The Guardian has an interesting article today on the rise of “comic-book biographies”. It notes an important antecedent – Art Spiegelman’s Maus – which I read and enjoyed for a unit I was tutoring last year. That was the story of the author imagining his father’s unimaginable Holocaust story; it had elements of autobiography as well as biography. This is different – comic-book treatment of key scenes in the lives of famous figures like Einstein. It sounds like a good thing, but more the equivalent of historical fiction than biography-proper. To the extent that the creators have moved beyond the historical evidence to imagine the scene more fully, they are fictionalising. It reminds me of my surprise / irritation that great biographies are often adapted as “biopics” rather than documentaries. I like biopics, but the filmic equivalent of a biography is surely the documentary, with its weaving together of sources rather than the fictionalised illusion of a fully-realised world offered by a feature film.
I’ve been very interested in biography lately, and my reflections on that deserve their own home, given they are a little specialised. If you’re interested in my thoughts on the art of biography, please visit “A Biographer In Perth” – http://biographerinperth.wordpress.com/.
It’s been the experience of writing a novel about a biographer over the last five years which has sparked my interest in biography. I’ve realised it’s a genre with such potential, sitting between literature and history. It’s a genre which attempts to recover lost time, and to make the dead live again. Or perhaps it attempts to do neither of those things, but only to put in order the fragments of individual lives, the traces they’ve left behind. It’s a personal approach to the past, and involves assembling a narrative from the archives, testing the writer’s skills of synthesis, structure and theme. It seems a noble pursuit to me.
I will be continuing to update this blog with more general matters, and An Anabaptist in Perth with matters theological.
Dark Safari: The Life Behind the Legend of Henry Morton Stanley John Bierman (Sceptre, 1990)
Abandonment, rejection, betrayal. These were the themes that haunted the inner life of the swaggering, assertive little man known to the world as Henry Morton Stanley… For Stanley, a mere mask was insufficient protection; he fabricated for himself a suit of armour, which it has taken almost a century to penetrate. (Opening paragraph)
Henry Morton Stanley was famously the journalist who “found” the missionary explorer David Livingstone. He is a classic subject for the debunking-a-Victorian-hero genre, because – if Bierman is to be believed – Morton was a compulsive liar, a storyteller who invented versions of his life to suit his purposes.
I’m only part-way through the book, but want to offer some initial reactions to its first part, “Self-Invented Man”. The book was a serendipitous find in a booksale; I was only vaguely aware of Stanley as a historical figure, but I am fascinated by the possibilities of Victorian biography. It exists outside the lifespan of anyone alive today (bar the handful of people born before 1900), so it is an archival genre of biography, yet it almost feels in touching distance: the world of the Victorians was a world my grandparents were familiar with, even if they didn’t directly live in it.
Bierman writes well, with requisite wit. He has just the right tone to write Stanley’s story. He has also chosen a fascinating subject.
The gift Stanley left his biographer was an autobiography and other writings which are demonstrably false. Early sections of Bierman’s biography read as an extended commentary on Stanley’s autobiography. A key passage of Stanley’s account is presented and then debunked. As one example, Stanley presents himself as a youthful hero in the children’s workhouse, standing up to the tyrannical master, a rebel campaigning for justice. Bierman finds a contradiction in Stanley’s own account – why, then, was Stanley left in charge of the other children when the master was away? – and deploys corroborating evidence (interviews with other inmates, the workhouse records themselves) to argue the reality was that Stanley was actually the teacher’s pet.
Unlike a biography I recently finished (that of South Australian author, Matilda Evans) Bierman has a wealth of material to work with, and I find the debunking process gripping. The contradictions and fabrications in Stanley’s account reveal so much about the subject’s character and the age in which he lived.
The choice of subject is surely paramount for the biographer. There are so many historical figures who cry out for attention, and yet before embarking on a biography of them, the question probably has to be: what traces have they left behind? What raw materials are there to work with? (Unless, perhaps, the greatest biographer can coax blood from a stone and produce a great biography of a subject who has left little behind. It would have to be a convincingly and fascinatingly speculative account.)
Matilda Evans caught my attention when I was reading a history of Baptists in Australia. A brief profile talked of her significance as the first woman to have a novel published in South Australia (1859). In all, she published fourteen novels. She was a deaconness and married to a Baptist minister. I discovered a full-length biography of her had been published in 1994 – Our Own Matilda by Barbara Wall (Wakefield Press).
Alas, Matilda is a difficult biographical subject. Despite extensive research, Wall was only able to uncover a few letters written by her, and just one photograph. If she kept a diary, we do not have it. But even if she had kept one, I doubt Matilda could ever become a compelling biographical subject: Wall does her best to redeem her and the conventionality by which she lived and wrote, but can only do so much. A number of Matilda’s novels were temperance novels; all of them were favourites for Sunday School prizes, safe novels which inspired piety and respectable living. Of course, I’m missing Wall’s main point here: she takes to task the generations of male critics who have ignored or trivialised Matilda’s writing for these reasons. Wall insists – rightly – that the novels are fascinating social documents, providing insight into South Australian colonial life and the attitudes of her time. Yet from her own argument, Matilda’s writing will be of more interest to the historian than the literary critic.
The book is of interest to me for its insights into biographical method. What is the biographer to do when the subject does not reveal themselves? Wall attempts to fill the gaps by speculating on the basis of Matilda’s novels, drawing parallels to places and incidents to reconstruct Matilda’s likely experiences, fleshing out the bare facts provided by education records, obituaries and newspaper ads. It is a dangerous method, likely to be dismissed as invalid by some critics, but it seems fruitful and her suggestions reasonable.
Yet somehow, the analysis never quite brings Matilda and her world alive. As an example – and I probably place too much weight on death scenes – but for me they should usually be one of the stronger moments of the biography; there should be a way to convey some of the significance of a person’s life in their death, or at least to show how their death fitted their life. The death in this biography only shows the ordinariness of Matilda’s life and the lack of information about her:
She died on Friday, 22 October 1886, of peritonitis, and was buried on the following Sunday…
I’m sure the historical record can yield no more than this, so what more can I ask of the biographer? I’m not sure. But perhaps it could be juxtaposed with an analysis of how Matilda saw death in her novels. Perhaps something of the place of death in Victorian-era Australia. Perhaps some background on death by peritonitis at that time. Perhaps even some more speculation about the circumstances of her death, drawing on social histories of death. Perhaps none of this would work; I’m only trying to anticipate method when I come to write a biography of my own.
Matilda Evans is perhaps not so neglected as Wall fears – there is another book looking at her literature; a thesis written on her and two other S.A. women writers, and an entry for her in Australian Dictionary of Biography. Abebooks reveals that her books (which remained in print right up until the 1930s) are worth hundreds of dollars. Our Matilda itself is an excellent piece of research, and a good analysis of her life and literature, aware of the shortcomings of Matilda’s writings while open to their significance.
I’ve just finished McGrath’s C.S. Lewis: A Life, a book in which my interests in biography, theology and literature converge.
I’ve had an uneasy relationship with Lewis. I was brought up on The Chronicles of Narnia. The crude 1970s cartoon version of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe was the only video provided for children to watch at several church camps when I was young. For my eighth birthday, my parents bought me the set of books in a boxset (not a common thing; I didn’t own that many books as a child – it was always the libraries); they were a precious possession, and I enjoyed them a lot – although never quite as much as I perhaps felt I should. I went onto to read the Space trilogy as a teenager, but avoided his Christian writings, probably partly because of one over-zealous youth group leader who had only ever read C.S. Lewis and made him sound incredibly dull to me by steering every conversation back to him. Lewis was also just too obvious a choice for me with my dual interest in theology and literature. Yet a couple of years ago, I was blown away by the brilliance of The Great Divorce, one of the best books on eschatology I have ever read, and since then my interest in him has been strengthened.
McGrath’s research is excellent and he is insightful in telling the story of Lewis’s life. Yet his style is precisely wrong for his subject, and it is a failing which drags the book down for me. The problem is one of over-clarity, not only over-simple, pedestrian prose, but constant signposting of every transition (too many ‘to which we now turn’s at the end of each section) and repetitions which grow tiresome. It may well be an attempt to make the book as readable as possible, and it probably succeeds in doing that, but although McGrath writes of the poetry in Lewis’s writing and its beauty, there is little of it in this account of Lewis.
Lewis was long dead before I began reading him; his work comes to the present generations as an established whole. It was of so much value to learn of the development of each book chronologically, of how each book emerged from a particular period of Lewis’s life. The hodge-podge of Lewis I’ve had in my reading – from late works to early works and in between and back again – muddles the sense of a mind not fixed with one position but developing and changing. For example, it was interesting to learn of how his two books on suffering – The Problem of Pain and A Grief Observed – were written at very different times of his life, one a theoretical apology, and the other an emotional account of his own reaction to his wife’s death.
I knew so little of Lewis’s life before reading this biography, and the complexities of it were gripping. I found myself wishing McGrath was just a little more interested in scandal, although he certainly presents the scandalous aspects in a plain-spoken way. Lewis had the strangest relationship with a wife-mother figure, Mrs Moore. I’m sure others have explored it in greater length, and McGrath gives an adequate account, but it is bizarre and seems to have been so crucial to the type of life he lived. McGrath presents Lewis’s eventual wife, Joy Davidman, as a conniving woman, and it is another strange story. McGrath minimises the attempts to get inside Lewis’s head, but I think he should have tried some more. One of the problems, no doubt, is the reticence Lewis would have shown in print about his unusual relationships with women.
Structurally, it all seems to be over so quickly, but that’s the inevitable experience of a biography which is not the size of a brick. Perhaps it was only a question of how engrossed I was, but the second half of his life seemed to be covered in too little detail, perhaps because McGrath’s attention shifted to Lewis’s published work.
Which brings me to a question of biographical method and structure. The book stalled for me in Part Three – ‘Narnia’. McGrath breaks off his narrative of Lewis’s life to offer a rather basic overview of the themes and significance of Narnia. It seems a contravention of the book’s own internal parameters. I think the book would be stronger as a biography if the discussion of Narnia was more deeply rooted in the biographical, even if that meant not saying things McGrath regards as important.
My complaints aside, McGrath has deepened my interest in Lewis and written a good popular-level biography. It would be an interesting exercise to compare the companion release, a more academic account of Lewis – but I’ll probably leave that to others.
In thinking what I might write next, I’m weighing up biography as a literary form at the moment. I’m not sure how to do that. The danger is that each biography I read has me judging the whole form by its merits.
Today I finished Ann Galbally’s Redmond Barry: An Anglo-Irish Australian (Melbourne University Press, 1995). Barry (1813-1880) emigrated to Australia as a young man, and was a towering figure in Melbourne’s early years as a judge, university chancellor, library-founder, cultural emissary. Yet he’s probably best remembered for sentencing Ned Kelly to death and dying himself days after Kelly. Gallaby treats Ned Kelly’s trial in four pages. Given it was only a couple of weeks in a whole life, perhaps it’s a logical decision. Yet I would have given it many more pages, because of its dramatic potential and the place of Kelly in Australian cultural memory.
I suspect I’m interested by things which are not the focus of conventional biographies. One example: I’m fascinated by the memorialisation and legacy of a biographee – what shadow do they cast over the world after their death? There is some of this in Barry. A funny anecdote told about him in The Age sixty years after his death; words attributed to him in folklore; that fact that today there remains his coat of arms that he himself had placed in an unobtrusive spot above a hall he helped get built. But I wanted more.
I don’t yet know if the fact that this biography didn’t grip me was due to the limits of the genre itself, or the shortcomings of this particular biography. I felt that as a narrative it was flat, and far too bound by maintaining a steady rhythm of chronology. Barry spent this year in this way, and then the next one in this way. There was not enough narrative shaping of his life, not enough sense of the heights and lows, not enough drama created.
Perhaps I carry the baggage of my background in fiction. The biography should not be in too much debt too the novel. And then there is the problem of the expectations of biography after Freud: that it reveal the biographee’s secrets and their sex life. Barry does both, which is why I’m surprised I didn’t find it more engaging, despite it being well-researched, both sympathetic and critical, and the prose having an unobtrusive appropriateness. (I remember cringing right through the overwritten prose of Belle Costa Greene’s biography, An Illuminated Life.) Barry had an affair with a married woman on the ship over to Australia, and the whole ship became aware of it, including the husband. Remarkably, Barry himself records some of the details. This is the sort of insight I thought the 19th century historical record would generally completely lack. And yet it is made less interesting than it could have been.
I also felt as I read that the sort of biography I would want to write would illuminate the particular events of the biographee’s life by far more explanation of social and cultural norms of the time. Where we couldn’t get particular insight into the biographee’s life, we would gain general insight. How common was it for a respectable church-going judge to keep a consort he would not marry and have children with her? How does it fit into Victorianism? It would make for a far-bigger book, and it could get boring; it would need to be done well.
I must make clear that as history and probably even as biography, this is a good book. It just happens to be the particular instance of my initial interrogation of the genre.
Barry turned 200 this year, and a panel called “Redmond Barry: Visionary or Scoundrel” was held at the State Library of Victoria.