR: Well, he is one of the people I was referring to earlier. He really tries to find a political application for some of these ideas of stabilizing the constitution. He’s someone who’s giving public lectures during the Terror, and he’s really trying to take his inheritance from the Enlightenment, which includes exposure to Adam Smith but also Montesquieu, Voltaire, others; Rousseau as well, obviously.
He’s trying to use those ideas and — how do you say — the landscape of intellectual contributions to actually work through the practical political problems in the middle of the Terror. I found that very, very interesting.
COWEN: But what’s his theory of political economy? Like, why is some particular system more stable in his view, compared to what others thought? How does the model differ?
SCURR: He has, I would say it’s fair to say, a very optimistic view of political economy. He’s a liberal through and through. He thinks that you need to facilitate the free markets, that if you do that, you will see the principle of work integrate people into a harmonious society. He and someone exactly contemporary to him, Benjamin Constant: they’re both interested in this possibility that actually, the free markets are going to really prosper, and it will be possible to have stable societies that fit with that.
COWEN: A very broad question, but if we look at the Enlightenment as a whole and not just the French Enlightenment, but what is the underlying principle that gives it a unified flavor? What is enlightenment, to paraphrase Kant?
SCURR: For me, it’s liberty. It’s the evaluation of liberty above all else. I see this most in Tocqueville, because he is, obviously, the first generation who has no personal memories of the Revolution. But when he looks back on the Revolution and he tries to explain what has happened and, in fact, to explain not just the beginnings of democracy in France but also, of course, in America, he sees a fundamental conflict between liberty and equality. And he is always prioritizing, if he can, liberty whilst expecting that equality will win out as the stronger value.
COWEN: Was Hayek correct that the French Enlightenment theorists were too rationalistic, assigned too strong a power to human reason, and thus inevitably were led down a kind of slippery slope where their liberty was self-undercutting — and that the British empiricist tradition is far superior? Agree or disagree?
SCURR: I disagree with that, actually. I don’t think you can be too rational. In that regard, I’m a real signed-up Enlightenment person. You have to be very careful about thinking — I recognize, of course, there are limits to reason and what it can achieve. I think Edmund Burke was exactly right about that: a profound political thinker
Ultimately, I think we have to be very careful about accepting, in the first instance, that there are limits to what reason can achieve. We’ve got to — that’s where I disagree with Burke. I have more sympathy for the revolutionaries and what they were trying to do than he did.
COWEN: Are the origins of today’s woke and cancel culture found in the French Revolution?
SCURR: I don’t think the origins of it are. I think there are resonances, and I think that’s a very important difference. I think you can definitely look at the revolutionary rhetoric, the prescription of certain views, and the radical attempt in the French Revolution to cancel the past. This was absolutely explicit, right down to changing the calendar. They said, “We do not want to continue with this oppressive framework that we have inherited from the church, and therefore, we are going to have a new calendar based upon the natural world, etc.” That’s just one example of the determined attempt to cancel what was, by the revolutionaries, perceived as an inextricably oppressive past.
Of course, it’s very interesting to use the Revolution as a prism. You can look at it, you can see what happened as a result of that. You can think about the resonances. But I don’t think what we see today is directly related or in any sense caused by that.
COWEN: What do you think of the common criticism of Napoleon that he lacked diplomatic talent and always had to make up for that with battlefield advantage?
SCURR: I think that’s part of the anti-Napoleonic group. He’s a very divisive figure. You’re going to have people who attempt to diminish him. That would be one way: to say, “This guy is basically some kind of yawp; he can’t negotiate. He doesn’t even have great French. Therefore he has to start going for battles.”
I don’t think that’s right. I think he absolutely does diplomacy. You could argue that a lot of the battles are started by other people, not necessarily by him. But what we’re hitting here the moment we bring his name up is the very, very polarized attitudes to him.
COWEN: Now, if we view Napoleon’s life through his gardens, which is a main theme in your new book, Napoleon: A Life Told in Gardens and Shadows, what do we learn about Napoleon that we don’t learn by viewing Napoleon through the lens of his artistic emissions: David, Canova, many others. What’s the difference?
SCURR: By situating him in the gardens, I broadened the cast list. Of course, you could look at him and his influence on the arts, the high arts. David, Canova — they enter into my book, but so does a whole cast of lesser-known, literally more down-to-earth people: botanists, scientists, other people in his household, architects, etc. The point really was to have a broad cast but a principle of selection as well, which would enable a more diverse set of perspectives on him.
COWEN: There’s a common stereotype of the differences between English and French gardens, that the English supposedly like gardens to be wild, diverse, spontaneous; the French insist on a kind of top-down control. Almost a mirror of Hayek’s portrait of the thinkers. Is that overdrawn, or do you agree?
SCURR: I think it was, in that period, a very definite difference. This was a fashion. There was a fashion for picturesque English-style gardens, which actually also drew upon an Italian and Chinese inheritance; it’s not just that it’s English. But it became known as the English style, and it became very popular in France in contrast to the formal and regulated style, which was associated with traditional French gardens, especially in very grand places.
COWEN: By the time you get to the end of your John Aubrey book, which is called My Own Life, titled by you, you describe Aubrey as, and I quote, “a wonderful friend.” Could you say the same about Napoleon?
SCURR: Absolutely not. And by the way, that description of Aubrey is picking up on my first book with Robespierre where, at the very beginning of the book, I say that he has friends and enemies even to this day. Like Napoleon, he’s a very, very divisive figure. And that I had tried to be his friend — to see things from his point of view — but that friends, as he always suspected, have opportunities for betrayal that enemies only dream of.
Actually, my editor was quite nervous about — this was my first book, and she was very nervous about me putting that sentence into my introduction because she thought people might just think this was mad, to try and be Robespierre’s friend. And I insisted. It really mattered to me that if you give someone the benefit of the doubt, if you don’t start off vilifying them — even if they have been responsible for the Terror — then the portrait that you construct at the end of the day is going to be far, far more damning because you’ve included the good. You’ve included the things that there are to approve of; you’ve included those sides, and you haven’t started off basically telling people, “We’re going to write a book from this particular position.”
When it came to Aubrey, I had, obviously, a huge contrast in topics for these books. Aubrey was a wonderful friend, and I felt that being in his company, I had actually — and this is literally true — made new and wonderful friends through him. Because he still continues to attract friends. He is just that kind of charming guy. And nobody’s really going to say this about Robespierre or Napoleon.
COWEN: But Napoleon did charm people, right? That was part of how he rose to success.
SCURR: He absolutely did charm people. There’s something I quote in my book that I keep thinking about, which Madame de Staël said about him, which is that his eyes and his smile were never actually synchronized. She said, “People have said he had a charming smile, but actually, it was more like a grimace.” It wasn’t a genuine smile, and you could see he was calculating what he was going to need or how he was going to advance his purposes through this person.
She takes a very, very negative view of him. She says, “Actually, for Napoleon, other people don’t really exist. They are means to an end for him.” Now, she had reason to be extremely negative about him, but she did represent the deep liberal voice of the French Revolution. It’s very interesting to me that although she says people claim he had a charming smile, people claim he was charming, actually what she sees is manipulation and actually a lot of power there.
COWEN: Insofar as we make history more biographical, how would that bias history itself?
SCURR: Well, I don’t think history can be too biographical because, at the end of the day, we are interested in people who went before us and understanding the frameworks of their lives and the choices they made. I think it’s important to be as broad and inclusive in who we are interested in — that is very, very important to me. Certainly, it was one of the ideas behind the “shadows.”
It was about the people that Napoleon’s shadow fell upon that I began, really, trying to think about him, to get away from the idea that he is the center, he’s the sun, he’s the ego, and that we can think about history as a series of great egos, great men. Obviously, that is something I am deeply opposed to.
I’m very interested in trying to broaden the biographical approach. Many other people are doing this as well, which brings me huge pleasure: to actually acknowledge that every one of these iconic figures was situated densely amongst other people whose lives were actually as important to them as Napoleon or Robespierre’s was to them.
COWEN: What makes Keynes’s Essays in Biography so good? So there’s a biography of Marshall, of Malthus, right?
SCURR: Yes, sure —
COWEN: The Versailles figures. Why does that book work so well?
SCURR: Well, I’m sorry to say I have not read that book very recently. I have read it in the past, so I wouldn’t like to tell you, as one biographer speaking to another, what he does so well. What do you think works so well?
COWEN: Keynes puts himself into the book. He was remarkably perceptive as an observer of features he knew. With the other Cambridge economists, such as Malthus and Marshall — you can read Keynes’s account as a running rivalry that he’s afraid to admit up front. But he’s always comparing himself to them. And the Straussian reading of that book is that half of it is about Keynes.
SCURR: Yes, I think that’s absolutely right, and I don’t have any problem with that. You could say, is he explicit enough about that? Perhaps since Keynes, we’ve reached a state of biographical writing where people feel freer to be more honest about that, to actually highlight it, to say — I very much approve of the idea that the biographer is going to present a portrait that they can of whoever.
So if Keynes is writing about people he feels competitive with, he’s going to be motivated to do that in a particular way. I personally don’t feel competitive with my biographical subjects. Insofar as I would put myself into the text, it is through what I’ve seen rather than, in any sense, paralleling their lives and mine.
Perhaps Keynes, perhaps rightly, had a much higher opinion of himself.
COWEN: Why in Cambridge, in particular, do you think there’s a preoccupation with biography, if you would —
SCURR: There isn’t. To be honest, there absolutely is not. Who were you thinking of?
COWEN: You, first off.
SCURR: [laughs] Well, that’s very kind of you, but I don’t think that —
COWEN: Eminent Victorians, right?
SCURR: Yes, well —
SCURR: Yes, but they are outsiders. They are absolutely outsiders. Virginia — I was so, so flattered that one of my friends who read an early draft of my book said she couldn’t, at first, think what it reminded her of, and then she suddenly thought it was like Jacob’s Room. Of course, it’s nothing like Jacob’s Room in so many ways, but I know the resonance thing, and the thought that I was in any way building on the deep and profound biographical achievements of Virginia Woolf — which, by the way, I think they cross the boundaries between nonfiction and fiction, certainly in her case and I’m sure in other people’s.
But she and [Lytton] Strachey — I see them as subversive outsiders; I don’t see them as Cambridge. And I don’t think they would have seen themselves like that.
COWEN: Do you find it striking how much Virginia Woolf is no longer known for her writings on biography? She wrote herself, “Even Dr. Johnson as created by Boswell will not live as long as Falstaff as created by Shakespeare.” Is that true? If biography is not so enduring, why is it so important?
SCURR: Because it is about how we understand another life. For me, it’s a relationship. It is trying to find the form in which to capture something that you have been able to see in another life.
I think that you’re right. People do know that Virginia Woolf was very interested in biography; they know, for example, clearly, that Orlando is one of the greatest experimental essays on biography, and many of her other writings: they’re so rich and very numerous.
Maybe we should be more optimistic. Perhaps people are very engaged with this. I really hope so. She means an enormous amount to me.
COWEN: Should we worry that possibly biography, especially long biography, is the least-read genre today relative to purchases? So people will buy a biography of Eisenhower, Theodore Roosevelt — they put it on their shelf; it signals something about what kind of person they are, but they don’t read very much of it, if any. Does biography have that problem more than history or fiction or smart nonfiction?
SCURR: I doubt it. I think that kind of person probably buys the Pulitzer Prize winners and puts them on their shelf ready for their guests to arrive. As an author, well, good luck to them. If that’s how they want to furnish their rooms, then that’s absolutely fine by me.
I think one of the concerns is with publishers and their fear about biography — that now people will not invest in reading a long life, and perhaps it’s difficult for writers to get these books commissioned. Writers, in general, are struggling very much, indeed, to survive. I have an academic job. I could not possibly live off my writing. I need to have another job. I’m fortunate that I do. I think perhaps there are publishers who would be reluctant to give even a small advance to what they saw as traditional biography.
The problem with biography is it’s hard to win. You come along and you say, “Oh, I would like to write about Robespierre.” And they say, “Well, surely there’s enough books on Robespierre.” “We don’t need another Napoleon book. We don’t need another Robespierre book. We have many, many biographies of them already.” Then you come along and you say, “I’d like to do a biography of John Aubrey,” and they’re like, “Who’s that? Nobody’s going to buy that because nobody knows who he is.”
It’s very difficult to pitch the biographical project. You’ve either got to be saying, “Listen, nobody’s heard of this woman or this guy, and I’m going to write the book that changes that,” and maybe someone will take a punt on it or not. Or you’ve got to convince someone, “Listen, I know this has been done before, but I want to bring something new to the table.” Well, that’s a tall order, actually. It’s probably easier to just sit there and write your novel and hope that somebody likes it enough to publish it.
COWEN: I went to the Arlington County Public Library this morning, and there they have it: a separate section called “biographies.” And in that section are all the biographies. But that’s actually a funny kind of segregation. Should they do that?
SCURR: I think about that in bookshops a lot. I’m not sure. I think it’s better to integrate them with the history books. I don’t want to tell other people, either, how to do their jobs. Sometimes I go into a bookstore or a library and I’m thinking, “What is this? Why is it organized that way?” Maybe there’s something I’m not seeing.
But I’m always very disappointed if I go to the biography section, because — apart from anything else — it kind of looks so random. It’s just like the recent biographies — and you’re jumping between periods. I think it would be much more interesting to have, at least with the historical biographies, them integrated by period. That’s what I would do, but I’m not running a bookstore or a library.
COWEN: As you may know, Daunt Books in London, in fact, organizes by country. A biography of Napoleon is in the France section. That, to me, seems much better.
SCURR: Daunt’s is a wonderful bookshop. I’m very grateful.
COWEN: It’s my favorite.
SCURR: I’m very, very grateful to Daunt and, indeed, to many other bookstores as well.
One good thing is that bookstores are having some independence and creativity on an individual level, especially the independent ones. They can put unusual combinations together. They can experiment a bit more. I think that’s very, very valuable.
COWEN: Which other historical figure, if you would name one, might we understand better through the lens of his or her gardens?
SCURR: Oh, wow. That’s a very interesting question.
COWEN: Coleridge, Hardy, Kipling, Newton, Churchill, someone else?
SCURR: Well, Hardy — I don’t think we’d understand him better. I’ve been to Hardy’s Cottage. I’ve seen the remnants there of what must have been his garden.
I think what you have — it is a very interesting question, but the point here is that the method, the idea of doing it this way, came from the material, not the other way around. So it’s difficult for me because I didn’t . . .
Actually, someone asked me the same question about my Aubrey book. They said, “OK. If you were going to imagine a diary based on the historical evidence for another figure, who would that be?” And I was just like, “Well, I can’t answer that because I invented that approach to fit Aubrey.” Actually, even now with Napoleon, I think if you said to me, “Well, your next book has to be in the same mode; you’ll have to do another figure, and it has to be through their gardens,” I would really struggle with that.
COWEN: Now, in most of these conversations, we have a middle segment called “Underrated vs. Overrated.” Are you ready for some of that?
COWEN: I toss out something . . . Montesquieu. Overrated or underrated as a thinker?
SCURR: Underrated. He’s my desert-island choice. I love The Spirit of the Laws.
COWEN: What is the depth in there that most people fail to see?
SCURR: They don’t read it. It’s huge. That’s one reason for it being a desert island . . .
Montesquieu is a brilliant, brilliant man, and he’s a true, true liberal. I absolutely adore that text. And he’s also one — I think he’s probably, in France, the very earliest social scientist as well.
COWEN: Stonehenge, as a monument: overrated or underrated? It’s a megalith, right?
SCURR: Stonehenge could never ever be too overrated. It is so important. I am part of the dismayed group of people who are having to fight and trying to fight this plan to sink a tunnel under Stonehenge and cause God knows what kind of destruction. It’s really, really terrible, and the idea that we would do this to those megaliths that we have actually so fortunately — and largely, also, with help in some very important respects from Aubrey. They’re part of our posterity. I can’t believe that we would underrate them enough to be doing this road traffic system.
COWEN: Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, the play.
SCURR: I love Tom Stoppard’s plays, and especially Arcadia —
COWEN: That’s my favorite.
SCURR: That’s an absolutely brilliant play.
COWEN: Everything’s underrated. Here’s another easy one —
SCURR: Absolutely, everything’s underrated.
COWEN: The composer Robin Holloway.
SCURR: He has the office downstairs to me.
COWEN: I know.
SCURR: Of course Robin Holloway should be much, much more famous and much, much more rated.
Actually, he is pretty rated. He doesn’t have a bad time compared, by the way, to a lot of musicians and composers. Very often, he has a prom. This guy has attention, but I think he should have more.
COWEN: [Antoine] Destutt de Tracy, the French ideologue: overrated or underrated?
SCURR: Also underrated. I love him, too. He’s a very important figure in continuing the development of social science in that early period after the Revolution. Obviously, you can criticize some of his ideas, but for me, without him, Comte and [Henri de] Saint-Simon — they don’t even make sense.
COWEN: Here’s maybe the only tricky one: Oxford, the town?
SCURR: . . . Yes.
COWEN: Yes, exactly. You don’t have to be polite on this podcast, you know.
SCURR: I infinitely prefer living in Cambridge, but —
SCURR: It’s the way the river goes through the center of the city, for me. Water is very important to me. It’s the way the colleges back onto the river. There are many — my college, for example, is divided by the river, so we have some on one side, some on the other. I think at a certain level, it reminds me of Paris a little bit. Whereas Oxford — you have to go slightly hunting: it’s there, of course, but it seems more peripheral to the city.
The city seems closer to London — the other thing that’s interesting is in Cambridge, the colleges house all of their students, even our graduate students. We have a lot of investment in doing that. Whereas in Oxford, they don’t, not even their undergraduates. And that means that there is a huge market in basic landlords who are making money out of the students. They are housing them in very, very shabby accommodation. It’s really run down, lots of Oxford, even quite central Oxford, for this reason. I think that does make a big difference.
I think the colleges and their approach to looking after the housing of the undergraduates in Cambridge is actually a big contribution here.
COWEN: Now, you’ve reviewed a great deal for the Times Literary Supplement. We live in an internet-driven world, and although there’s online TLS, it doesn’t actually circulate that much. The links are not always open. How would you articulate how and why the TLS remains important today?
SCURR: It’s partly the readership. It’s interesting. Academics all over the world really, really care about their reviews in the TLS. I remember my supervisor explaining this to me: You can be in a university in Israel and your book comes out, and it really matters what happens to the book in the TLS, in a way in which, arguably, it doesn’t so much matter in the broadsheets or the literary magazines.
So I think that’s one argument. There’s that sense of — it’s not peer review; it’s better than peer review because peer review is always so fraught. You’re basically trying to find people to find fault or something. There’s a certain amount of that in the TLS, but there is also a platform for an international exchange of ideas and books. And noting — when I started writing for the TLS, I was — and I still do a lot of fiction for them. Sometimes that would be the only review that a first novel would get. Maybe that person went on to write other things. You look back on that, and you think, “Yes, the TLS was . . .”
I remember Mary-Kay Wilmers once saying to me — because she was, obviously, London Review of Books, but she said — and she had previously worked at the TLS, and she said that what she really valued in the TLS was that it was a journal of record. And I think that’s right.
COWEN: Why is Elena Ferrante special to you?
SCURR: Like millions of other people, I was completely captivated by the quartet, the Brilliant Friend, in ways in which I almost haven’t been since childhood reading. I’m nervous to go back and read those books because I had the most intense, immersive experience with them. Then I read her other shorter fiction, and I think she is an amazing. I’m reading her in translation, obviously, by the way. But she’s a terrific writer.
She reflects upon language, the power of language. Deeply, deeply feminist. I was absolutely enthralled by discovering her.
COWEN: On a second read they held up quite well for me, but I would say one and two rose in status and three and four fell a bit.
SCURR: Yes, that I can imagine. I can imagine that. I haven’t done it yet, so I don’t know, but that makes sense.
COWEN: You know there is a recent machine-learning study that suggests they were written by a man, Domenico Starnone. It may or may not be true, but it’s plausibly true. I find that disturbing as a thought.
SCURR: I didn’t see this study. I did follow the outing of her and all of the controversy around the fact she had wished not to be — her real name to be publicized.
COWEN: Starnone is the husband of the woman who was outed.
SCURR: I’m not really on board with this idea, at all. Apart from finding it disturbing, I would need very, very strong proof to even start engaging with that. Is there any proof?
COWEN: Do you believe in machine learning? I don’t know. A computer says it’s the same style; take that as you wish.
SCURR: I’m going to be passing over that.
COWEN: Now a few questions about the Ruth Scurr production function for our final segment. In one of your essays on Finella, which is the house you work in, you said, and I quote, ‘‘I am attracted to calm, order, and symmetry.” If so, why write a biography of Napoleon?
SCURR: Why? Well, he’s attracted to symmetry and order — maybe not calm, but actually, I think he does like calm when he can get it.
I’m talking there aesthetically, about my surroundings. I have a real aversion to a lot of clutter around me. One of the reasons I have so many books here in my office is that I made a deal with myself when I bought my first house that I would only have books in it that I was either working on or would want to read if I came awake in the middle of the night, and that’s it.
That’s because I didn’t want that sense of being overwhelmed by books and them being out of control, etc. Sometimes people are very surprised when they come to my house, and they’re like, “Where are your books? We thought you’d — ” etc. But there was something about maintaining an orderly environment that was very important.
To be fair, in that article, I have caused chaos in Finella in my office in order to have this calm environment at home.
COWEN: You also wrote, and I quote, “When I was an adolescent, Wuthering Heights appealed to me much more than Sense and Sensibility, but now the reverse is true.” How did that happen?
COWEN: Why does age flip you away from Wuthering Heights?
SCURR: Wuthering Heights is the —
COWEN: It’s over the top, right?
SCURR: — high passion; Heathcliff, Cathy out on the moors. I thought that was it: I thought that was what it meant to love someone, to the extent where they’d be visiting you after their death and trying to get in through the window.
Actually, I completely changed my understanding of what’s involved in loving another person and actually being gentle with another person, whoever they are — my children, my relationships with my parents, and other significant relationships in my life. I think the Wuthering Heights model has not weathered well.
COWEN: How has continuing to live in Cambridge shaped how you think, speaking of environment?
SCURR: It’s an enormous privilege to have spent so much time living here and to have brought up my children here. They do — in all seriousness, my younger one now is applying to university, and she’s like, “Oh my God, why did you bring us up in Cambridge? We don’t want to go anywhere else. We love it so much.”
How has it helped how I think? I am constantly making new friends in Cambridge. It’s a very vibrant and also, to a certain extent, transient place. People come — they come for a year, they come for three years. I really have benefited from having the contacts through my college as well, interdisciplinary — I’m good friends with scientists, engineers. I feel I’m living alongside their work as well as my work and trying to understand it as best I can.
COWEN: Who first spotted your talent as a historian, before you were a historian?
SCURR: Oh, I don’t know. [laughs]
COWEN: But you ended up in your current job somehow, right?
SCURR: Yes, sure. Sure. I think — I have a combination. Talent as a historian is a very specific question. I would say, there would be some of my fiercer colleagues who would be happy to recognize my talent as a biographer and as a writer. I remember my supervisor saying to me — he was a brilliant, brilliant man, István Hont, a Hungarian — he came to Harvard and was absolutely a huge intellectual influence on me. I remember him once saying to me when I would give him drafts of my work, he said, “Well, you’ve got this big disadvantage, Ruth, because you write so well that it takes me quite a long time to realize that you actually don’t know what you’re talking about.”
That was his contribution. I would say he perhaps — there were many different kinds of history.
The first real deep support for my Robespierre book came from Norman Hampson, who was a brilliant historian and had written an experimental book about Robespierre in his time. We had a very important exchange about that. Perhaps he was the first to really engage with what I was trying to do as a historian as well as as a biographer.
COWEN: Let’s say a talented young person, a prospective biographer, comes to you and they say, “Well, I’m thinking of having a life where I’m essentially a biographer, with some other job attached, maybe in academia.” You’re trying to figure out, “Does this person make sense as a biographer?” Other than the obvious — hard work, intelligence — what is it you look for in a good or great biographer, to spot one?
SCURR: You’ve got to be brave and completely open, in my view, to finding the form in which to tell the life. You can’t go in there with a workmanlike attitude saying, “I’m going to do cradle to grave,” or “I’m going to do it this — ” You’ve got to somehow connect and resonate with the life, and then things will develop from that. That would be my advice.
But, you know, I’m not teaching biographical writing. I’m not sure I would be particularly good at that. I have friends who teach creative writing. I always had the deepest respect for it, but I can’t begin to imagine how you do it.
I always think of Muriel Spark’s novel The Finishing School, which was her last novel, where she sends up a creative writing course with — and it’s so, so brilliant. It’s one perfect first paragraph, and she’s explaining how you’ve got to set the atmosphere (in the voice of the creative writing teacher) — you’ve got to set the atmosphere, you can say that the visibility is very poor, etc., etc. And she says, “It’s much too early to write, ‘Everything was covered by the (beep) fog.’”
COWEN: What do you do, personally, to stay open as a biographer, if that’s such an important trait?
SCURR: I wait for my subjects to find me, in a strange way. I’m open to jumping between periods, centuries, kinds of lives. I have a kind of adventurous approach to what I might do next. I feel very privileged to be able to pursue that.
I remember when I finished my Robespierre book and I decided I was going to do this Aubrey book, and I was still married to my first husband. He was very kind about it, but I think he thought I’d actually gone crazy. I think he thought this was so inexplicable, and lots of people do still say that to me: “What on earth — why did you make that jump? Why didn’t you do one of Saint-Just, or why didn’t . . .”
Or even if I’d gone from Robespierre to Napoleon, OK, that would have been a certain kind of conventional path. But that is not what happened, and I have absolutely no regrets about that.
COWEN: Last question: What is it you will be working on next?
SCURR: I can’t tell you. It’s too wild, I think —
COWEN: But you know what it is, right?
SCURR: I suspect what it is. I have to find out if that’s going to happen or not. I thought I was going to have a big gap. I just got married and I thought, “OK, we came through the pandemic, and I’m going to have a long rest now.” My children are pretty much grown up. I’m starting this new life, but then suddenly, I’m starting to think quite seriously about another book.
COWEN: Ruth Scurr, thank you very much.
Again, everyone, I loved Ruth’s latest book, Napoleon: A Life Told in Gardens and Shadows. I’m also a big fan of John Aubrey: My Own Life, also by Ruth, and finally, her Robespierre biography, Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution.
Ruth, thank you.
SCURR: Thank you, Tyler. Thank you.
Thumbnail photo credit: Dan White