Prizewinning runs in family

April 22, 2005

It's been a busy week for husband and wife academics Jonathan Bate and Paula Byrne.

Warwick University's Professor Bate picked up the James Tait Black prize, the UK's oldest literary award, at Edinburgh University for his biography of 18th century "peasant poet" John Clare. The next day, Dr Byrne, a research fellow at Liverpool University attended the Nibbies (the British Book Awards) as an author shortlisted for the Richard & Judy Best Read of the Year.

Her biography of 18th-century feminist and royal mistress Mary Robinson is the only academic work to feature in the book club on the Richard & Judy Channel 4 television show.

It is the first time either has written a literary biography. Each has been the other's first reader and critic. Both have nothing but praise for their partner's work. "I loved it," said Dr Byrne of her husband's book. "I couldn't wait for the next chapter."

"I enjoyed her writing," said Professor Bate. "Paula is more carefree in her style and there's a real energy in her writing."

He was delighted to be among the few academics to win the James Tait Black biography prize, a roll call of the most eminent biographers over the past century.

But he had no sense of superiority over his wife. "The Richard & Judy endorsement has taken her to number seven in The Sunday Times non-fiction bestseller list, a place I'll never get near!"

Dr Byrne said there was a lot of intellectual snobbery about people who watched Richard & Judy . But its book club was helping people to broaden their reading.

"I feel pleased because reading groups started in the 18th century. There's a real resurgence of interest in Mary Robinson in (academic) feminist circles and I wanted to write a book that would appeal to the intelligent general reader but was also a worthy read for academics."

The couple took turns to care for their two children, now aged six and four, while each was carrying out research or striving to meet a deadline.

Professor Bate said that being "pretty well a full-time dad" gave him an insight into John Clare, who had seven children. "He wrote some lovely poems describing taking his children for walks in the fields."

The couple are planning an even closer partnership - to work together on a joint biography of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.

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