A forum for the discussion of biography in the 21st century.
Header

celebrity-couple-conference

The conference on celebrity couples taking place at the University of Southampton’s Avenue Campus [‘home’ of this website] on Saturday, 24 November, boasts an impressive line up of speakers and has an obvious attraction for all interested in biography. Further details of the conference can be secured from Dr Shelley Cobb, Lecturer in English in the Faculty of Humanities, and whose email address is: S.Cobb@soton.ac.uk.

Professor Melanie Nolan, director of the National Centre of Biography at the Australian National University in Canberra, has kindly provided information on the work of the NCB :

1. Background

The Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB) is Australia’s pre-eminent dictionary of national biography.It was established in 1959 in the Research School of Social Sciences (RSSS) in 1959 and is a fine example of the ANU honouring its foundational role of undertaking projects of national importance. The ADB provides concise, informative and fascinating descriptions of the lives of over 11,500 significant and representative persons in Australian history. Managed and edited by staff at the National Centre of Biography (NCB), the ADB is the largest co-operative project in the humanities and social sciences ever undertaken in Australia. Over 4,500 authors, as well as an Editorial Board of eminent historians, and State, Commonwealth, Armed Services and Indigenous Working Parties have given their services, without payment, since the project started in 1959. The ADB is available both as a print publication and online:

Australian Dictionary of Biography http://adb.anu.edu.au/.

We have just completed volume 18 which will be launched in December 2012.

2. Current Developments: The ADB was integrated into the National Centre of Biography (NCB) in 2008 and the School of History in 2010. Editing new entries for the ADB remains the prime focus of the NCB but our long-term plan is also to develop innovative biographical websites and to undertake E-research based on our data. In the past three years we have successfully applied for a Major Equipment Grant, which enabled us to purchase a state-of-the-art Guardian AO scanner and establish a Digitisation Facility. We have also appointed a computer programmer, a digitisation technician and anonline manager.

In 2011 the NCB launched an Obituaries Australia website http://oa.anu.edu.au/ which aims to publish and comprehensively index every obituary published of Australians. 3500 names have already been added to this site. We anticipate the final figure will be in the hundreds of thousands. This year we launched Women Australia http://womenaustralia.anu.edu.au/ and Labour Australia http://labouraustralia.anu.edu.au/ and are in the process of developing an Indigenous Australia site. These ‘tailored’ sites have been developed to promote biographical research in these often neglected areas. We have also developed a People Australia website http://peopleaustralia.anu.edu.au/ which searches all of the NCB’s sites and includes entries for those for whom there is little biographical information such aspeople who died in infancy and childhood. All of the websites use the same underlying software, developed by our computer programmer, and index terms, so that researchers can move effortlessly between sites.

3. Future developments: Network Analysis and eResearch Projects: After 50 years the ADB has indexed entries on 12,500 individuals. Nine million Australians died between 1788 and 1990. It is only by building up acritical mass of data on individual Australians that E-research can be undertaken. As well as building up that data the NCB is developing network analysis and E Research to analyse associations between Australians over time.

The National Centre of Biography runs a seminar programme, has established a Masters in Biographical Research and Writing and hosts ANU.Lives, a biography series of the ANU E Press.

Contact details:

Melanie Nolan

Professor of History

Director, National Centre of Biography

General Editor, Australian Dictionary of Biography

History Program

Research School of Social Sciences

Australian National University

Acton ACT 0200

Australia

email: melanie.nolan@anu.edu.au

phone: 6125 2131

fax: (02) 6125 3644

http://ncb.anu.edu.au/

As promised, highlights of the conference are now available here on the website. Regrettably, for technical and other reasons not all talks are available (e.g. Frederic Raphael’s trenchant conference launch), but the podcasts confirm the quality of presentation and debate, as highlighted by Ray Monk’s post-conference blog (see below)

To download the mp3, hit play, then right click>save as on the download button.

3 July 2012

Stuart Profitt – A Publisher’s Point of View Download accompanying transcript

Robert Fraser – Biography, Satire, and Remembrance

June Parvis – Writing a biography of First Wave feminist Emmeline Pankhurst, suffragette leader in Edwardian Britain. What differing stories do biographers tell?

Becky Conekin – Model Lives: The Challenge of Writing the History of Professional Fashion Modelling in London c. 1947 to 1967

Tim Waterstone – Whither the book?

Panel Discussion

4 July 2012:

Andrew Hadfield – Edward Spencer and the Reconstruction of Early Modern Lives

Paal Antonsen – Fictional Biographical Characters

Alex Danchev – Whither the Lives of the Artists?

Jeremy Treglown – The Death of the Life: Reports Exaggerated?

Silke Roth – “It’s a small world” – Presenting Research on International Aid Workers

Helen Rappaport – The Search for a Subject: Finding New Ways of Looking at Old Stories

Liz Baigent – The Geography of Biography: The Various Lives of Kate Marsden, Traveller to Siberia in the 1890s

Jack Corbett – In Defence of Empathy: Leadership Narratives and the Methodological Practice of Collective Biography

Richard Holmes – Biography and Science

Turning Points in Biography: the collective, the event and the return of the life in parts
9-10 February 2013
University of East Anglia
Organised under the auspices of the University of East Anglia’s School of Literature, Drama and Creative Writing’s Biography and Creative Non-Fiction Programme

Keynote speakers TBA

CALL FOR PAPERS

They say the devil’s in the details. So what kind of life do we get when depth overshadows breadth? In serious biography, more and more, it means a partial life: a focus on what is called the ‘collective’ or group, and (in what is swiftly becoming the new trend) on a pivotal event or age. The conventional biographer must wonder: how do these shorter, closer cuts stand up to definitive, cradle-to-grave lives? What new challenges do they present, and what old ones do they overcome? Are certain subjects better served by it? How is the structure already evolving?

Biographers such as Richard Holmes, Charles Nicholl, Helen Rappaport and Frances Wilson have chosen a pivotal event, a series of events, or the relationships within a group to create closer and perhaps even truer portraits of their subjects than ever before. This two-day international and interdisciplinary conference invites papers from postgraduates, academics and practicing biographers that explore this recent innovation in life writing by addressing such questions as:

  • Is there still a place for the definitive life?
  • What new obstacles does the event-based narrative put before us?
  • Is it necessarily problematic that this approach distorts the life?
  • How do we find a sense of wholeness in parts?
  • How do we assess rigor of scholarship in this context?
  • How does an event-driven narrative answer the weaknesses in the conventional cradle-to-grave structure?
  • What subjects are most suited to this structure?

Topics may include but are not confined to papers on biographical works in progress, critical readings or theoretical approaches.

Please send abstracts of 250 words for 20 minute papers with your name, email address and university affiliation to Kathryn Holeywell and Blake Darlin at UEABiographyConference@gmail.com
Deadline: 1 November 2012

Colleagues on vacation mean that the recordings of the proceedings at the ‘Can Biography Survive?’ conference have yet to be converted into podcasts, but this is a priority.

The Times Higher Education, 19 July 2012, carries a feature article – ‘Cult of Personalities’ – by Jonathan Steinberg, to coincide with the paperback publication of his acclaimed biography of Bismarck. The article, in which the author offers a spirited defence of biography, seeks to explain why the genre has re-established its intellectual credentials (‘…because the social science models ignored the power of human personality’). Steinberg rightly signals that biographers have to pose the same questions as the ‘academic historian’, and must provide the same evidence-based answers; and he draws on his own and other political biographies to support his argument. He suggests that if a biography fails then it does so in a manner that is familiar to the discipline of history as a whole; but, when successfu,l then the manner of a biography’s achievement is unique, by ‘showing us what extraordinary human beings have done and what they were like.’ This is an entertaining and informative 1500 or so words, and it’s worth checking out the Higher‘s website.

Two years in the planning, this was a major event, involving many of the leading figures, not only in biography, but also in the publishing and book-selling world. Indeed, it was the perfect fulfillment of the network’s aim to bring people together from as wide a range as possible. Among the speakers were academics from departments of English, History, Politics, Sociology, Geography and Philosophy. There were also some of the freelance biographers whose works has done most to shape the genre over the last few decades, as well as some of the agents, publishers and booksellers who have been at the forefront of the book industry’s attempts to come to terms with the deep and rapid economic and technological changes which have presented such formidable challenges in recent years.

The papers and discussion sessions fell roughly into three groups. First, there were those that presented reflections on the genre from various academic perspectives. The historian Stephen Brooke, for example, drew attention to the importance of treating a person’s life, not as a simple narrative, but rather as, in Walt Whitman’s famous phrase, ‘containing multitudes’. Robert Fraser, a professor of English, looked at biography from a literary point of view, discussing its characteristic styles and tropes. Meanwhile, the philosopher Paal Antonsen raised questions about the supposed exclusiveness of biography from other disciplines and concluded that, actually, it should really be seen, not as an independent genre, but rather simply part of history. Starting from the opposite assumption – that biography is a genre in its own right – Jeremy Treglown, a professor of English at Warwick, argued that reports of its demise were, as those of Mark Twain’s had been, ‘greatly exaggerated’.

Others discussed the challenges and prospects of particular types of biography. The sociologist Silke Roth gave a summary of her work on international aid workers, while Becky Conekin’s paper discussed another relatively specialised area of concern: the lives of fashion models during the forties, fifties and sixties. Much less specific was Alex Danchev’s impassioned discussion of the lives of artists, a sub-drama whose importance Professor Danchev urged with great passion and conviction. The methodological problems of writing collective biographies were analysed by Jack Corbett from the Australian National University, while the issues raised by the opposite situation – a collection of biographies of a single individual – were discussed by June Purvis in her presentation of the various lives of the suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst and also by the geographer Liz Baigent, who considered the various lives that have been written of the explorer Kate Marsden. Andrew Hadfield, professor of English at the University of Sussex, talked very entertainingly and enlighteningly about his recent experience of turning the few scanty documentary records of Edmund Spenser’s life that exist into a 600 page scholarly biography.

Though she has taught at Oxford, Manchester and Columbia, Claire Harman would more naturally be thought of as a literary biographer than as an academic, having written prize-winning biographies of Sylvia Townsend Warner, Fanny Burney and Robert Louis Stevenson. Her talk, ‘Looking Back and Looking Forward’ focused on the ways in which various biographies have approached the task of revising their work and how new technology – in particular, the e-book – offers an opportunity to approach this task in a completely new way. It was a fascinatingly fresh look at an old theme. Among the other freelance writers in attendance was the eminent man of letters, Frederic Raphael, who, among his many other distinctions, can count winning an Oscar. He has recently finished a biography of the Romano-Jewish historian, Josephus, and talked with great wit and elegance about the importance of the imagination for the biographer. On the morning of the second day, the freelance historian, writer and biographer Helen Rappaport gave an extraordinarily stimulating discussion, based on her own experience as a practitioner of the genre, about how biography might be rejuvenated by a more imaginative approach, not just with regard to writing but also with regard to choosing a subject. Why, she asked, should the subject of a biography be the whole life of a person. Why not a few years or even just a moment? In a masterly and captivating presentation, Richard Holmes – regarded by many as the greatest living biographer writing in English – provided another fresh perspective when he described why he, known to everyone as a literary biographer, had now turned his attention to science and scientists. There were, he suggested, signs that we are currently going through a golden period of scientific biography, even during this period of economic and technological change and uncertainty.

Which brings me to the third and final group of presenters: those in the business. First up was Stuart Proffitt, who, as Publishing Director of Penguin, is in an excellent position to know which way the winds are blowing through the publishing industry. Supporting his argument with some useful statistics, he gave a sobering analysis (but one not entirely without hope) of the state of both the bookselling business as a whole and the biography market in particular. The gist of Stuart’s analysis was confirmed by the bookseller Tim Waterstone, who told us that the book market in the UK grew year on year by about 3% between 1947 and 2004, when it reached a peak of £5.8 bn. Since 2007 the market has declined by 21%, and in the near future, Tim thinks, it will be down to about £3 bn, a third of which would be accounted for by e-books. The market for good old fashioned, “physical” books (those made of paper rather than electrons), then, will soon be less than half of what it was a few years ago. The implications of this were thrashed out in the lively and fascinating panel discussion that followed Tim’s talk. On the panel were two agents (David Godwin and Gill Coleridge), a publisher (Dan Franklin of Jonathan Cape) and a literary editor (Miriam Gross, who used to edit the book pages of the Sunday Telegraph and has been at the centre of Britain’s literary world for the last four decades). For many people, this panel discussion was the highlight of the conference, not only because of the spirited ways in which the panelists argued for their widely different reactions to the economic situation (Dan Franklin was inclined to be gloomy, David Godwin resolutely upbeat), but also because of the very pertinent interventions made by members of the audience. It was at this session that the hopes of the conference organisers received their most direct fulfillment, with authors having the chance to present their concerns to publishers, and academics having the opportunity to hear at first-hand how the current state of the market for biographies is affecting those who make their living from writing them.

For many, this bringing together of very different kinds of people affected by the challenges to biography presented by today’s world was the real value of the event. One impressed academic wrote to me afterwards: ‘I didn’t comprehend in advance that all those luminaries from UK publishing and book trade would attend and participate’, while an agent told me it had been ‘a fascinating glimpse into academic life’. Richard Holmes described it as ‘a very well-organized and exceptionally multifaceted Conference, bubbling with ideas’, while June Purvis, I think, spoke for many, when she wrote ‘it would be a pity for the AHRC funded Biography Network to dwindle away. Is it possible to keep it going??? ‘ This last is a question to which we are now putting our minds and on which we would love to hear the views of everyone who has taken part in any of our events.

FRAMING LIVES

The 8th Biennial Conference of the International Auto/Biography Association
17-20 July 2012, Canberra, Australia

Deadline for paper and panel proposals: 15 November 2011
Notification of acceptance: 15 December 2011
Conference website: http://www.iaba2012.com

The Humanities Research Centre and National Centre of Biography at the Australian National University, in partnership with the National Portrait Gallery, present Framing Lives, the 8th Biennial Conference of the International Auto/Biography Association.

The field of auto/biography and life narrative studies is dynamic and interdisciplinary. Founded in 1999, the International Auto/Biography Association (IABA) is the leading international forum for scholars, critics and practitioners. The Framing Lives conference will feature distinguished international speakers and events at the National Portrait Gallery and other national collecting institutions.

Framing Lives draws attention to the extraordinary turn to the visual in contemporary life narrative: to graphics and animations, photographs and portraits, installations and performances, avatars and characters, that come alive on screens, stages, pages, and canvas, through digital and analogue technologies. At the same time, framing suggests the ways that lives are lived, recorded and viewed through multiple frames including those of language, politics, place, gender, history and culture. It draws attention to the multiple ‘I’s of auto/biographical representations now, and the various fields of vision, lines of sight, and points of focus for critics, artists, writers, historians and curators in the life worlds of auto/biography. Conference themes include depiction and display, ethics and rights, living archives, place and displacement, media and celebrity, digital identity and social media, and creative life narrative.

CONVENORS:

Paul Arthur (Deputy Director, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University)
Rosanne Kennedy (Associate Professor and Head of Discipline, Gender Sexuality & Culture, Australian National University)
Gillian Whitlock (ARC Professorial Fellow, School of English, Media Studies & Art History, University of Queensland)

SUBMISSION GUIDELINES:

We welcome paper and panel proposals that connect with the conference themes as well as wider aspects of biography, autobiography and life narrative in the 21st century.

For individual papers, please submit a one-page proposal including full name, title, institutional affiliation (if applicable), email address, postal address, abstract (max 300 words) and bio (max 200 words) by email to papers@theiaba.org.

For panel proposals, please submit a short panel description (max 200 words) along with individual paper proposals for each presenter by email to papers@theiaba.org.

CONFERENCE ENQUIRIES:

Contact: Leena Messina, Programs Manager, Humanities Research Centre, Australian National University
Email: leena.messina@anu.edu.au
Phone: (+612) 6125 4357

WEB LINKS:

Framing Lives conference website: http://www.iaba2012.com
International Auto/Biography Association: http://www.theiaba.org
Humanities Research Centre, Australian National University: http://hrc.anu.edu.au
National Centre of Biography, Australian National University: http://ncb.anu.edu.au
National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, Australia: http://www.portrait.gov.au

CONFERENCE THEMES:

We are particularly interested in paper proposals that address the following themes but also encourage submissions that deal with wider aspects of the practice and theory of auto/biography and life narrative:

1. Depiction and display

–Histories and analyses of visual representations of lives
–Lives as art, including portraiture, sculpture, photography, film and new media
–The life of objects and things in storytelling
–Curating online collections
–Adaptation and remediation
–Eavesdropping and voyeurism
–Framing, filtering, capturing, exposing, colouring lives
–Digitisation, simulation, authenticity

2. Ethics and rights

–Human rights, privacy, advocacy, law
–Rights of biographical subjects
–Trauma, grief and testimony
–Editing and ethics
–Disability, illness, therapy and recovery in life narrative
–Environmental biography
–Posthuman lives
–Gender and sexuality
–Secrets and lies

3. Living archives

–The archive within: genetics, genomics, neurology, emotions
–Archival legacies: remembering and forgetting
–Managing archival material: methodologies, policies, selection, metadata
–Oral history theory and practice
–Life story consent, copyright, constraints
–Preserving ephemera
–Institutional partnerships
–Transnational archives
–Transgenerational archives

4. Place and displacement

–Translating ‘life’ and lives across cultures and languages
–Indigenous lives
–Diasporic lives
–Immigrant lives
–Transnational lives
–Minoritarian life narrative
–Genealogies
–Witnessing publics

5. Media and celebrity

–Press, radio, television, film and music biographies
–The media as biographer
–Creating notoriety
–The changing nature of fame
–Collective memory and biography
–Refashioning identity: bodies in the media
–Confessional modes in public life
–Obituaries

6. Digital identity and social media

–Cyberlives
–Auto/graphics
–Social media audiences
–Digital relationships, communities, intimacy
–Epistolarity before and after email
–Avatars, animation, machinima
–Transfigured bodies
–Pocket lives: iPhone, iPad, Android, apps

7. Creative life narrative

–New hybrid forms of life narrative
–Approaches to constructing the autobiographical self
–Memoirs, journals, diaries, reflections
–Autoethnography
–Scholarship versus creative practice
–Fantasy lives
–Personal journeys
–Digital storytelling


Start: July 3, 2012                                          Venue: University of Southampton
End: July 4, 2012                                            Address: United Kingdom


The conference is currently being planned, and suggestions – including offers of papers – are welcome. Further details are to follow.

BIOGRAPHY AND THE MORALITY OF STYLE

Professor Robert Fraser

Inaugural lecture, Open University, Tuesday 10 January 2011

Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Dean, Ladies and Gentlemen,

My theme is biography, its rewards and its pains, its inconveniences and its opportunities, and its place within a university. To the last of these questions I will turn presently, but I would like to start by peering inside an institution of another kind: into Brixton Jail, along the corridors of which, one afternoon in August 1918, a nasal clatter was heard to echo. The sound was a prisoner guffawing at – or rather with – a recently published book. His hilarity did not go down too well. According to his own account, “the officer came round to my cell, saying I must remember that prison is a place of punishment.” Since the detainee’s name was Bertrand Russell, you could say he enjoyed the last laugh, both with the book and at the expense of the social, political and moral system that had confined him in so inappropriate a setting for several months, simply for opposing the First World War. Arguably indeed there was a connection between these sources of laughter and the war itself, since the text that had caused Russell such mirth had implicitly been aimed at the set of values that had incited the conflagration in the first place. The book, an experiment in group biography, was Eminent Victorians, and its author Russell’s friend Lytton Strachey. It enjoyed immediate success, sending ripples throughout the world of English letters and beyond. Strachey’s former university teacher, the historian G.M Trevelyan, read it whilst traversing the North of Italy in a train. He promptly wrote to his former pupil, of whom secretly he had always somewhat disapproved, to congratulate him, adding the barbed comment that his erstwhile charge had now “found a method of writing about history which suits you admirably.” Biography would never to be quite the same again.

The success was not entirely expected. Strachey was a lazy scholar though he could write a flashy essay, as during his student years Trevelyan had never ceased to remind him. Indeed, his achievement was less one of substance than of his salty and irreverent style. What he had done was to select four worthies of the last but one reign – Cardinal Manning, Arnold of Rugby, Florence Nightingale and General Gordon – and to write a sketch of each that turned their established reputation on its head. In his concluding chapter he portrays Gordon, desperate, self-important and stranded in Khartoum. There were plenty of British sources Strachey could have cited in support of this beleaguered veteran. Instead he quotes Rimbaud: “It’s just typical of those English with their preposterous politics, messing with trade on all sides…Their Gordon is an idiot, their General Wolseley an ass, and all their doings one long catalogue of absurdity and ruin.”

Little wonder that the iconoclastic Russell enjoyed the exposé so much, or that he and his contemporaries came to regard as a form of emancipation the entry into British biography of a tone and style in stark contrast to the marmoreal tones of Lives and Letters, often compiled by a doting friend or bereaved spouse, that had characterised the biographical literature of the previous century. Many modern British biographers, not least Strachey’s own biographer Michael Holroyd, look back to that moment of liberation as the foundation of their craft. One thought this has suggested to me is that there exists in all biography a stylistic battle between twin impulses: the need to celebrate lives, and the need to question, assess, mock, even to chide. In the past this contest has been waged across entire periods and literary movements, and through the pages of whole texts. For any individual biography nowadays, it is most likely to manifest itself in an unrelenting choice between sentence forms, phrases, even individual words.

Some are born biographers, some achieve biography, and some have biographising thrust upon them. Personally I was thrust. At the outset, therefore, it seemed proper to seek professional advice from one of the born breed. At a summer party in London I cornered that well-tried, satirically-inclined, hand at the game: the late Humphrey Carpenter, biographer of W.H. Auden, Benjamin Britten, Ezra Pound and the Goons. “Ah biography,” he drawled, swaying back on his heels and shedding dandruff as he went: “It’s a disreputable business – and I do love it so!” At that moment I recalled reading somewhere that Carpenter traced his personal vocation to his astonished discovery in early infancy of the bottom drawer in which his mother kept her undergarments. This was the sort of disclosure that Carpenter was wont to make, with such lofty, episcopal charm one almost failed to notice its perversity. The charm could be misleading, as one naïve incumbent of the See of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, discovered to his dismay after commissioning from this mischievous broadcaster and jazzman an account of his life and ministry, in the innocent belief that Carpenter would treat their recorded conversations with discretion. When the book appeared, with its excoriations of its subject’s confusions of act and purpose, the shamed prelate was obliged to append a note reading “I have tried hard to die before this book was published”. Runcie is far from alone. It is remarkable just how many interviewees are wont to sidle up to your microphone under the mistaken impression that you will ignore their revelations if they speak into it quietly. After which, the biographer finds himself carefully transcribing a series of passages starting with the whispered words “To speak quite confidentially…”

Certainly Carpenter was a craftsman, as carpenters do tend to be. The question, to my mind, is whether the acerbic note adopted by him and other twentieth -century biographers was as modern as they liked to suppose. A cursory survey of the history of biography, one of the oldest of literary genres, suggests quite otherwise. Here, in the second century AD, is the Roman biographer Suetonius describing the behaviour in Capri of the Emperor Tiberius, officially revered as a god:

He made himself a private sporting house, where sexual extravagances were practised for his secret pleasure…A number of small rooms were furnished with the most indecent pictures and statuary obtainable, also erotic manuals from Elephantis in Egypt; the inmates of the establishment would know from these exactly what was expected of them. So that the place was openly and generally called ‘The Temple of the Goat’.

Reading which, I am reminded of a conversation overheard many years ago between two gowned masters at my ancient Grammar School. We were standing in the Senior Library at the time, and one inquired of the other “Do we possess any pornography in this library?” “Indeed, yes,” replied his eager colleague. “We call it the Classics Section.” Biography, I noted with curiosity, was shelved in an adjacent stack.

One proposition suggested by these episodes is that, though there exists as yet no settled canon of biography, its evolution over time has been far more continuous than most people realize. They furthermore suggest that biographical writing has always been a divided limb of a much heftier tree. To understand Suetonius aright, one needs to appreciate the long satirical tradition in ancient literature: Juvenal, Plautus and, before them, Aristophanes. To place Strachey and Carpenter in appropriate perspective, one has to take into account an equivalent English tradition stretching from the comedies of Ben Jonson through the cartoons of Hogarth to Private Eye. The countervailing idealising tradition represented by those Victorian Lives and Letters enjoys a pedigree almost as long, emerging from medieval hagiography and entering the English mainstream with the four exemplary priestly lives – two of them poets – by Izaak Walton, better known as the author of The Complete Angler. Parallel with this runs a tradition in painted portraiture stemming from church iconography, and proceeding in the secular sphere through Holbein the Younger, Van Dyke, Reynolds, Gainsborough, and on to the society artists or photographers of the Victorian age. But, whether celebratory or caustic, all of these writers and artists have been self-conscious stylists, and all have been implicit moralists, attributes so intimately connected one could almost identify in each an evolving quality called the Morality of Style. “We are perpetually moralists;” Doctor Johnson wrote in his Life of Milton, “but we are geometricians only by chance.” As morality has changed, style has changed along with it. It is remarkable just how many classics of the biographical genre have begun with a dissertation on precisely this conjunction. Johnson’s Lives of the Poets, an inviting model for someone intending to write the lives of more recent poets, started out as a set of Prefaces to volumes by Congreve, Gray and fifty others, but amounted in time to a defence of what came to be known as the Augustan style, with Pope as its supreme exemplar. One of the best known is the Life of Abraham Cowley, and while almost everybody has forgotten the details of the life described, every scholar of English literature is familiar with the castigation of the so-called Metaphysical style with which it begins, a manner Johnson believed to be over-refined and sophistical. So influential did this stylistic manifesto prove with poets, biographers and critics, that it was well over a hundred years before anyone could write verse influenced by the Metaphysical school, or seriously attempt, say, a balanced Life of John Donne.

When, and where, did my personal fascination with the biographical form begin? Of one matter I am quite certain: it has always gone along with an awareness of style. I invite you to contemplate my eleven-year-old self standing with others in the north aisle of a Norman cathedral, and intoning a happy song which, Mr Dean, I think you may recognize:

O God the Father of Heaven: have mercy upon us miserable sinners.

Oh God the Son Redeemer of the world: have mercy upon us miserable sinners.

Oh God the Holy Ghost, proceeding from the Father and the son: have mercy upon us miserable sinners

The words, the oldest in the Prayer Book, were from Thomas Cranmer’s ‘Litany’, and the setting was by Thomas Tallis. But as we turned to set off up the longest nave in England, my eyes drifted down to my scuffed black leather shoes, beneath which I had made out another text carved in bold characters that read:

In Memory of/JANE AUSTEN,/ youngest daughter of the late/ Revd GEORGE AUSTEN,/ Formerly rector of Steventon in this County/ she departed this life on the 18th July 1817,/ aged 41, after a long illness supported with the patience and the hopes of a Christian./ The benevolence of her heart,/The sweetness of her temper, and/The extraordinary endowments of her mind/obtained the regard of all who knew her and/the warmest love of her intimate connections./Their grief is in proportion to their affection/ they know their loss to be irreparable,/but in their deepest affliction they are consoled/ by a firm though humble hope that her charity,/ devotion, faith and purity have rendered/ her soul acceptable in the sight of her/REDEEMER.

I cherish that memory and that stylistic coincidence: it is not everyone who has sung Thomas Tallis whilst standing on Jane Austen. The verbal affinity between that inscription and the Litany was not lost, even on a child. It was as if Cranmer’s penitential words had seeped into the marble. The author of the pious epitaph was Jane’s brother Henry, a failed soldier then banker who had been ordained priest in middle age. The following year he became Jane’s first biographer. The inscription in the cathedral floor, literally marmoreal, was in a sense a draft for the celebratory memoir he then prefaced to the joint first edition of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, where his tone is as untouched as it is in on the tomb by any hint of his sister’s sublime scepticism.

Some afternoons we used to file past a pink-coloured Regency residence round the corner from the close. On its façade was a plaque which announced “In this house Jane Austen died”, while in the latticed window to the left of the entrance one could make out a tetchy hand-written note that insisted “This is a private house. It is not a museum.” The warning was intended, so it seemed, to discourage intrepid biographers tempted to wander in off the street in the belief that they might detect the causes of Jane’s early demise by inspecting the bed. It is the sort of non-sequitur to which biographers are prone. As for the attitude struck by that written note, it is oddly similar to that espoused by the Austen family for a century after Jane’s death. For them, Jane Austen was a private house, and they were resolved to defend the door. In 1869, by which time we are well into the period of the Life and Letters tradition against which Strachey was to react, Jane’s nephew, the Revd. James Austen-Leigh, published a longer Memoir, expanded three years later into a fully-blown Life and Letters. Instructively this too begins with a dissertation on style, or rather on the domestic habits of the Regency period compared with his own day. The previous generation, he tells us, were barbarians: they lived beneath exposed beams; they dined at five-thirty, and stabbed at their peas with knives. The effect is to distance his aunt, whilst continuing to lay claim to her. Austen-Leigh wishes us to know he himself has moved with the times: he was, after all, the Vicar of Bray. But on one question he is adamant: his aunt had been unyielding in her fidelity to her own style of morality, and her own morality of style. In this resolve, he tells us, she defied even the Prince Regent’s librarian who had urged her to attempt a celebratory history of the House of Saxe Cobourg. “No,” she had replied, “I must keep to my own style and go on in my own way.”

Few biographical subjects illustrate as vividly as does Austen the embroiling of the biographical art with family politics, with conceptions of ownership, of what would later come to be called intellectual property. When, in the twentieth century, she was slowly released from the grasp of her family, a succession of professional biographers stepped in to observe that sprightly and irreverent woman as she moved and mocked beneath the grave stone. The effort involved a drastic stylistic re-orientation, aspects of which may be suggested by a further pairing of texts, moments of mental vertigo viewed from within. The first runs:

Never had she felt so agitated, at any circumstance in her whole life. She was most forcibly struck. The truth of his representation there was no denying. She felt it at her heart. How could she have been so brutal, so cruel to Mrs Bates? – How could she have exposed herself to the ill opinion of everyone she valued! And how suffer him to leave her without saying one word of gratitude, of concurrence, of common kindness!

The second is phrased with a similar cadence:

She is doing what she has to do, making the best of a situation over which she has no control, watching the breakup of everything familiar and seeing what was left eagerly taken over; fitting in with plans over which she has no say, losing what she loves for the prospect of an urban life in a house not yet found; no centre, no peace, and the loss of an infinite number of things hard to list, impossible to explain.

The first of these streams of consciousness represents the wounded feelings of Emma after being reproved by Mr Knightly for her crassly insensitive behaviour at Box Hill. The second describes her creator’s mortified reactions in 1799 on learning that, consequent on her father’s retirement to fashionable Bath, she is to see the family furniture and her piano sold. The first of these representations of inner disquiet, dating from 1816, is by Austen herself; the second, dating from 1997, is by her biographer Claire Tomalin. That the girl in the novel is fictitious, whilst the girl in the biography is real, is – stylistically speaking- of less account than the palpable fact that both of these young women are imagined, and their sensations offered up to the reader’s imagination in much the same kind of way, as Tomalin imitates Austen’s tumbling syntax, even hinting at her written punctuation – dashes standing in for commas: “No centre, no peace, and the loss of an infinite number of things, hard to list, impossible to explain”. The comparison raises further questions. Austen, writing of an imagined near-present, employs the past tense. Tomalin, writing of the past, writes in the present tense, because her evidence is culled from letters she has recently consulted. The dilemma of tense is just one of the practical question with which biographers wrestle day by day. Literary biography is a hybrid between narrative, conventionally conveyed in the past tense, and criticism, which is usually conducted in the present. Guided by some inner stylistic compass, a biographer must constantly navigate between these two.

More recently Tomalin has achieved an equivalent feat with a life of Charles Dickens that begins with a Dickensian set piece, an inquest, and features a disappearing child. And, twenty-two years ago, Peter Ackroyd wrote a life of the same author imitating Dickens in length, style and tone, and featuring pastiches of his river scapes and death bed scenes, even going so far as to script in dialogues between the biographer and his subject. Identification has seldom gone further than this, some even accusing Ackroyd of writing an autobiographical novel and entitling it Dickens: A Biography. But Ackroyd is both a novelist and a biographer, who writes novels in the morning and biographies in the afternoon, while insisting that little generic shift occurs over lunch. Indeed, the theory that biographies operate like novels has of late been gaining ground so fast that it threatens to become a commonplace, of biography and of criticism. It is not merely Ackroyd who has succumbed to the temptation to throw off his biographical mask and reveal the novelist within. In A Book of Secrets of 2010, Holroyd recounts with fresh emphasis the well-known love affair between the novelists Vita Sackville-West and Violet Treyfusus. He ends one chapter with the lovers in Amiens confronted by their respective husbands, who have arrived in hot pursuit. “Even a sensationalist novelist”, he then remarks in a knowing aside to the reader, “would end the story here…”

Alas, the theory that, in literary biography, your subject provides a fitting model for your own style is far too straightforward. For a start it only really works with fiction, and certain kinds of fiction at that. A biography of James Joyce couched in the style of Finnegan’s Wake seems an intriguing prospect, though liable to perplex those turning to it for information. With drama, the equation hardly works at all. Imagine a biography of Harold Pinter written out in Pinteresque dialogue:

First Lodger: He was conceived.

Pause

Second Lodger: Conceived?

Pause

Where was he conceived?

Pause

First Lodger: In Hackney, I believe.

Longer Pause

Second Lodger: In the carriage or in the borough?, etc…

A biography of Samuel Beckett in the style of Krapp’s Last Tape would incline to unnecessary repetition; if set out like Endgame, it would end before it began. With poets the case is an interesting one, and has much concerned me. There have been instances in which a biographer who is also a poet has discovered in his chosen subject a model for his own style, both poetic and biographical. I have already mentioned Johnson on Pope, but nobody could read Andrew Motion’s Philip Larkin: A Writer’s Life of 1993 without being conscious just how much Motion owes to his subject for colloquial lucidity of exposition. And last year Matthew Hollis published an account of Edward Thomas’s final months, All Roads Lead to France, which finds in its subject’s revelatory moments an impulse for its own revealing plainness. But Larkin and Thomas were both declarative poets of everyday experience, and both were prose writers who, like Wordsworth, insisted that poetry should possess the strengths of well written prose. The more rhetorical the poet, the more challenging the approach. The life of W.B. Yeats has been recounted by Richard Ellman, twice by Derry Jeffares, and at greater length by Roy Foster. Yet none has begun by inquiring “What rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Sandymount to be born?” A biographer who aspired to write like Yeats, even Yeats the essayist, would risk bathos every inch of the way. He would not be raised up by his subject, but be dwarfed by him.

I well remember the moment when the stylistic crux involved in writing a poet’s life first occurred to me, and I recall it as a feeling of constriction across the chest. My first subject was T.S. Eliot’s protégé the poet George Baker, who in his time had been, among many other things, an enthusiastic fornicator. Like many such, he had been obsessed with his mother. Realising which, I thought that I should begin by describing her. But there was an obstacle in the way in the shape of a poem, Barker’s most moving, and arguably one of the great sonnets of the twentieth century, “To my mother” begins:

So near, most dear, most loved and most far,

Under the window where I often found her

Sitting as huge as Asia, seismic with laughter,

Gin and chicken helpless in her Irish hand,

Irresistible as Rabelais, but most tender for

The lame dogs and hurt birds that surround her,

She is a procession no one can follow after

But be like a little dog following a brass band.

How, I asked myself, could I possibly follow that? Barker was evidently much attached to his Catholic, Irish mother. Was it my job to endorse that feeling, to intensify it, somehow to prop it up? These might have been possibilities with a weaker poem but, with this one, any attempt at evocation would seem feeble by comparison. Mine were humbler tasks: to contextualise, to point out that the poem was written in Sendai in 1940, shortly before Japan became one of the Axis Powers, that it was the product of affection, homesickness and war, that the seismic ripples to which the poet compares his mother’s laughter were realities he was experiencing day by day, as his diaries record, that his emotional need was all the greater because his own marriage to a devout Catholic woman seemed likely to founder, and that a few months later it would break up as he made a new future with the Canadian writer Elizabeth Smart. All this I could only try – prosaically but I hoped not pedantically – to convey.

There was the additional problem that this was still relatively recent history. Nothing I said would be final. Already I knew enough about the history of biography to recognize the successive phases through which written accounts of the eminent dead must pass: from epitaph to obituary, from obituary to eulogy, from eulogy to elegy, and then – the most difficult step of all – from elegy to biography. The biographer’s task begins where that of the obituarist ends, necessitating a destabilising transition both of substance and of style. Traditionally, an obituarist’s brief has been to praise famous men and women, and to leave the more questionable areas of their conduct out. Remarked Max Beerbohm in 1953: “The obituarists seem hardly to do justice to the intensely interesting personality of Irving in private life.” Though the decorum has relaxed of late, the traditional attitude has been one of tact, a lone remnant of which remains in a concluding sentence parodied during the 1960s in Monty Python’s Flying Circus as “A pity he never married.” From these constraints the biographer is mercifully set free. Jane Austen’s biographers had carried her beyond that stage long ago. At least, so I thought. When I visited her last home in Chawton some time ago, I found myself in the chamber she once shared with her sister Cassandra. In the same room stood two middle-aged visitors, one of whom turned to her friend and exclaimed “Oh, what a pity she never married!”

In times gone by, an interval was allowed to elapse between obituaries and biographies. Alas, this was not the case with Barker about whom, not long after his decease, I had delivered an acceptable laudation at the PEN club in London, on the basis of which a biography was commissioned by the family. Matters proceeded quite satisfactorily until the first draft was complete, at which point there entered that personage much dreaded by biographers: THE WIDOW. Negotiations were initiated at a remote cottage in Norfolk during one of the coldest Aprils on record. When the first, faintly satirical, draft looked likely to prevail, the Widow discovered she possessed a weapon: she turned off all of the heating in the house. The ordeal was excruciating, despite the fact that I had temporarily grown a beard in self-defence. As she reported to the readers of Tatler in March, 2002: “He tried to make me light the second bar of the Super Ser heater. Some hope. Rage kept me warm; he shivered in his grey pelt. I spoke of the charms of my glacial bathroom and the tablet of Wright’s Coal tar soap to no avail.”

There are personages just as daunting to any biographer as the Widow: the Critic for example, and, when writing contemporary biography, even the Lawyer. Confronted by such spectres, how does one avoid being frozen into submission? The answer lies in a continual encounter and readjustment between information and style. Information is either forthcoming, or it is not. Sometimes it is almost too forthcoming. With my very recent subject, another twentieth century poet and a close friend of my first, I was confronted with a widow of quite a different temperament, one so obliging in her attitude, yet so apprehensive of the turn my questioning might take, that when I called on her in the Isle of Wight, she appeared at the open doorway, and almost before greeting me, launched into a graphic description of her wedding night, thus eliciting the response, ‘This is all very helpful, Mrs Gascoyne, but do you mind if I sit down first?’

It is not always so straightforward. Most people who know anything about the poet David Gascoyne are aware of three facts: that he started writing whilst very young, that he became a notable exponent of surrealism while scarcely out of his teens, and that he later went mad. One question with which his biographer has to concern himself is the relationship between the poetry and the madness, possibly between both and the medication taken to alleviate the second. Gascoyne had once worked as a translator for Salvador Dali, an artist who had insisted – as had several of the surrealists – that the roots of poetry lie in a sort of controlled paranoia. What therefore, I wondered, had been the results when Gascoyne succumbed to paranoia himself? In the light of these questions, his medical records were of essential interest, so, very soon after starting my enquiries, I set out to find them. I visited the Wellcome Institute, who were welcoming but had nothing to show me. They directed me to the records office in the Isle of Wight, who directed me to the County Record Office, who directed me to the British Library, who in turn suggested the Wellcome Institute across the street. I had turned in an almost circle. So I decided to go asylum by asylum. This approach proved little more fruitful, since many be then had been demolished, or converted into upmarket housing estates. Undaunted, I Googled several and discovered that, prior to its gentrification, Horton Hospital in Epsom, in which Gascoyne had spent his most gruelling months, and where he had received Electric Shock Treatment, had commissioned a house history from Ruth Valentine. So I found her email, and contacted her. She replied rapidly, but informed me that she had taken little account of individual case notes, principally because they were not to hand. However, one person who had tried to access them had been that psycho-geographer and edgy stylist Iain Sinclair. Sinclair’s imagination had once been haunted by the East End Jewish mystic and recluse David Rodinski, who died in Horton in 1969. In 1999 he had published his findings in the co-authored biography Rodinski’s Room, and several years later had re-visited the Horton complex on the eve of its gentrification, relating the experience in his bitter travelogue London Orbital, which takes as one of its motifs a pilgrimage to several such shrines. So I got hold of both books, and ‘phoned Sinclair up: he had known Gascoyne well, and we had already agreed to meet. Sitting in his home in Hackney – the borough, not the cab – Sinclair confirmed what his books already disclosed: a fire had devoured most of the records from the gloomy history of Horton, and the rest had been shredded. His quest had been as frustrating as my own. If any of the records had survived, he told me, there was only one place where they might have been stowed: in the London Metropolitan Archives, but he had already pestered them to no avail. As a last ditch attempt I got in touch with the London archives, who confirmed what Sinclair had already told me. If I wished to leave my ’phone number just in case Gascoyne’s records did turn up, they would jot it down.

What does a biographer do faced with such impediments? The problem is easy to detect from the appearance of four features in a text: the most obvious of which are the rhetorical question and the conditional clause. They are perhaps your weakest suits, and in weak biographies are frequently used, sometimes in combination: to smooth over ignorance, to fill gaps in the narrative, or to disguise the biographer’s personal prejudices. Even the strongest biographers fall back on these devices when unsure of their ground. Here is Ackroyd speculating on Dickens’ state of mind in 1859 when he has just become interested in the eighteen-year old actress Ellen Ternan, and suddenly insists on a physical separation from his wife Catherine, ordering a carpenter to put up a partition between their sleeping quarters. Ackroyd speculates – it is only speculation – that Mrs Dickens may have caught sight of some incriminating reference to Nelly in her husband’s correspondence. Rhetorically he asks: “Did she say something? Something that enraged him?” Then come the conditional clauses, leading to a disclaimer; “So if Dickens was at this time suffused by an innocent and almost infantile love for Ellen Tiernan, if she had become for him something of a sacred and untouchable object, it is not difficult to understand his fury if anyone, even his wife, should place what he considered to be a false construction on his behaviour”. “But”, admits Ackroyd, “This is mere surmise” and then passes on to the stolidity of fact before we have had time to note certain facets in his own style: that he has called Ellen an “object”, that he has used the verb “understand” without explaining whether this implies collusion, and that he has hinted at suspicions of his subject’s wandering affections entertained by “even his wife.” Even his wife? Surely, especially a wife. In her bicentenary life of Dickens, published last month, Tomalin – famously a wife – reaches the very point at which Ackroyd stumbled, with the important difference that Tomalin is as convinced that Dickens slept with Nelly as Ackroyd was persuaded that he did not. But Tomalin had apparently noticed something Ackroyd had missed: a letter in Russian from Dostoyevski to a friend describing a conversation with Dickens in London in 1862, not long after the marital rift, in which Dickens confesses to feelings of guilt. “There were two people in him, he told me: one who feels as he ought to feel and one who feels the opposite. From the one who feels the opposite I make my evil characters, from the one who feels as a man ought to feel I try to live my life.’ What could possibly be neater: the outer partition across the bedroom embodying an inner partition across Dickens’ mind? That the reported confession told us as much about the author of Crime and Punishment as the author of Bleak House, merely added to the richness. Then came the condition clause: “if Dostoyevsky remembered correctly, it must be Dickens’ most profound statement about his inner life“. It seemed a considerable coup but, as it transpired, Tomalin required one additional conditional clause to run: “if this evidence is to be trusted.” It was with concern that one opened The Sunday Times on December 4th to read the biographer’s own confession: the letter from Dostoyevsy probably does not exist and, trusting to a secondary source, Tomalin has been the victim of a hoax. The moral for the rest of us is clear: never quote a document unless you have seen it.

A third and surer resource for the questing biographer is the free indirect style, a technique that in the early twentieth century biographers borrowed from novelists. Free indirect discourse, as any decent Dictionary of Narratology will tell you, is where you paraphrase your subject’s inner thoughts as if they were your own. The parallel passages I offered earlier from Austen and Tomalin both deploy it to some effect. Strachey uses it over and over, even when – especially when – he is being ironic. His adoption of it for biography is probably more revolutionary than his arch tone, and in the long run more influential. The agent of the cross-over, I should say, is Virginia Woolf, who begins Mrs Dalloway with several paragraphs in which her narrative floats freely between her own narrative consciousness, that of her protagonist and that of her reader, leaving the boundaries between them unclear: “How fresh, how calm, stiller than this of course, the air was in the early morning; like the flap of a wave; the kiss of a wave…”,. This is classic free indirect writing, of which you can find premonitions, as I have demonstrated, even in Austen. Four years later the device re-appears in a book of Woolf’s that is, strictly speaking, neither novel nor biography, but a hybrid that aspires to be – and has for eighty years influenced – both: Orlando: A Biography. Famously this is a pseudo-biography of Woolf’s girlfriend Vita Sackville West that Woolf’s husband Leonard considered to be a satire on biography itself. And, lo and behold, at the very moment when she turns to this book, Woolf’s own biographer, Hermione Lee, spontaneously inflects into the free indirect style, combining it with a rhetorical question. ‘The first person [Woolf] told about the new book,” she tells us, was Vita. “Would she mind if Orlando turned out to be Vita?”

Such writing is the perfect alternative to circumlocution, as I discovered when attempting to convey George Barker’s feelings of responsibility after the death of a close relative. Rhetorical questions piled themselves on conditional clauses in a desperate attempt to be fair to all concerned, until rescue arrived in the shape of a four-word sentence: “He had killed her”. Had he? Of course not. But the poet in him felt that he had, and that was the point. It is because the free indirect style is so accessible a code, one now understood by most readers, that it is so recurrently useful.

How did I know that my poet felt like this? By consulting his work of course, which leads me to the biographer’s fourth and strongest resource: quotation. In the case of poets the primary source of quotation is the poetry itself, which the reader is likely to regard as a form of direct disclosure. Superficially the prospective biographer has a wonderful opportunity of putting these two perspectives together. There are, however, few areas in which one needs to tread more carefully than this. To call up a poem as witness to what the poet was feeling at any one time and place is platitudinously to assume that the voice of the poem and that of the human being who produced it are one and the same, and to pay scant regard to the latter’s skill at artistic distancing. If the poem is melancholy, it does not necessarily follow that the poet felt sad. Never trust a poet who is telling you where, when, or how he is. Barker once addressed a passionate apostrophe to Lake Nemi whilst sitting by Lake Albano. One of Dylan Thomas’s earliest expostulations begins: “Especially when the October wind/ With frosty fingers punishes my hair…” It thus is with interest that one turns to his manuscript draft and reads “Especially when the November wind…”

Under such circumstances, biographers who place too great a trust in their readerly instinct are liable to give themselves away. One of my favourite Metaphysical poems is “Twickenham Garden” by that other satirist John Donne, which begins:

Blasted with sighs, and surrounded with teares,

Hither I come to seek the spring,

And at my eyes, and at mine eares,

Receive such balms, as else cure everything;

But O, selfe traitor, I do bring

The spider love, which transubstantiates all,

And can convert manner to gall,

And that this place may thoroughly be thought

True paradise, I have the serpent brought.

What do Donne’s biographers make of it? Izaak Walton, his first, had been a parishioner of the Revd Dr Donne’s at St Dunstan’s in the West. So respectful is he of the priest that he ignores this and all of Donne’s amatory poems. Then comes Johnson’s anathema, and one and a half centuries elapse before Edmund Gosse attempts to frame the life in the work. But Johnson’s anathema still lingers in the air, and Gosse cocks a snoot at what he calls Donne’s “turbid language”, since, he protests, “with all his genius, he lacked the last ornament of a perfect style – lucidity” . Decoded, this means “I may only be a biographer and no poet, but at least what I am saying is clear.” The first biographer to turn specifically to the Twickenham poem, in 1970, is Robert Bald, who dates it after 1618 when the property at Twickenham was acquired by one of Donne’s most valued patrons, Lucy, Countess of Bedford. How gracious, he thinks, that in visiting her there, presumably in the spring, Donne should have paid her the compliment of assuming the pose of Ovidian lover. Perhaps she had suggested the piece; perhaps he showed it to her. Then, in 1981 comes the most Strachean literary biography I know, John Carey’s John Donne: Life, Mind and Art, which accuses Donne of insincerity in its opening sentence. Carey discusses Twickenham Garden in a chapter headed “Ambition”, remarking that “Donne’s ego has taken over. He has become the centre of his own poem, and dropped the subservient role. He strides like a shade through the garden, carrying venom and death. He establishes himself at the garden’s sad heart, an eternal weeper, visited by pilgrims…transforms himself in the poem into a lover, in order to surmount the humiliating fact that he is no more than a beggarly dependant.” Carey is a biographer who keeps bees as a hobby, mostly in his bonnet; in that passage it is he, the biographer who is dependent, and he who is striding. No biographer that I know considers a third interpretation: that the married Donne rather fancied his patroness, and felt guilty about it. Such subtleties are too much for Jonathan Holmes, author of a recent play about Donne. Holmes has Donne humping the Countess all over the stage: tough on the stage, tougher still on the Countess, and very misleading for the large audiences at Wilton’s Music Hall in the City undeterred by the stern warning “Contains nudity”. To each his morality, to each his style.

So much for the pitfalls. What of the advantages? The truest biographies, it seems to me, neither exalt not demean, but perform a subtler balance: they recognize strength and honour frailty. They achieve in the literary sphere what the late Lucian Freud did in his portraits, depicting its subjects exposed to view, and with a kind of ruthless love. To sustain this precarious feat requires precision, both of observation and of style. A wise biographer uses words sparingly. He avoids hyperbole, since truth is rarely extreme. He does not write “huge” when he means “considerable”, or “excellent” when he means “impressive”, does not write “fantastic” unless referring to a phantasm, or “crucial“ unless alluding to a cross. Anecdotes he may find useful since they draw the reader in, though as a guide to perceptions of the facts, rather than the facts themselves. Two maxims attend a biographer’s doings. The first is from the French poet, Paul Valéry: “Of two words, always chose the lesser”. The second is from Samuel Johnson again. “If a phrase of yours particularly pleases you, strike it out.”

When engaged on the task, one does not dwell on justification. Self-Reflection too often gets in a way. People often seem to think a biographer’s work justified if it justifies the life described. But there are three applications of this term, two of which, I have reason to think, are out of place in biography. You should, I believe, never attempt justification in the sense in which people justify a deed or a statement. It is no part of a biographer’s job to argue that everything, or even most, of what his subject did, wrote or said was right (that tedious trait of so many a political memoir). Not should you try to justify a chosen life in the sense in which a printer justifies a margin or a page. To regularise, standardise or tidy up the facts is no part of your purpose: untidiness in the life is a positive blessing. But there is a third type of justification which pertains to the act of writing itself. Performed well and truthfully, it confers justification backwards on the life observed. To achieve justification of this third kind entails a mix of moral and stylistic obligations – to research assiduously and widely, to interpret and to understand with exactitude, justice and candour, to endow your story with momentum, where necessary with suspense, and to phrase your insights clearly, and with tolerant humour. You can dignify a life by writing about it well, but you most certainly can ruin one by writing about it badly. Style is an obligation, but it is also a tribute.

As Russell recognised a century ago, and Carpenter confirmed, biography can be Naughty but Nice. All things considered, it is surprising nobody has moved to ban it. In some places they already have. “The Italians”, the Times Literary Supplement informed us recently, “do not practice biography” – an extraordinary claim seeing as they practice everything else, and perform it too. In time, even here, notices must surely appear in public buildings announcing “This is a non-biographical zone.” At every exit biographers will stand in furtive groups, casting conspiratorial glances at one another, smirking as the non-biographers pass by, and stamping the evidence underfoot before pocketing their files labelled “Biography damages your mental health”, or, more incriminatingly, “Biography kills.”

Above all, biography teaches you patience. At length I gave up any hope of ever seeing Gascoyne’s medical records and, after two years of archival toil, of travels, interviews and adventures, withdrew into the converted coal cellar that serves as my study, and wrote my book. I completed three drafts incorporating my rhetorical questions and conditional clauses and, when the last was finished, I checked the quotes and dates, printed it all out, composed a covering letter, and addressed a box stout enough to convey the heavy typescript to Oxford. I made a cup of coffee, settled down on the sofa upstairs, and expelled a sanctimonious sigh of relief. And then the telephone rang.

Thank you.

Writing the lives of people and things, AD 500-1700: An interdisciplinary conference

Chawton House Library, Hampshire

1-2 March 2012

Key-note Speaker: Charles Nicholl (author of The Lodger: Shakespeare on Silver Street

and The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe)

Registration is still open for this early-career conference at Chawton House Library hosted by the Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Culture, University of Southampton, due to take place on 1-2 March 2012. The theme for the two days is interdisciplinary approaches to biography in the study of the medieval and early modern periods, and includes a key-note lecture from Charles Nicholl, the acclaimed author. It will bring together postgraduates and early-career researchers from Archaeology, History, Art History, English, and Music, with sessions including ‘The lives of objects and their owners’, ‘Lives on Stage’ and ‘Rescuing forgotten lives’. A small number of bursaries are available for attendees. For more information and to register please visit the conference website:

http://www.soton.ac.uk/cmrc/news/conferences/2011_12/writing_lives_conference.html