Hesketh Pearson

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Edward Hesketh Gibbons Pearson (20 February 1887 – 9 April 1964) was a British actor, theatre director and writer. He is known mainly for his popular biographies; they made him the leading British biographer of his time, in terms of commercial success.

Early life[edit]

Pearson was born in Hawford, Claines, Worcestershire, to a family with a large number of members in Holy Orders. His parents were Thomas Henry Gibbons Pearson, a farmer, and the former Amy Mary Constance Biggs. He was a great-great-great nephew of Francis Galton, whom he described in Modern Men and Mummers. After the family moved to Bedford in 1896, he was educated at Orkney House School for five years, a period he later described as the only unhappy episode in his life, for the compulsive flogging beloved of its headmaster. At 14, he was sent to Bedford School, where he proved an indifferent student. Rebelling against his father's desire that he study Classics in order to prepare himself for a career in Holy Orders, on graduation he entered commerce, but happily accepted his dismissal as a troublemaker when he inherited £1,000 from a deceased aunt. He employed the funds to travel widely, and on his return joined his brother's car business.

Conservative by temperament, he was a passionate reader of Shakespeare's plays, and a frequent theatre-goer. When his brother's business faced bankruptcy, he applied for a job with Herbert Beerbohm Tree, and began acting with that theatrical entrepreneur's company in 1911. He also acted with the companies of Harley Granville-Barker and Sir George Alexander.

In 1912 he married the actress Gladys Rosalind Bardili. They had a son, Henry Car Hesketh Pearson, who was killed in 1939 in the Spanish Civil War. Gladys died in 1951 and the same year he married Dorothy Joyce Ryder, who survived him. At the outbreak of World War I, Pearson enlisted immediately in the British Army but was soon invalided out when it was discovered that he suffered from tuberculosis. He volunteered for the Army Service Corps and was sent to Mesopotamia, whose climate was conducive to treatment for tuberculosis. He recovered from that malady while there, but contracted several other diseases, septic sores, dysentery and malaria and was close to death on three occasions. He attributed his survival to his practice of reciting long passages of Shakespeare while critically ill. He distinguished himself under fire, and on one occasion received a severe headwound from shrapnel. He was subsequently awarded the Military Cross.

After the war, Pearson returned to the stage and, in 1921, met Hugh Kingsmill, an encounter which, thanks to Kingsmill's charismatic friendship and influence, changed his life.[1]

In 1926 the anonymously-published Whispering Gallery, purporting to be diary pages from leading political figures, caused him to be prosecuted for attempted fraud. He won the case.

Later years[edit]

Pearson published his first full-length biography, "Doctor Darwin", when he was 43. By the time of his death thirty-four years later he had written another eighteen biographies, three travel books (all with Hugh Kingsmill), three books of reminiscences (one written with Malcolm Muggeridge), four collections of brief lives, a collection of short stories and essays, and a book on the craft of biographical writing, as well as numerous articles and talks. In England he was the most popular and successful biographer of his time.

A mutual interest in Frank Harris led to his meeting Hugh Kingsmill Lunn in 1921, and the two formed a close friendship. Lunn dropped his last name when he began publishing biographies and novels and was known both professionally and privately as Hugh Kingsmill. Together they wrote three books of a unique mix of travel writing, reminiscence, and literary gossip. Kingsmill died in 1949.

Throughout his career Pearson made the acquaintance of many other celebrated writers and performers, including George Bernard Shaw, Frank Harris, Lord Alfred Douglas, Max Beerbohm, Sir Francis Galton, Winston Churchill, P. G. Wodehouse, and G. K. Chesterton. He was also a close friend and collaborator of Malcolm Muggeridge; Richard Ingrams' later biography of Malcolm Muggeridge [Muggeridge: The Biography ISBN 0-00-255610-3] claims Pearson had an affair with Kitty Muggeridge, at the beginning of the 1940s, when Malcolm was in Washington D.C..


  • Modern Men and Mummers (1921) which describes encounters with Francis Galton (whose great-great-great nephew he was)
  • A Persian Critic (1923)
  • The Whispering Gallery: Leaves from a Diplomat's Diary (1926) fictional diary, published as an anonymous hoax
  • Iron Rations (1928) stories
  • Doctor Darwin (1930) on Erasmus Darwin
  • Ventilations: Being Biographical Asides (1930)
  • The Fool of Love. A Life of William Hazlitt(1934)
  • The Smith of Smiths, Being The Life, Wit and Humour of Sydney Smith (1934)
  • Common Misquotations (1934) editor
  • Gilbert and Sullivan: A Biography (1935)
  • The Swan of Lichfield: being a selection from the correspondence of Anna Seward (1936) editor
  • Labby: The Life and Character of Henry Labouchere (1936)
  • Tom Paine. Friend of Mankind: a Biography (1937)
  • Thinking It Over (1938)
  • Skye High: The Record of a Tour through Scotland in the Wake of Samuel Johnson and James Boswell (1938) with Hugh Kingsmill
  • This Blessed Plot (1942)
  • A Life of Shakespeare: With An Anthology of Shakespeare's Poetry (1942)
  • Bernard Shaw: His Life and Personality (1942) also G.B.S. A Full Length Portrait (US)
  • Conan Doyle: His Life and Art (1943)
  • Oscar Wilde, His Life and Wit (1946)
  • Talking of Dick Whittington (1947) with Hugh Kingsmill
  • The Hero of Delhi (1948) on John Nicholson
  • Dickens, his character, comedy, and career (1949)
  • G.B.S. A Postscript (1950)
  • The Last Actor-Managers (1950)
  • Essays of Oscar Wilde (1950) editor
  • Dizzy; the life and personality of Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield (1951)
  • The Man Whistler (1952)- (James McNeill Whistler)
  • Walter Scott: His Life and Personality (1954)
  • Beerbohm Tree: His Life & Laughter (1956)
  • Gilbert: His Life and Strife (1957)- (W S Gilbert)
  • Johnson and Boswell: the Story of Their Lives (1958)
  • Merry Monarch, the Life and Likeness of Charles II (1960)
  • The Pilgrim Daughters (1961) Marrying Americans (US)
  • Lives of the Wits (1962)
  • Henry of Navarre (1963)
  • Hesketh Pearson, By Himself (1965) autobiography
  • Extraordinary People (1965) biographical essays
  • Charles II: His Life and Likeness
  • About Kingsmill (Co-author with Malcolm Muggeridge - regarding Hugh Kingsmill) [2]


  1. ^ Richard Ingrams, God's Apology,1977 chapter 3
  2. ^ Many of the biographical works obtained from a copy of Charles II published by Heinemann in the UK in 1960


  • Ingrams, Richard (1977) God's Apology: A Chronicle of Three Friends
  • Hunter, Ian (1987) Nothing to Repent : The Life of Hesketh Pearson