The question of “authorized” versus “unauthorized” biographies has always been a troubled one. Authorized lives, on the one hand, tend to be too polite, too considerate of the feelings of the subject and his family—necessarily so since these people usually control access to vital materials and memories, so that their goodwill becomes essential for the success of the project. Unauthorized biographies, on the other hand, are often either scurrilous (authorization being withheld on that very account), or, if sympathetic, badly weakened by the author’s lack of access to sources.

Michael Barber’s new life of Anthony Powell falls into the latter category.[1] The Powell family (Powell himself died in 2000, at the age of 94) had chosen Hilary Spurling, the author of well-regarded lives of Paul Scott and Ivy Compton-Burnett, as the authorized biographer. But Barber,...


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