Literary Biography is on Life Support

Biography is an art form as old as literature itself. Xenophon wrote the life of Cyrus the Great in the early fourth century BC. His research methods — oral tradition, gossip, mythologising, creating heroes and villains — were not so very different from those of the biographers of modern celebrities that are the stock in trade of publishers’ Christmas lists. Equally, there has always been a symbiosis between biography and dramatic storytelling: there is a direct line of descent from Shakespeare’s dramatisations of the lives of Julius Caesar and Henry V to the Abraham Lincoln biopic that did so well in this year’s Oscars.

There will always be an appetite for lives of those whom the Victorians called “men of action”. Every society has its “great men” (and now women), those whom Thomas Carlyle called heroes. For many it is a matter of regret that Katie Price and Cheryl Cole are now the subjects of popular hero-worship that in Carlyle’s time was bestowed on Horatio Nelson and John Wesley. When Victorians eager for self-improvement read the lives of the latter, they felt that they were meeting their heroes; when people today, who would not otherwise pick up a book, queue for a signed copy of a celebrity memoir they too feel a kind of validation: my hero has inscribed her name for me (even if she hasn’t actually got around to reading her own ghosted autobiography). It is easy to sneer, but the biographical narrative of redemption — abusive father, impoverished childhood, then the chance to “live the dream” — feeds a hunger, even as it is accompanied by the Schadenfreude that goes with the hero’s setbacks and self-inflicted wounds.

The lives of writers are a rather different case. What makes them endure is the quality of their writing, not the drama of their lives. You can’t really understand, say, Napoleon or Hitler without knowing about the arc of their lives. But many readers and critics would argue that you can gain a deep appreciation and understanding of, say, Shakespeare and Jane Austen without knowing anything about their lives. After all, the original spectators of Hamlet knew nothing about Shakespeare’s life and few of the original readers of Pride and Prejudice even knew the name of the author — the title-page simply said that it was by the author of Sense and Sensibility, which in turn said only that it was “By a Lady”.

Literary life-writing also has particular problems with the traditional form of biographical storytelling. The writer’s life does not usually conform to the “rise and fall” structure that works so well for Cyrus the Great, Julius Caesar, Thomas Cromwell, Napoleon and Hitler. The three best-known writers in the English language are William Shakespeare, Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. Of these, only the third is a natural for biographical treatment. For one thing, there is a strong autobiographical element in his work: David Copperfield mirrors his own childhood experience in the blacking factory, he could write with utter conviction about the Marshalsea debtors’ prison because his father was confined there, and so on. For another, it is a truly dramatic life. Rags to riches, fame and travel, a juicy sex scandal — all the elements are there. And furthermore, his capacious correspondence gives the biographer a wealth of raw material. No wonder that he has been the subject of numerous biographies, many of which are as long as his novels.

Shakespeare and Austen present a very different case. They turn their backs upon us. Shakespeare left only two surviving letters, Jane Austen rather more — but in her case what survives is only about five per cent of the total that she wrote, and all the juicy stuff was very carefully edited out by her family. Their works were not in any obvious sense autobiographical. And their lives, also in contrast to that of Dickens, were comparatively uneventful: provincial origin, dedicated professionalism to the newest and most exciting art form of the day (the stage play in Shakespeare’s case and the novel in Austen’s), success in the city, then retreat back to the country.

It is within the arena of specifically literary life-writing that the traditional narrative form of “cradle to grave” or “womb to tomb” is in a state of considerable uncertainty, if not, as some would say, terminal decline. We sensed a straw in the wind at the dinner for the award of the BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction in 2004. One of the judges sidled up and said that John Clare: A Biography was a magnificent piece of research and writing, but it was insuffi- ciently experimental in form. The prize had to reward innovation, it could not be awarded to yet another traditional “doorstopper” like the Berlioz and Pushkin biographies that had won in previous years. And indeed the biographical enterprises that have won prizes and plaudits in this century have been those unafraid to take risks. James Shapiro’s 1599 approaches Shakespeare by way of a single year, Frances Wilson’s The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth refracts an entire life through a single day (the one when William Wordsworth got married and left his sister behind). For 50 years, would- be biographers of Ireland’s greatest novelist cowered in the shadow of Richard Ellmann’s mighty James Joyce, but now the prestigious Costa Biography Prize has been awarded to a graphic novel — the genre that used to be known as the comic — about Joyce’s relationship with his daughter Lucia.

We sincerely hope that reports of the death of the detailed, chronologically- arranged literary biography are greatly exaggerated. Every major author deserves one — or maybe two, in case, as often happens, the author of the first one has an axe to grind. But what need ten, or 20, or 200? What future is there for the lives of the great writers whose stories have been told again and again?

Consider the case of Jane Austen. In the year 1997, three full-length biographies of her were published within a few weeks of each other. Two of them, by Valerie Grosvenor Myer and Claire Tomalin, followed the model of the “authorised” Family Record of Austen’s life written nearly a century before. They traced a familiar path from childhood in a Hampshire parsonage to quiet life of writing in Chawton Cottage to premature death under the shadow of Winchester Cathedral. The biographer used her intuitions and her gift for local colour to bring the story alive, but it was essentially the same story that had been told many times before.

The third contender was very different. This is how David Nokes began his life of Jane Austen:

It is the rainy season in the Sunderbunds. Inside his lonely makeshift hut the Surgeon-Extraordinary sits writing a letter home to his wife in England. The livid orange sun is sinking over this dis- mal region of fetid salt-flats, swamp and jungle, and he writes by the light of a reading-lamp she sent him in the last consignment from England.

In seeking to set Jane Austen on a wider stage, Nokes was true to her family circumstances, but his tendency to assume that he knew what people were thinking, to write from inside their heads in the manner of a novelist, alienated many readers.

The family tradition was calculated to say nothing of such events as the guillotining of Jane Austen’s beloved cousin Eliza’s first husband, of her aunt’s affair with Warren Hastings, or her brother’s involvement in the India-China opium trade. It was equally silent over her knowledge of the Prince Regent’s goings-on at Kempshott Manor (just down the road from her home) and her attentive reading of Thomas Clarkson’s great history of the abolition of the slave trade. Similarly, her brother Henry’s insistence that Jane “never uttered a hasty, a silly, or a severe expression” is belied by the caustic wit of the juvenilia in which a quite different, often shockingly funny and irreverent, authorial voice emerges. It is understandable that a bereaved brother should have remembered only the very best qualities of a beloved sister, but it was unhelpfully reductive to depict her as a writer who was pious, reserved, and did not tell rude stories, joke about adultery or engage with her historical and political context. Nokes’s attempt to draw attention to some of these more shocking circumstances was not well received. His book bombed; Tomalin’s more comfortable and comforting version of Austen’s life was the one that people wanted in the era of the hugely popular BBC dramatisation of Pride and Prejudice.

Besides, when it came to structure, not even Nokes broke the mould. The running-headers of his 600-page book followed the old biographical practice of giving the span of years covered by the narrative of the chapter in question, in strict chronological sequence.

In 2006, Deirdre Le Faye, who has devoted her whole adult life to the study of Austen, published another doorstopper, this one of 800 pages. Entitled A Chronology of Jane Austen and her Family, it was what it said on the cover: a list, without any authorial narrative intervention, of every known fact about the life of Jane Austen and her extended family. Every dinner party guest. Every purchase of wallpaper at Ring Brothers’ department store in Basingstoke. Every guinea in bank charges. Every elm tree blown down in the garden. An amazing work of scholarship, incredibly informative and totally unreadable, it could perhaps be said to be the book that renders obsolete the genre of “comprehensive cradle to grave” Jane Austen biography. Barring a miracle such as the discovery of a cache of lost letters, if future biographers are to say anything new about Austen, they will have to be innovative in their methods. But innovation often has a way of looking back as well as forward.

Richard Holmes, the most imaginative of late 20th-century literary biographers, wrote a pioneering volume of memoirs and personal reflections on the art of life-writing, in which he literally walked in the footsteps (or, in the case of Robert Louis Stevenson, the donkey tracks) of his subjects. Entitled Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer (1985), it remains a classic of its kind. But Holmes was not the first to “footstep” in the name of biography. In 1901 Constance Hill and her sister Ellen set off on a literary pilgrimage to walk in the footsteps of Jane Austen. Ellen drew sketches of places now demolished, such as Steventon Rectory and the Assembly Rooms in Lyme Regis where Austen danced in 1804. They brought to life a lost world. Constance’s Jane Austen: Her Home and Her Friends (1901), illustrated by her sister, showed that the cradle-to-grave narrative was not the only possible approach and that the family, who had published the first authorised biography in 1870, did not have a monopoly on Austen’s life.

Among Ellen Hill’s sketches were the steps on the Cobb at Lyme, so crucial to Persuasion, and Jane Austen’s ivory cup and ball, so revelatory of her love of children and of games. The book also reproduced key portraits, notably silhouettes and miniatures of family members. Places, things and pictures — the pioneering Hill sisters revealed that biography does not have to confine its raw materials to written documents, nor to be bound by the restrictive covenant of chronology.

So too with Shakespeare. Following the tracks that led from rural Stratford-upon-Avon to urban London and back again, Shakespeare’s life feels cyclical, not sequen- tial. For Prospero in The Tempest, time is a “dark backward and abysm”. For Hamlet, the process of “looking before and after” defines the “large discourse” — the powers of reason and speech — that makes man something more than a “beast”. Shakespeare’s own imaginative practice licences his biographers to loop backwards and forwards through his life as we try to read his mind and discover the touchstones of his genius. We came closer to his inner life through The Lodger, Charles Nicholl’s 2007 microbiography of his time with a Huguenot family in Silver Street, than we did in Peter Ackroyd’s rehash of the traditional narrative of his whole life published a couple of years before.

Because of the powers of memory and imagination — two of Shakespeare’s and Aus- ten’s greatest gifts — the mind does not obey the same rule of time as the human body which moves inexorably from birth to death. In writing lives of great writers that look “before and after”, or that care for key moments and exemplary minutiae, that hold close to landmark trees rather than seek to survey the whole wood, we might just be true to the art of literary creativity itself. And we might also find an escape from the shackles of that sequential womb-to-tomb narrative form that is endangering the future of literary biography.

HarperCollins, one of the leading publishers of biography, recently announced that they are reducing their three non-fiction imprints to two, in the face of the challenge from “the wealth of free content online”. Henceforth, chief executive Victoria Barnsley explains, there will be two clearly differentiated lists: one for the likes of Cheryl Cole’s My Story and the other for more serious works — by writers such as Richard Holmes — which “stretch the boundaries and redefine the genre”. Aptly, the new branding for the high-class list is a revival of the name of William Collins, who in the 19th century pioneered the publication of improving biographies for the masses. The telling point, though, is the one about the wealth of free content online. You can find every fact you could possibly want to know about Shakespeare and Jane Austen and almost every other major writer somewhere on the internet (as well as an alarming number of factoids and outright falsities, but that is another matter). Encyclopaedic works such as the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography have migrated wholly to the digital world. We no longer need to buy biographies to get the facts. This might just be not a death-knell but a renaissance for this venerable genre.

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