“That’s the only intelligence I shall convey to you except by word of mouth”: the difficulty of biography

He went down with Catherine to see his parents at the cottage in Alphington which he had found for them. “They seem perfectly contented and happy,” he told Forster. “That’s the only intelligence I shall convey to you except by word of mouth.” In that last sentence, of course, lies all the difficulty of biography, for how is it possible now to guess at what passed by mouth, by the sudden expression or by the unintentional phrase? The whole meaning of a life may be evoked in such moments which cannot now be reclaimed – like the life itself disappeared utterly, leaving behind just written documents from which we can only attempt carefully to reconstruct it. But the biographer does know some things which may not even have been clear to Dickens himself as eagerly he moved forward through the world, each day a new confirmation and extension of his being; we know that the parents were not happy, for example, and that John Dickens would soon be forging bills with his son’s signature.

– Peter Ackroyd, Dickens, 314.

In this excerpt, Ackroyd acknowledges the pain of the gap, of the clue in Dickens’ letter that he had something significant and sensitive to say which is now unrecoverable. (Ackroyd exaggerates; there are so many other difficulties too!) When Ackroyd talks of the ‘meaning of a life’, he is suggesting that the ‘true’ self is not the one presented in the documents which have survived. (But he probably means an inner state more than anything, and that may not be conveyed truthfully verbally either.)

Ackroyd also notes the consolation of a biographer – of knowing what will come, of knowing things about ‘characters’ in the subject’s lives which the subject does not yet know or may never know.

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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

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