Linda Kelly

b. 1936 – d. 2019

Linda Kelly was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2003.

Linda Kelly remembered – by Jonathan Keates

A singular empathy was the key to Linda Kelly’s success as an author. soon after going to her funeral I was discussing her with a mutual friend, the writer Elisa Segrave, who later wrote to me in praise of this very quality. A story Linda told her was about another funeral, where she recalled the widow walking around the graveyard murmuring ‘I’ve lost my glove’, the only expression of a much greater loss that the woman would allow herself. ‘In her quietness and lack of self-pity she sounded very like Linda,’ Segrave notes.

Kelly’s strength as a biographer and historian lay in mapping out her chosen territory through instinct rather than academic training. She was thoroughly at ease within the era roughly spanning the French revolution and the accession of Queen Victoria, making the period her own through an ideal mixture of enthusiasm, curiosity and alertness to detail. She knew how to pace her narrative efficiently, with a continuing sensitivity to her readers, refusing to be overawed by her subjects and enjoying the essential distance and difference from the present which their stories embodied.

There was nothing of the meretricious, photoshopped biographie romancée about her work, however. Even a short book like Susanna, the Captain and the Castrato (2004), examining the friendship of the Burney family with the opera star Gasparo Pacchierotti, has an incisiveness and precision of outline worthy of a more extended project. In her lives of Sheridan and Thomas Moore, the two men’s fundamental flaws of character are neatly used in order to heighten that Irish charm which engaged her in each of them.

She was less interested in the traditional presentation of the romantics as soulful nature-worshippers or preening egoists than in getting to the heart of their sheer, unembarrassed directness. In Women of the French Revolution (1987) or her study of Lady Holland’s Kensington salon we felt like guests introduced by the shrewdest of habitués. In this respect my favourite book was her last, Talleyrand in London (2017), a confident and touching account of the era’s most shameless political survivor in his avatar as an ambassador.

Linda loved France and its culture, though they, I once suggested to her, could not produce a single first-rate poet between 1600 and 1800. ‘What about la Fontaine?’ she rejoined. ‘Just a writer of fables,’ said I sniffily. But on the last page of her funeral order of service these splendid lines of his appear:

Je voudrais qu’à cet âge
On sortît de la vie ainsi que d’un banquet,
Remerciant son hôte…

It is we who need to thank Linda Kelly for the banquet of good writing she left us.

Articles by Linda Kelly

With a paper knife in the library

Linda Kelly considers the love of 'real' writers for detective fiction.

Read the article