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Biography and the Morality of Style: Prof. Robert Fraser, Open University inaugural

April 25th, 2012 | Posted by Adrian Smith in Announcements


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.


Second Lodger: Conceived?


Where was he conceived?


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.

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