‘Might have been’: speculation in the biography; also, reading fiction autobiographically

In the first chapter of his biography of Charles Dickens (1990), Peter Ackroyd describes the death of Dickens’ infant brother and comments:

If the infant Charles had harboured resentful or even murderous longings against the supplanter, how effectively they had come home to roost! And how strong the guilt might have been. Might have been – that is necessarily the phrase. And yet when the adulthood of Dickens is considered, with all its evidences that Dickens did indeed suffer from an insiduous pressure of irrational guilt, and when all the images of dead infants are picked out of his fiction, it is hard to believe that this six-month episode in the infancy of the novelist did not have some permanent effect upon him. (18)

What are we to make of this technique, ‘might have been’? Probably, the ‘might have been’ will not be justified again (‘that is necessarily the phrase’) throughout the long tome of a biography. ‘Might have beens’ make for interesting reading – what is a biography without speculation? But ‘might have beens’ need to be made by a biographer who is fair and insightful and knowledgeable. (And I suspect Ackroyd has those qualities.)

Note also the appeal to Dickens’ fiction; every literary biographer does this; Adam Begley overdoes it in his new biography of John Updike, every scene from Updike’s life explained by a story or novel he wrote. It’s a dangerous business; so far Ackroyd does it in a suggestive and interesting way. But we’re all meant to know Dickens’ work, and he can refer ahead to characters like David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, etc – what of the writer people are not so familiar with – like KSP?

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About Nathan Hobby

At work on a biography of Katharine Susannah Prichard for a PhD at the University of Western Australia. Also a novelist and librarian. View all posts by Nathan Hobby

3 responses to “‘Might have been’: speculation in the biography; also, reading fiction autobiographically

  • Wesley Gleeson

    I’ve been researching and writing a biography of a sporting hero on and off for the last couple of years, and I’m struggling with this ‘might have been’ issue!

    Although he wrote 2 autobiographical books during his lifetime, there are so many gaps, such little available information, and in some places, evidence that he was being a little too sporting in speaking about other people’s roles in certain situations and activities and rather self deprecating. He died some time before I was born and I can’t trace any living relatives and few associates.

    I feel like what I’ve got is bordering on speculative fiction at this point!

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    • Nathan Hobby

      Wesley, I’m so glad to hear you’re working on a similar project. Must be frustrating trying to unearth more material on him. Have you tried ancestry.com for the living relatives? Autobiographies are fascinating starting points for a biography. I wonder if there is a treasure trove of letters sitting in someone’s basement or an archive? There may well be a number of novels which started out as attempts to write biography (I think Kate Grenville’s Secret River is in this category). However, I do hope you can pursue it as biography.

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  • Wesley Gleeson

    Thanks Nathan. I actually started it 3 or 4 years ago. I got so far with searching wedding and birth notices for his daughter, but they ran dry quickly, next time in Sydney there’s a cake shop that ‘may’ be owned by a granddaughter I might visit. Ancestry only brought up one 2nd cousin thrice removed!

    Even trying to verify some of the unreferenced information on the net about him is difficult! And then there is the charge of insubordination and 30 day imprisonment in Egypt during WW1 for a very straight laced Anglican highly regarded as one of the most respectful and upstanding gentlemen ever to breathe! He certainly never explained the reasons for that in his books!

    Oh well, keep ploughing on!

    Like

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