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Richardson, Joanna Leahlocked

  • Alex May

Richardson, Joanna Leah (1925–2008), biographer, was born on 8 August 1925 at 36 West Heath Drive, Golders Green, London, the elder child of Fred Samuel (later Frederick Samuel) Richardson (1897–1978), leather merchant, and his wife, Charlotte Elsa, née Benjamin (1895–1978). Her parents were South African, of Jewish descent, and had married in London in 1924. Her father was an opera lover and an Italophile, who later interviewed Italian prisoners of war as a captain in the intelligence corps during the Second World War; from her mother she inherited a love of literature and the arts. She had one brother, Martin (1929–2001), who later became a successful architect.

Brought up in Hampstead Garden Suburb, Richardson was educated at the Downs School, Seaford, where she was unhappy, and at St Anne's Society, Oxford, which she enjoyed. Despite graduating with a third class degree in modern languages in 1946 she registered for graduate study under Enid Starkie, the flamboyant but sometimes brutal scholar of French literature. They had a difficult relationship, and Richardson's DPhil submission was rejected (it was sometimes rumoured on Starkie's advice); nevertheless Richardson was fascinated by Starkie's character, devilled for Starkie on her biography of Baudelaire (1957), and much later wrote a discreet official biography of her (1973).

Meanwhile, after working briefly as a research assistant to the illustrations editor of Chambers's Encyclopaedia, Richardson had embarked on a career as a freelance writer, becoming a correspondent for the New English Weekly and reviewing books for The Listener. She also translated French plays for the BBC, and began writing for newspapers and magazines, which later included regular contributions to the Times Literary Supplement, the Modern Language Review, and French Studies.

Richardson's first biography, published in 1952, of Fanny Brawne, the muse of the poet John Keats, was reputedly inspired by her discovery of an ambrotype of the subject, and involved extensive research in family papers and scattered libraries. Her fascination with Keats was an enduring one. Among her publications were The Everlasting Spell: a Study of Keats and his Friends (1963), Keats and his Circle: an Album of Portraits (1980), The Life and Letters of John Keats (1981), and numerous articles in the Keats–Shelley Memorial Bulletin. She was also closely associated with the Keats House Museum, near her home in Hampstead. An interest in nineteenth-century Britain was further pursued in biographies of Tennyson (1962), Edward Lear (1965), Thomas Creevey and Charles Greville (1967), and many writings on Victoria and Albert.

Richardson was best known for her studies of French, predominantly nineteenth-century, writers and other public figures, starting with Théophile Gautier (1958), and continuing with Princess Mathilde Bonaparte (1969), Paul Verlaine (1971), Stendhal (1974), Victor Hugo (1976), Émile Zola (1978), Judith Gautier (1987), Joseph-Napoléon Primoli (1987), and Charles Baudelaire (1994). Her biography of Judith Gautier, the talented and unconventional daughter of Théophile Gautier, was awarded the prix Goncourt for biography after its French translation was published in 1989; this was the first time either a woman or a non-Frenchman had won the prize. She was made a chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1987.

Richardson was often attracted to complex characters, who might on a personal level have been difficult, egotistical, or disreputable (or all three), and she was sometimes at pains to point out her subjects' flaws. Among her favourite research projects were those that led to The Courtesans: the Demi-Monde in Nineteenth-Century France (1967) and The Bohemians: la Vie de Bohème in Paris, 1830–1914 (1969). Her biographies were best described as fact-laden. She revelled in reviews which suggested that she knew (and was going to tell the reader) what her subject ate for breakfast. Some critics were less kind; A. S. Byatt observed of her Baudelaire that 'Some biographies glitter with the dead life of a world and a human being. Some, like this one, have a peculiar deadness—the spirit isn't raised, the ghost doesn't walk' (Evening Standard, 11 April 1994). She prided herself on her original research, but some academic critics in particular suggested that she at times owed rather too much to other people's findings. It was especially alleged that her Baudelaire owed too much to Starkie's, but it is probably truer to say that she was merely reclaiming some of her research, which Starkie had passed off as her own. For the most part she eschewed analysis or literary criticism, though sometimes she applied crude psychoanalytical concepts, as in her study of Baudelaire's supposed Oedipus complex. Her translations, which included Verlaine's and Baudelaire's poems (1974, 1975) and Gautier's Mademoiselle de Maupin (1981), similarly divided critics. Some praised her faithfulness to the French versions, while others thought she stuck 'too closely to the original, so that sharpness of image could be sacrificed to a cautious and clumsy fidelity' (The Independent, 18 March 2008).

A friend described Richardson as 'adamantine … determined, solitary, committed, and ruthless with herself and sometimes others' (The Ship, 56). A royalist, antique-collecting, high-church Anglican, high tory, she held unashamedly élitist views, and exhibited a degree of forthrightness and self-belief which frequently led her into combative situations. She sometimes seemed to relish, and indeed to nurture, feuds. Her time as a council member of the Royal Society of Literature from 1961 to 1987 was notable for several well-publicized spats. Nevertheless she had a circle of influential friends, mostly Oxford-based, among them Dame Janet Vaughan, Sir Isaiah Berlin, and A. L. Rowse. Berlin arranged for her to hold a visiting fellowship at Wolfson College, and Oxford belatedly awarded her a doctorate, making her a DLitt for her published work in 2004. Thereafter she liked to be known as Dr Richardson. She lived for many years at 55 Flask Walk, an early nineteenth-century terraced house in Hampstead. She died at the Royal Free Hospital, Camden, on 7 March 2008, and was cremated at Kensal Green crematorium on 19 March. At the time of her death she was working on a biography of Flaubert. She was unmarried.


  • Daily Telegraph (12 March 2008)
  • Camden New Journal (13 March 2008)
  • The Independent (18 March 2008)
  • The Times (24 March 2008)
  • The Ship [St Anne's College, Oxford], 98 (2008–9), 56–7
  • WW (2008)
  • private information (2012)
  • b. cert.
  • d. cert.


  • Ransom HRC
  • Bodl. Oxf., Winfred Hamilton–Meikle papers


  • BL NSA, documentary recordings


  • obituary photographs

Wealth at Death

£833,775: administration, 12 June 2008, CGPLA Eng. & Wales