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

Today’s Guardian carries the following report from Charlotte Higgins on Michael Holroyd’s qualified lament for the passing of an ostensible golden age of biography writing. I’m wholly unconvinced by his remarks re academia, and this seems precisely the sort of claim worthy of discussion within the Network:

Biography is a genre in crisis, according to perhaps Britain’s best-known biographer, the author of highly acclaimed works on Lytton Strachey, Augustus John and George Bernard Shaw.

Speaking at the Edinburgh international book festival, Michael Holroyd said: “The book with a single name on the title page is becoming less attractive to readers. A single name, rather unfairly, suggests you are being exclusive. And the worst word you can use is ‘literary’. If you are writing a literary biography you have to try to hide the fact because it’s so tremendously out of fashion: that’s the message we have been getting from Waterstone’s, at least before their recent takeover.

“I have a nostalgia for visiting private houses to find letters and journals and to root around in the attic,” he said.

“But the fact that a lot of material now is on the computer takes the romance out of it, and now it’s about examining what lies behind the delete button – the horror.”

Biography’s golden age, said Holroyd, came in the late 20th century, with works such as the first volume of George Painter’s study of Proust, which appeared in 1959, and continued with writers such as Hilary Spurling, Richard Ellmann and Richard Holmes and Holroyd himself. They became “not rivals but pacemakers for each other”. Biography was, he said, a peculiarly British phenomenon: “If you want a biography of Proust, or Mann, or Goethe, or Strindberg, or Ibsen, you found yourself reading a British writer.”

But now, he said, “the trade winds are not behind biography”, despite some notable exceptions including Fiona MacCarthy’s forthcoming study of Edward Burne-Jones and Claire Tomalin’s of Dickens.

However, he said, the decline of the biography also means the dawn of a new age of experiment. “People are writing lives backwards; people are writing parts of lives. Look on the bright side: biographies are getting shorter.”

He attributed the decline of the “straight” biography to changing tastes among the public and to fashions in historiography.

Television, he said, has played its part in causing an upsurge in sales for popular-history books as against biography.

In academia, he said, “biography has been subsumed into ‘life writing’, which is more an aspect of sociology. One takes a representative of a category of people who have historically been overlooked”, rather than a single “great” figure of their age.

Holroyd himself has become an experimenter. His latest work, A Book of Secrets, mingles memoir with accounts of the lives of three women connected with one house – the Villa Cimbrone, overlooking the Gulf of Salerno in Italy. He appears in the book, he said, as a kind of Sancho Panza figure.

But it is to be his last book. “I enter my 77th year later this month. I feel it is better to give up before reviewers and readers beg you to do so.”

He would like to be remembered, he said, “as one of a dozen or so who have contributed to rather a good period of British biography”.

Edinburgh Symposium

November 1st, 2011 | Posted by Ray Monk in Discussion - (0 Comments)

There are a limited number of places available for our first symposium at Edinburgh (details below). It is free of charge, but we are allocating places on a first come, first served basis, so the sooner you apply for a place, the better. If you would like to attend, just drop me an email at: rm@soton.ac.uk

Best wishes,

Ray Monk

This week [27 October issue] the Higher carries an article by Matthew Reisz – ‘Through the eyes of others’ – that asks the question ‘Can life-writing gain fresh insights when biographers cross the gender divide?’. In the end that specific question isn’t fully addressed as the focus is more upon the biographers who are interviewed [thank you Miranda Seymour for name-checking the Network] dismissing the notion that the quality of a biography is somehow diminished if the sex of the author differs from that of his or her subject. Having said that, Jane Ridley does suggest that women writing about men are perhaps better equipped to locate their subjects’ lives in a family context, witness her placing the architect’s marriage and not his intercourse with the rich and powerful at the heart of her life of Lutyens. The starting point for Reisz’s article is Fiona MacCarthy’s warning of ‘the literary wishful thinkers, male biographers of Byron who portrayed their subjects according to the image they wished to appropriate for themselves.’ Is she saying that this is a uniquely male phenonomenon? Having written biographies of ostensible action men (air ace ‘Mick’ Mannock, Lord Mountbatten) I can say categorically there was no subliminal wish fulfillment! There is nevertheless a genre that what one might label popular ‘macho biography’ where the desk-bound author is clearly living out his fantasies – he’s not at his desk in West Ruislip but with David Stirling somewhere in the Western Desert. Reisz asks if McCarthy is implying that there are certain men whose lives ideally should be chronicled by women as they can be more detached than any male biographer would be. It’s clear that he doesn’t think this but it helps prompt interesting observations on the very nature of biography from Frances Spalding and Miranda Seymour (and it does make me think that, as ever bulkier lives of Lawrence of Arabia continue to multiply, here is one action man where a woman’s perspective would be both welcome and illuminating).

A real peril of biography is being drawn into contemporary debates that involve one’s subject.
For example more than a decade ago DNA testing confirmed the likelihood that Thomas Jefferson fathered a child by one of his slaves, Sally Hemings. In response to this revelation, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which owns Jefferson’s home, Monticello, and operates it as a museum and research center, undertook a review of the extant evidence on the question. The Monticello panel, which issued its report in January 2000, concluded:

The DNA study, combined with multiple strands of currently available documentary and statistical evidence, indicates a high probability that Thomas Jefferson fathered Eston Hemings, and that he most likely was the father of all six of Sally Hemings’s children appearing in Jefferson’s records. Those children are Harriet, who died in infancy; Beverly; an unnamed daughter who died in infancy; Harriet; Madison; and Eston.

Several months later a new organization, the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society (TJHS), was established. “Claiming the organization that owns Monticello,” according to the Charlottesville Daily Progress (May 7, 2000, p. 1) “has succumbed to political correctness at the expense of scholarly historical study, organizers of a new foundation announced that they will take a serious look into previous conclusions that Jefferson fathered children of one of his slaves.” The Heritage Society convened an independent “blue ribbon commission” of scholars to consider the question of whether Jefferson was the father of Sally Hemings’s children. That panel concluded that Jefferson’s paternity of Sally Hemings’s children was unproven. The scholars involved in that commission had published on aspects of the intellectual and political history of the Jeffersonian era, though none were specialists in slavery, social, or family history. The ‘Scholars’ Commission Report’ generated considerable media attention (it was released on April 12, 2001, the day before President George W. Bush welcomed the descendants of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings to the White House) but had little impact on subsequent scholarship. Most Jefferson scholars, like the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, seem to have accepted the relationship. The important academic concern over the past decade turned on assessing what the relationship between Jefferson and Hemings tells us about issues such as slavery, race, gender relations, and politics during the early American republic, not whether Jefferson had a sexual relationship with Sally Hemings. The result has been some wonderful scholarship including Andrew Burstein’s Jefferson’s Secrets (2005) and Annette Gordon-Reed’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Hemingses of Monticello (2008).
Despite an apparent scholarly consensus on the question of Jefferson’s paternity of Sally Hemings’s children, the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society has remained active. Recently, Carolina Academic Press published its Scholars Commission Report reviving what had seemed to have been a long-settled controversy. Several media outlets, including the Washington Times, reported the story. The position of the TJHS epitomises one of the pitfalls of biography. It seems to have crossed the line between scholarship and advocacy. In 2001 TJHS published an essay collection, The Jefferson-Hemings Myth: An American Travesty . Although the volume was presented in a manner to resemble a collection of academic essays it is not. The book has twelve chapters, all but one of which was written by an officer of the TJHS. Unlike the scholars’ commission which was given academic independence, The Jefferson-Hemings Myth was intended to achieve several interrelated objectives and each of its essays serves that end.
First and foremost they sought to “defend” Jefferson against the “accusation” that he had had a sexual relationship with Sally Hemings. Second, the TJHS sought to disprove and discredit the findings of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, alleging that the Monticello committee ignored contrary evidence and suppressed dissenting opinions in an effort to promote a revisionist portrait of Jefferson as “a hypocrite, a liar and a fraud.” According to John Works, the first president of the TJHS, “In the forefront of this historical revisionist movement is the organization that owns Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello.” In his introduction to the collection, Works explained the connection, as he saw it, between the Jefferson-Hemings controversy and questions of contemporary politics and culture. He wrote:

The allegations concerning [Jefferson’s] behavior do not merely provide an interesting sidelight on an otherwise great man. They are, in fact, a frontal assault on him and his principles, and have as a stated purpose by many proponents the aim to throw out those principles and replace them with something new but as yet poorly defined. These accusations have not just been leveled against Thomas Jefferson personally, but they have devolved into a denunciation of everything he stood for, and this we cannot allow to take hold.

Works continued:

Many scholars … have adopted the modern ‘politically correct’ propaganda that those who laid the bricks and plowed the fields were the real builders of this nation, not the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence, doubled the size of the nation with the Louisiana Purchase, and established the University of Virginia. These scholars have begun tearing down the reputation of Jefferson and focusing instead more broadly on the lives and work done by the Negro slaves, and on their contributions to the building of this nation. (Quotations from John H. Works, “Foreword,” in Eyler Robert Coates, Sr. ed., The Jefferson-Hemings Myth: An American Travesty (Charlottesville, VA: Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society, 2001), pp. 9, 12.)

For Works and the members of the TJHS, the writing of history is a zero-sum game. One cannot write the history of Monticello’s slaves without undermining the legacy of their owner. To criticise Jefferson—for the TJHS apparently finds the thought of Jefferson engaging in sexual relations with a mixed-race woman to be repugnant—is to criticise America. The recent re-publication of the Scholars’ Commission Report seems intended to serve the broader political agenda of the TJHS. One might reasonably question the timing of its appearance, a decade after the original report first appeared, at a moment when race and the culture war seem to be at the forefront of American politics.
Perhaps biography invites the biographer to defend his or her subject from criticisms real or perceived. Such a temptation must be avoided. In the first place such an approach can distort scholarship. The responsible biographer or historian must follow the evidence with an open mind, irrespective of the results as the Thomas Jefferson Foundation did in 2000. Secondly, engaging in a discourse of attack and defense can lead the biographer into the thicket of contemporary politics and controversy, which makes it more difficult to understand our subjects in their historical contexts. We must seek to understand our subjects in the context of their lives and times not seek to deploy them in the service of political and cultural debates in our times. The members of the TJHS may be honourable people united by the notion that they somehow can protect Jefferson from the forces of “political correctness.” This is misguided, quixotic and unnecessary. One need only read the racist, hateful comments (mostly aimed at contemporary politics) that the Washington Times story on the publication of the Scholars’ Commission Report generated to realize how perilous and irresponsible it can be to attempt to drag long-dead historical subjects into contemporary political debate. Thomas Jefferson’s legacy is secure and needs no protecting.


I have written on the Jefferson-Hemings controversy in my Thomas Jefferson: Reputation and Legacy (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006), chapter 6. Several paragraphs in this post are adapted from that chapter.

For the Thomas Jefferson Foundation’s report on the Jefferson-Hemings matter (and supporting documentation) see:


For the Thomas Jefferson Heritage Society (including links to the latest edition of the Scholars’ Commission Report) see


For the Washington Times story of August 30, 2011 see:


Bogdanor on Churchill

May 30th, 2011 | Posted by Ray Monk in Discussion - (2 Comments)

An interesting recent New Statesman article here.

Leaving aside his implicit (and, I believe) false assumption that there is such a thing as a “definitive biography,” Bogdanor has some interesting reasons for dismissing some of the biographies of Churchill written so far. I was especially struck by his dismissal of Gilbert’s huge, multi-volumed life as a mere “chronology.” Is that fair?

Artist Biographies

May 21st, 2011 | Posted by drbexl in Discussion - (0 Comments)

Although not specifically a biographer, I am looking forward to the debates coming through this website. For my PhD ‘The Planning, Design and Reception of British Home Front Propaganda Posters of the Second World War’, I was interested in the posters designers, and was keen to establish (albeit small) biographies of the artists, so that we could establish their perspective and ‘read’ that into the design. See all the artist biographies.

There was a handful of well known graphic designers who appear in National Biographies, or had websites dedicated to their work, but most of it was a slog through the internet (I finished in 2004, so not as much information as there is now, when it would probably be interesting to go through again) to find bits and pieces of information. The majority of visitors to the site (before Keep Calm and Carry On took off), came through their hunt for information on particular artists (and not always the biggest ones), so there’s definitely an interest in that perspective.

An Operational Military Biography

April 27th, 2011 | Posted by RossM in Discussion - (0 Comments)

I thought I would post something on to what looks to be an interesting project that I am going to enjoy following, and I hope get involved with in some shape or form.

I am currently researching the career of Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory for my PhD. Leigh-Mallory is one of the more controversial commanders of the Second World War. The major problem for my research is a distinct lack of any personal papers. Leigh-Mallory died in an air crash in November 1944 when en route to take up his new command in South East Asia. He has become the bete noir to many historians, especially those who write about the Battle of Britain and D-Day. This has distorted his view in the historiography with people accepting the orthodoxy on him. Perhaps the key reason for this is his untimely death and lack of papers. This is also creating a problem for me in constructing a traditional biography.

To get around this I am trying to take my ‘biography’ one step further by utilising contemporary leadership theory to assess his leadership effectiveness. My hope is that I will construct an ‘Operational Military Biography’ that places him in his organisational and operational context. It will involve and examination of the various inputs and outputs that make up effective leadership such as morale, education and training. to make up for the lack of personal papers I am making use of a 360 reporting methodology which allows the measurement and use of various sources to build up a picture of his effectiveness. This will also allow a comparative analysis his effectiveness in comparison with fellow commander, thus, utilising an element of prosopography. Any thoughts are welcomed.

Writing minor lives

April 14th, 2011 | Posted by Steve in Discussion - (6 Comments)

I specialize in writing the lives of minor figures … principally nineteenth century working men who were politically active as Chartists or who sought to establish themselves as poets/writers. With this sort of work comes the problem of fragmentary primary source material. Sometimes – for example, in the case of the Chartist & peace lecturer Arthur O’Neill – there isn’t a great deal that can be recovered about their early years; and sometimes – for example, in the case of the Chartist insurrectionist Robert Peddie – they just disappear from view. Perhaps the most frustrating part of researching & writing the individual lives of nineteenth century working people is getting publishers interested in bringing out such work. I have written or edited about a dozen books & the best of them – a study of the Chartists Thomas Cooper & Arthur O’Neill who formed a friendship that lasted fifty years after sharing a prison cell – was very difficult to place with a publisher. Eventually, it was published by Peter Lang, who required both camera-ready copy & a subsidy (& who also retain the copyright & pay no royalties). Though the book has had some terrific reviews, I don’t think it has sold very well. In spite of these difficulties, I believe strongly in recovering the stories of working people & shall carry on with this sort of work. A shame, though, that these days, unlike in the 1970s, there aren’t the range of publishers interested in such research. Now if I was offering them a life of Gladstone or Dizzy …