A Great Task of Happiness: The Life of Kathleen Scott by Louisa Young

A great task of happiness

First Published: 1995 by Macmillan (Hydraulic Press ed. 2012)
My copy: Bought in paperback

Memorable quote: “‘It is lovely to be alive. I emit little shrieks from time to time, now there’ s no one to hear”

There are so many different paths that could lead you to pick up this biography. For those with a passion for art Young’s subject was a talented sculptor who studied in London under Tonks and in Paris under Rodin. For those interested in history and politics she lived through two World Wars, was married to a cabinet minister and counted Prime Minister Herbert Asquith as a personal friend. And of course fans of polar exploration will no doubt  be aware of her first husband, “Con,” one Robert Falcon Scott. In fact, with a supporting cast including George Bernard Shaw, Isodora Duncan, J.M. Barrie, T.E. Lawrence (“of Arabia”) and  Fridjof Nansen, Kathleen’s story almost reads as a glittering who’s who of early twentieth-century movers and shakers. So it is a testament both to Young’s skill as a biographer and to the essential vivacity of her subject that Kathleen is never overshadowed by the many other dramatic characters with whom her life intersects.

There is no doubt that Kathleen was a remarkable woman. Orphaned at a young age, Kathleen seems to have found the instability of her early years to be intensely liberating, allowing her to pursue a highly unconventional path for a woman of her time, sculpting, sleeping out under the stars, attracting an array of male admirers, and ‘vagabonding’ unchaperoned all across the world. Yet, Young suggests, her flamboyance and free-thinking was tempered by a strict moral code of her own devising. Determined to find the ideal father for the son she always dreamed of birthing, Kathleen may have been intellectually flirtatious but she remained physically chaste until she met Con. All biographers have their biases, and as Kathleen’s granddaughter I expected Young to paint a rosy picture of her subject. But A Great Task of Happiness actually seems remarkably balanced. Young uses excerpts from Kathleen’s diaries and letters to bring her subject memorably to life, but she also highlights the inconsistencies, revisions and gaps in her grandmother’s self-presentation and she does not shy away from chronicling behaviours that modern readers may find less admirable, such as Kathleen’s opposition to votes for women.

Young writes in a way that is chatty and remarkably free of the sorts of stilting footnotes and references you would expect from a biography of such a well connected character. While this might occasionally leave the reader struggling to distinguish some of the lesser-known artists from the explorers or the politicians it does mean that overall the tone of this biography is remarkably well suited to its lively, unconventional subject. If not always likeable, Kathleen Scott was certainly inspirational in her firm belief that happiness is something that can be chosen. Her extraordinary life is worthy of further exploration, and this biography is an excellent place to start.

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