I began as a trainee producer for the BBC, working in radio and television. But television is a very cumbersome medium: I soon found I preferred writing, and moved to freelance journalism, and eventually to books. And with books I have stayed ever since. I like the spaciousness of writing a book, the way one gets to live inside it – though the downside is, it’s very hard when you get to the end.
I have written detective stories and two ‘literary’ novels: Tickling the Dragon, which was about the fatal attraction of science and the making of the atom bomb, and The Uncertainty Principle, which is about parallel worlds. But I am primarily a non-fiction writer. I’m interested in why people think and act in the way they do at the moment they do, and I like to use biography to look at particular topics through individual lives. This was what I did in my very first book, Singer and the Sewing Machine: A Capitalist Romance, which was about immigrant expectations, harsh reality and social climbing in nineteenth-century America. Since then I have used the same technique in The Dollar Princesses, about American heiresses and European aristocracy, The Spiritualists, which explores the beginnings of spiritualism and its (literally) mind-bending attractions, The New Women and the Old Men, about self-deception among the early socialists in turn-of-the-century London, Being Divine: A life of Sarah Bernhardt, and The Life and Many Deaths of Harry Houdini, both of which explore the roots of star quality, and Surreal Lives, about the Dadaists and Surrealists. AutoMobile sounds rather different – but once again it’s not really about cars but rather, as its subtitle, How the Car Changed Life, implies, about how the car formed the world we live in, so that it’s about psychology, planning, politics, and the growth of big business as much as it is about cars. The People’s Chef, A Life in Seven Courses, about the Victorian chef Alexis Soyer, looks at aspects of Victorian life through its food. And Other People’s Daughters, the Life and Times of the Governess (in America, Governess: The Lives and Times of the Real Jane Eyres) looks at what it was to be a governess through seven short lives, or groups of lives.
My latest book is Ugly Beauty: Helena Rubinstein, L’Oreal and the Blemished History of Looking Good. This centres on an extraordinary scandal, or series of scandals, that arose when L’Oréal, whose French founder, Eugène Schueller, had been a leading Nazi collaborator, took over Helena Rubinstein, whose founder had been Jewish. Rubinstein and Schueller were very different in their views of business in general and the beauty business in particular. Ugly Beauty examines the consequences of L’Oréal’s victory for a business that today impinges on almost all our lives, and intimately affects the way we think of ourselves.
Ruth Brandon, 2013
Contact Ruth by emailing info[at]ruthbrandon.co.uk