From white-washing to uncovering secrets: this week’s research quest for the history of biography

My research quest this week has been to try to better explain the shift from respectful, white-washed biographies of the Victorian-era to the biographical preoccupation by the late-twentieth century with uncovering secrets. (It’s a question I have already addressed in my MA thesis, but I’m revisiting it as I revise a section of the thesis for publication.) As an example, Charles Dickens’ original 1870s biography by his friend John Forster did not mention Dickens’ long affair with the actor, Nelly Ternan. The secret was long out when the definitive story of Nelly was written in the 1990s, Claire Tomalin’s Invisible Woman. For some time now, the reading public has expected biographies to “tell the truth” about a person’s life, and not leave secrets out. My essay connects this shift to the rise of biographical quest fiction, such as A. S. Byatt’s Possession: A Romance (1990).

Not that much has been written on the history of biography. Those accounts which do trace its development over the twentieth century inevitably point to New Biography as the turning point – the triumvirate of Lytton Strachey, Virginia Woolf, and Harold Nicholson. Strachey’s Eminent Victorians appeared a few months before Armistice in 1918 and set about debunking the heroes of the Victorian age, and forging a new style of biography. While most scholars are perhaps too quick to label most biography since as post-Stracheyean, Robert Skidelsky (1988) makes a compelling contrarian case that contemporary biography does not resemble Strachey’s project at all. “What chiefly distinguishes the contemporary from the Victorian biography (apart from its greater professionalism) is its greater degree of explicitness about private life and its greater psychological penetration; neither of which, I think, were important aspects of Strachey’s original programme.” (9) Strachey himself wrote only from published sources, avoiding the problems of dealing with literary estates or the hard work of research. He called for brevity in biography, a few telling incidents, not the numbing accumulation of detail. A biography without archival research and of only a hundred or two hundred pages is not a common sight in today’s literary landscape. If Skidelsky is right, who can we look to in order to explain the biographical turn?

Freud is one candidate, but he was not someone for unearthing secret papers from the archives either. Long before The Da Vinci Code was Freud’s biography of Da Vinci, and it did not involve lost letters or diaries, but Freud re-intrepreting Da Vinci’s dreams and character. However, the mainstreaming of Freudian thought, of concepts like repression, is surely another piece of the puzzle.

Other candidates:

  • The rise of celebrity culture, and the expectation that we will know their private lives. The gossip pages spill over into even serious biographies.
  • Related to this, Skidelsky talks of a shift in motivation for writing biography – “not because they achieved great or unusual things, but because they led interesting or unusual lives.” (13).
  • A melding of Strachey’s interest in debunking heroes and other developments in culture and biography – the professionalisation (and increasing scholarliness) of biography; a return to the long biographies of the nineteenth century after a flirtation with Strachey’s brevity; the general tendency toward revisionism and suspicion.

It’s a pity Skidelsky pulled down Strachey as the model for contemporary biography so effectively without naming a replacement. But this is where I come in. Perhaps a clearer answer will emerge.

Skidelsky, Robert. “Only Connect: Biography and Truth.” In The Troubled Face of Biography, edited by Eric Homberger and John Charmley, 1–16. London: Macmillan, 1988.
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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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