Monday, September 12, 2011
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
WHY WRITE A NEW BIOGRAPHY?
Whenever I see a new biography on somebody who has already been the subject of a biography, I find myself asking an obvious question.
Was this new biography really necessary?
Of course I am aware of the realities of publishing. If a subject is well-known, and of interest to a large reading public, then publishers are perfectly happy to commission and bankroll new biographies, even if they add nothing to the existing public record. The assumption is that there is still a market to be exploited, and a little new packaging of old material will still turn a profit.
You do not have to be a scholar to spot this sort of rip-off biography. It will usually be fairly brief and simplistic. Its bibliography will probably consist only of secondary sources. There will be little evidence that the author has done any original research, consulted archives or primary documents, conducted interviews for an “oral history” component or read relevant articles in scholarly journals. The opinions of earlier authors and biographers will simply be recycled, so that the rip-off biography is in effect a third- or fourth-hand account of the life being examined.
This shabby variety of “biography” is often produced for the school market – think of all those horrible little collections of books doled out to Fourth Formers on “New Zealand heroes” and the like, usually top-heavy with photographs, short on text and compiled by hacks who have little real knowledge of their subject.
Truth to tell, though, the great majority of texts on any really well-known figure will come into the exploitation category. Such are the realities of the market.
Beyond the rip-offs, however, new biographies are justified only if significant new material on somebody has come to light, or if the biographer wants to argue a case that hasn’t been argued before.
Personally, I think there is always a place for the iconoclastic biography if somebody’s life has previously been written too uncritically. I still have a sneaking regard for Richard Aldington’s over-the-top iconoclastic Lawrence of Arabia – A Biographical Enquiry (first published in 1955). Later biographers have taken Aldington to task for wild overstatements – a fault to which Aldington was prone in both his novels and his non-fiction. But at least Aldington was able to explode conclusively some of the self-promoting myths T.E. Lawrence invented about himself. He began the painful process of putting the man into the real contexts of a world war and a regional campaign in which Lawrence was, truth to tell, only a minor player.
After Aldington, no real biography has dared to take on trust the many exaggerated claims Lawrence made about his activities in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom and elsewhere, even if a really balanced view of Lawrence turns out to be less damning than Aldington’s view.
Here, then, is a case of an unbalanced biography fully justified by the deficiencies of the hagiographies that had gone before it.
Sometimes, too, new material comes to light that alters considerably the way somebody is seen. Until the mid-twentieth century, biographies of Charles Dickens acknowledged that his marriage had broken up (after producing many children) and left the matter at that. Then newly-retrieved letters and diaries began to confirm what had hitherto been suspected only - that Dickens had marched off into a liaison with the young actress Ellen Ternan. Suddenly this fact became one of the central issues in his biography. All biographies of Dickens now spend considerable space telling us about his relationship with the girl, how this created tensions with his public persona as the champion of the Victorian hearth-and-home, and how often the heroines of his later novels were based on his mistress and reflected his idealised vision of her. All of this chimed in well with the newer critical perception of Dickens as a “dark, poetic” spirit, more akin to Dostoievsky than to the hearty Cockney comic novelist he had hitherto been assumed to be.
There is also the obvious fact that changed social perspectives and attitudes demand that some lives be reassessed. In a more internationalist age, we cannot write about empire-builders and military heroes in the same way that even conscientious biographers did a century ago. We look with some scepticism on “official” biographies, for which the biographer was granted access to necessary materials only on condition that the resulting biography be admiring and discreet. The old Victorian “double decker” two-volume biography, which dutifully reproduced verbatim all the correspondence and private papers of some illustrious figure, is no longer favoured.
Yet even after the rip-offs have been discounted, the radical reinterpretations and changed social perspectives acknowledged and the discovery of new material admitted, I still often find myself staring at new biographies of much-biographied figures and asking what exactly drove their authors to write them. In many cases, when somebody’s life has already been written, the new material that a new biographer unearths does little more than modify slightly the existing version. It might merit a brief article, but it hardly merits a new volume of its own.
To illustrate the situation, let me consider one person upon whom, by chance rather than choice, a number of “lives” sit on my book shelves.
I own six biographies of Oscar Wilde. Although all six were written after Wilde’s death, two of them are really memoirs by friends, and should be counted as primary rather than secondary documents. One is Anna, Comtesse de Bremont’s Oscar Wilde and His Mother, first published in 1914, which quaintly attempts to clear Oscar of any “unnaturalness” and show what a nice person Oscar’s mother was. The other is Frank Harris’s Oscar Wilde, first published in 1916, in which Oscar’s editor (and pornographer) friend seeks to show (a.) how important he was in Oscar’s life; and (b.) how Oscar was wrong not to listen to his advice on moral matters.
Neither of these first-person books would now be considered a real biography and later biographers quote them in the same way they quote other contemporary records - as partial, and incomplete, witnesses to the man’s life.
Then there are the 600 scrupulously-researched pages of Richard Ellmann’s Oscar Wilde, first published in 1987, and now quite rightly regarded as the standard biography. Certainly Ellmann’s research rendered obsolete all previous biographies of Wilde, and it is to Ellmann that all subsequent biographers have to refer.
When I read Ellmann, I thought he had written the last word on Oscar, but I was wrong.
Neil McKenna’s The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde (first published 2003), almost as hefty as Ellmann’s book, is a work of advocacy. McKenna is a gay activist, and the whole purpose of his book is to “prove” that absolutely every aspect of Wilde’s creative life was dictated by his homosexuality. This necessarily involves McKenna in a detailed account of the Victorian homosexual underworld, interesting in itself but often taking him far from his ostensible subject. Even so, by offering a new perspective and arguing a case, McKenna’s book justifies its existence.
The same is true of Thomas Wright’s Oscar’s Books (2008), a trawl through the library of books which Wilde possessed. Wright is able to show what the man’s literary inspiration was, and how much he modelled himself on earlier writers. This is a case where a new book is justified by the eccentric and specialist tack it takes.
And what of the sixth biography of Oscar Wilde on my shelves?
Here is where I ask if a book was really necessary. Barbara Belford’s Oscar Wilde, a Certain Genius, first published in 2000, is not the work of a hack. Belford has made a respectable career out of writing biographies of minor literary figures (Bram Stoker et al.) and she includes an appropriately formidable bibliography. But for the life of me, in trudging through her relatively modest product, I cannot find one fact that hadn’t been covered already (and better) by Ellmann. At best, Belford offers a few changes of emphasis.
Postmodernists see perspective as everything, and claim to scorn the type of critical apparatus that should accompany a real biography. Bless them. My own view is this. If a new biography adds virtually nothing to what has already been published, it does not really justify its existence. Experience tells me that publishers’ blurbs invariably exaggerate. When they claim that a new biography of a well-known figure offers “startling new material”, they usually mean a few titbits overlooked by earlier biographers.
I am fully aware of what toil goes into writing a real, documented biography which leaves me very much where I began. Unless a really favourable publisher’s contract has been dangled, I cannot see why biographers, who have nothing new to say, bother treading where others have already gone.