This long pursuit, p.6
This Long Pursuit, p.6Richard Holmes
Some comparative work has already begun. Sylva Norman has written about the strange shifts in Shelley’s posthumous reputation in The Flight of the Skylark (1954); Ian Hamilton about the cumulative influence of literary executors in Keepers of the Flame (1992); and Lucasta Miller in her study of the increasingly exotic literary cult of Haworth parsonage in The Brontë Myth (2001).
The notion of comparative biography also raises the question of the perceived limits of the traditional form. Ever since Edmund Gosse wrote a second, child’s-eye, version of his father’s biography (1890) as Father and Son (1907), and Virginia Woolf transformed a biography of Vita Sackville-West into the historical romance Orlando (1928), the boundaries between fact and fiction have become controversial and perilous. These experimental novel-biographies also form part of the tradition that might be usefully taught and studied. No critical account of modern ideas about biographical narrative could ignore Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot (1984) or A.S. Byatt’s Possession (1990).
The subtle question of the nature of non-fiction narrative, and how it differs from fiction, offers one of the most fascinating and fruitful of all possible fields for students. It is different from the conventional discipline of historiography. All good biographers struggle with a particular tension between the scholarly drive to assemble facts as dispassionately as possible and the novelistic urge to find shape and meaning within the apparently random circumstances of a life. Both instincts are vital, and a biography is dead without either of them. We make sense of life by establishing ‘significant’ facts, and by telling ‘revealing’ stories with them.
But the two processes are rarely in perfect balance or harmony. Indeed, with some post-modern biography the two primal identities of the biographer – the scholar and the storyteller – may seem to split completely apart, and fragment into two or more voices. This happens at unexpected, diverting moments in Peter Ackroyd’s Dickens (1990), or in a rich, continuous, polyphonic way with Ann Wroe’s Pilate: The Biography of an Invented Man (1999), or in a deliberately sinister, insidious, disconcerting manner with Andrew Motion’s Wainewright the Poisoner (2000). Yet this too is part of an older tradition already explored in Woolf’s Flush (1933), the playful biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s dog (with its genuine scholarly notes). Indeed, I believe it goes back through certain texts as far as the eighteenth century, and I have tried to investigate the roots of these bipolar forces (which may also be described as ‘judging versus loving’) in Dr Johnson & Mr Savage (1993). It is, of course, tricky terrain, the impossible meeting of what Woolf herself called ‘granite and rainbow’. But for that very reason, and because it requires a growing degree of critical self-knowledge, it could be rewarding for students to explore further.
Equally, the close textual study of biography could throw much more light on the unsuspected role of rhetorical devices such as ‘suspense’, ‘premonition’, ‘anecdote’ and ‘ventriloquism’ in the apparently transparent narrative forms of life-writing. And this in turn could reflect on the way that we are all, continuously, reinterpreting our own lives with story-based notions such as ‘success’, ‘failure’, ‘chance’, ‘opportunity’ and ‘achievement’. So biography could have a moral role, though not exactly the naïve exemplary one assigned to it by the Victorians. It may never teach us how to behave, how to self-help, how to find role models. But it might teach us simply how to understand other people better. And hence, through ‘the other’, ourselves. This, too, is part of the potential humanist discipline.
So, finally, I returned to the fundamental question: what would students be studying biography for? To discover and appreciate a great literary tradition: certainly. To learn both the values and the limitations of accuracy and historical understanding: without doubt. To grasp something of the complications of human truth-telling, and to write well about them: yes, with any luck. But above all, to exercise empathy, to enter imaginatively into another place, another time, another life. And whether that could be taught, I still had no idea at all.
So it was, in the spirit of enquiry more than anything else, that in 2001 I signed a contract to design and then teach a new Masters degree in biography as part of the celebrated Creative Writing course at the University of East Anglia. My theories now required strictly practical and immediate application. This was my first and only academic appointment, and I took it on with proper trepidation. But I decided to be ambitious, and to design a course that would begin with the Greeks and run to the twenty-first century. I spent most of the summer of 2001 reading Plutarch in an olive grove on the tiny island of Paxos, where an ancient legend said a voice was once heard at dusk, calling from the sea: ‘The great god Pan is dead.’
For the next five years I was responsible for about sixteen new postgraduate biography students every autumn. The first thing that delighted and astonished me was the evident appeal of the course to a hugely disparate group of people, whose ages ranged from twenty-two to sixty-seven, and whose backgrounds, life experiences and professions differed wildly. My notebooks record an Irish poet, an American Mormon, a general practitioner from Oxford, a Pakistani air force pilot, a Japanese businesswoman, a TV researcher, the ex-headmistress of an English girls’ school (not Greta Hall), a human rights barrister from London, a Vassar literature graduate, a Canadian TV executive, a financial journalist from the City, a Norfolk asparagus farmer, a Birmingham social worker, and a mother of three from Sussex whose sailor husband (I eventually discovered) was dying of cancer.
The central discipline of the MA was indeed my idea of ‘comparative biography’. In practice this established itself in two ways. First, we would look at how the form had developed historically – classical, medieval, Renaissance, Augustine, Romantic, Victorian, modernist, post-modern. We would compare the different ideas of evidence, narrative, sources and appropriate subject, which were assumed. At the same time, we would take particular biographical subjects, and compare the various versions of their Lives which had been written over time. Of course, some ran into literally hundreds – Napoleon, Byron, Lincoln, Queen Victoria. This also gave rise to interesting reflections on the shifting fashions in biographical popularity. But most of all it called into question the whole idea of one, definitive Life.
A particularly effective example was that of the early Anglo-Irish writer and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. Her first biography was written by her husband, the anarchist philosopher William Godwin, in 1798 – a work so shockingly frank that it was said to have destroyed her reputation for the next hundred years. But many others followed in the twentieth century, among the best being those written by Emily Sunstein, Claire Tomalin, Janet Todd, William St Clair (a group biography over two generations), Lyndall Gordon and Diane Jacobs.
Each was outstanding in its own way, yet each made very varied assessments of Wollstonecraft’s character, her achievement and the nature of her feminism. They also gave strikingly different accounts of many key episodes: her stormy relations with her brutal and abusive father; her passionate and possibly lesbian friendship with Fanny Blood; her disastrous love affair with the American Gilbert Imlay; her illegitimate child; her two suicide attempts; and finally her tragic death in giving birth to her second child, the little girl who would become Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein.
According to her biographers, Mary Wollstonecraft’s historical standing had fluctuated wildly between that of a tragic heroine, a feminist martyr, a dauntless travel writer (Ireland, Scandinavia, France), a visionary educationalist, ‘a female Werther’, or ‘a hyena in petticoats’. What emerged from these comparisons was the very complex notion of human and historical truth, the importance of social context, and the unexpectedly controlling force of the narrator’s point of view, or bias.
One scene in particular seemed to entrance my seminars. This was the surprising way William Godwin introduced his first encounter with Mary in Chapter 6 of his classic 1798 biography. He met her at a literary dinner given by the rad
My chief object was to see the author of The Rights of Man, with whom I had never before conversed. The evening was not fortunate. Mary and myself parted, mutually displeased with each other. I had not read her Rights of Woman, I had barely looked into her Answer to Burke, and was displeased, as literary men are apt to be, with a few offenses against grammar … I had therefore little curiosity to see Mrs Wollstonecraft, and a very great curiosity to see Thomas Paine. Paine, in his general habits, is no great talker, and though he threw in occasionally some shrewd and striking remarks, the conversation lay principally between me and Mary. I, of consequence, heard her very frequently, when I wished to hear Paine … We made a very small degree of progress towards a cordial acquaintance.
This is a wonderful, paradoxical moment in Godwin’s unfolding of his narrative, especially as he will later take such care in describing how they each, slowly but inevitably, fall deeply in love. Not only do we see with a shock Mary’s forthright style, and her refusal of polite conventions; but Godwin subtly implies his own tetchiness and male intellectual snobbery. As we see by the end of the biography, Mary will transform all these attitudes of his, in a way that was wholly characteristic of her genius.
A good deal of time was spent examining such narrative techniques, and the different styles of experiment, especially in twentieth-century biography. In a sense this was the traditional classical discipline of ‘rhetoric’. One revealing exercise was simply to look at the opening sentences of several major modern biographies, and see how immediately they suggested a particular line of biographical approach. My notebook records many examples.
For instance, there is the headlong way in which Robert Caro launches his magnificent Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power (1982):
On the day he was born, he would say, his white-haired grandfather leaped on his big black stallion and thundered across the Texas Hill Country, reining in at every farm to shout: ‘A United States Senator was born this morning!’ Nobody in the Hill Country remembers that ride or that shout, but they do remember the baby’s relatives saying something else about him, something which to them was more significant …
Here is the announcement of a mighty action epic (the biography will eventually run to five volumes), a wide-screen panoramic opening in cowboy country, and yet immediately and carefully undercut by subtle reservations – ‘he would say … nobody remembers … something more significant’ – which give a first clue to the fantastic thoroughness and diligence of Caro’s scholarly research.
Another memorable example is Alexander Masters’s opening to his strikingly original biography of a dysfunctional homeless Cambridge man, Stuart Shorter, in his witty, tender, outspoken Stuart: A Life Backwards (2006):
Stuart does not like the manuscript.
Through the pale Tesco stripes of his supermarket bag I can see the wedge of my papers. Two years’ worth of interviews and literary effort.
‘What’s the matter with it?’
‘It’s bollocks boring.’
This shock opening immediately announces a new kind of personal confrontation between biographer and subject. It will be fraught, informal, no holds barred, but with extraordinary possibilities of good humour and even, eventually, mutual understanding. The development of this strange duet, between Masters the clever young Cambridge academic and Stuart the streetwise but deeply damaged down-and-out, is at once established as the central narrative drive of the whole biography. Even so, there are traditional parallels for the student to recognise and ponder: not so much with Boswell’s Johnson, but more with Johnson’s own eighteenth-century down-and-out story, The Life of Mr. Richard Savage.
A third equally challenging, but utterly different, narrative voice takes immediate control in the thoughtful and provocative first paragraph of Hermione Lee’s superb biography of Virginia Woolf (1996):
‘My God, how does one write a Biography?’ Virginia Woolf’s question haunts her own biographers. How do they begin? ‘Virginia Woolf was a Miss Stephen.’ ‘Virginia Woolf was a sexually abused child: she was an incest-survivor.’ ‘Was Virginia Woolf “insane”?’… Or: ‘Yet another book about Bloomsbury.’
Here is a different kind of surprise, a post-modern daring in which the biographer immediately breaks the narrative convention of biographical objectivity. Is the form possible at all, she asks. Even her subject – especially when her subject is Woolf – seemed to doubt it. So Lee instantly takes the reader into her confidence, shows herself at work, apparently vulnerable and self-questioning, and acknowledges the great body of previous Woolf biography she has to contend with. By this very gesture of transparency, Lee skilfully captures her reader and establishes new intellectual intimacy with her formidable subject. From the admission of doubt comes a new authority. Now both are on equal terms: a new sort of biographical dialogue can begin, and will be continued triumphantly for eight hundred pages.
Parallel with the study of ‘texts’ (a term I still find oddly alienating) ran the practicalities of the students researching and writing their own work. One topic we frequently considered was the impact of the internet on biographical source-hunting. On the one hand it made original archives astonishingly more accessible; on the other hand it threatened to drown the researcher in a raging sea of second-hand, unchecked materials (as with a Wikipedia entry). But above all it demonstrated the need for the biographer to create his or her own, clear narrative structures – to check the evidence and take command of the story.
We discussed the difference between ‘inventing’ a fictional character and ‘entering’ into a biographical one. From this arose the question of whether the biographer’s self, the biographical ‘I’, could be introduced into the narrative. Should autobiography be allowed to impinge on biography (as, for example, Boswell had done with such signal success)? Should the pronoun ‘I’ be allowed to slip into the text? Or remain abstemiously in the footnotes? Or merely lurk in the Introduction?
But always we returned to discussing the value of an individual human life, and how it should be assessed. What constituted success or failure? Was this the same in a man’s or a woman’s life? Was this the same in all societies? Where did biography melt into social history? Much discussion ranged round Virginia Woolf’s mischievous remark (in Orlando) that ‘The true length of a person’s life, whatever the Dictionary of National Biography may say, is always a matter of dispute.’
In a properly ecological manner, we even considered the span of human life in comparison with other life forms on earth. This produced an interesting document which became known as the ‘Lifespan Litany’, and was pinned up on many study walls, as an act of biographical humility:
The Lifespan Litany
American redwood tree – 500 years
Galapagos tortoise – 190 years
African elephant – 90 years
European Homo sapiens – 75 years (20 years asleep)
Canadian grizzly bear – 25 years
German shepherd dog – 12 years
Cloudy yellow butterfly – 1 year
Worker bee – 5 weeks
Adult mayfly (ephemera) – 1 day
As the MA course became established, I found myself asking a different and more practical kind of question. What did these particular students each expect to gain from studying biography? My original concept of a ‘humane discipline’ seemed increasingly abstract. What was really important to them? Obviously, many wanted to write biographies themselves, and already had specific individual projects. These ranged from personal heroes drawn from history (Martin Luther King, Janis Joplin, Charlotte Brontë, Yuri Gagarin) to the recovery of intimate fami
Others wanted to catch up on post-university education, after a lapse of a decade or more, and regarded biography – with its mixture of history, psychology, sociology, literary criticism, archival research, and what we called ‘fieldwork’ – as an ideal mode of re-entry into the world of scholarship. It also took them sideways, into related documentary areas in the visual arts – portraiture, photography, film, video, and of course the whole world of YouTube and the internet.
But behind these two broad motives I often discerned a third, which only became clear over the course of the year, and usually among the older students. It was what I can only call a need for personal ‘reorientation’. They had reached a point in their lives, often marked by some sort of crisis – a loss of employment, the departure of children from the family home, illness or death, divorce, even a crisis of faith – which required a new kind of taking stock of their lives, a standing back to consider the ground, to consider the shape of their own story so far.
The remarkable thing was that biography, by taking them out of their own lives into someone else’s, allowed them to do just that. It gave them a different kind of overview. I rewrote in my notebook: ‘Another person, another time, another place.’ Not as an act of therapy, but as a deliberate discipline. I remember one student saying she had reached ‘a new landing-point’ in her life. She had climbed the stairs, and ‘biography was the banister helping me up’. This was the woman whose husband was dying of cancer. She wrote a brilliant biographical essay on the marriage of the beautiful Virginia Stanley and the daring seventeenth-century sailor and adventurer Sir Kenelm Digby. It was one of the best things written during my entire time teaching the MA. It gave me new respect for Strachey’s claim about biography: ‘the most delicate and most humane of all the branches of the art of writing’.
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