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

Higher article on biographers crossing the gender divide

October 23rd, 2011 | Posted by Adrian Smith in Discussion

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).

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