Reviewing Stella, Jill Roe’s massive biography of Miles Franklin (Fourth Estate, 2008), Sylvia Martin sums up a fascinating debate between two other reviewers:
A writer who has left some sort of a record of almost every day of her adult life would seem to be the perfect subject for a biographer, but it can prove to be a mixed blessing and I think it has here. In her mostly positive review, Goldsworthy argues that the ‘empiricist historian’ approach leads to a wealth of detail that can cause the reader to become ‘benumbed by facts’, an opinion to which Hergenhan takes exception, claiming that ‘[r]eaders will deeply feel the density of the representation of the living out of the life’…
(History Australia, 89.1, 2009)
Where there’s a scarcity of information on a subject, the biographer is forced to read the fragments deeply and make much of them. Where there’s the glut of information, as in this case, it’s harder to get to what really matters.
The full passage from Goldsworthy’s review is:
Roe’s approach to the art of biography is traditional and straightforward: she is an empiricist historian and that is her methodology. The book is a magnificent feat of exhaustive research, but that in itself has one major disadvantage: the reader must plough through lists of meetings that Franklin went to, friends she visited, relatives with whom she corresponded and even, at one point, the specifications of the ship on which she sailed to America. While these catalogues go some way towards conveying the dense texture of Franklin’s life, there is too little summary and pulling-together of the details; every now and then the reader must simply stop, benumbed by facts. (ABR, February 2009)
Sylvia Martin goes on to write:
Goldsworthy wishes the biographer had delved more into the realm of speculation and opinion; Hergenhan claims she ‘calculatingly stands back, leaving readers free to “speculate”’. Roe herself wrote in an earlier publication that ‘[a] strictly historical approach should go a long way to resolving the paradoxes’ of Miles Franklin’s life. But can such an approach, even if the ‘life’ is contextualised as thoroughly as this one is, make for a satisfying biography? Biography is a hybrid genre and the narrative strategies employed to shape the life in question as well as the biographer’s own interpretation of elements of that life are surely as important as accurate and meticulous historical research. To quote English biographer Hermione Lee: ‘[w]hether we think of biography as more like history or more like fiction, what we want from it is a vivid sense of the person’. Like the ABR reviewer, I longed for more breaking away from the chronology, more extended drawing together of patterns and connections, more sense of the peaks and troughs of Franklin’s life that tend to be flattened out in the daily record, more risk-taking from the biographer.
This idea of ‘breaking away from chronology’ is a key one for the biographer. The biographer has to see patterns that aren’t clear in the day to day detail, and know when to tie together events separated by time but linked by theme. The review also raises the issue of spending the right amount of time on the ‘peaks and troughs’, as against ‘ordinary time’, the less remarkable phases of someone’s life.
A lot of this, though, comes down to what readers are looking for in a biography – and for many, many readers, Jill Roe’s account was exactly what they were looking for.