“Dear Kattie, I hope you will allow me to be so familiar”: first-name terms in biography

The Guardian asks, “Should biographers be on first name terms with their subjects?” (hat-tip Tracy Ryan), which is very good timing, because it’s an ongoing question for me. I wrote this in chapter one:

On the subject of names, it is hard to decide what to call her. “KSP” is an abbreviation she used herself, echoing her father’s by-line “THP.” Yet it seems a little impersonal or anonymous; it’s protagonists in the novels of Kafka (a very different writer also born in 1883) who go by their initials. It would be wrong to call her simply “Katharine”; no-one seemed to address her like that. If you were going to call her “Katharine”, it had to be “Katharine Susannah.” But that, too, doesn’t sound quite right. “Dear Kattie,” a distant relative wrote to her in 1967, “I hope you will allow me to be so familiar; I never heard you mentioned as anything else in the family.” Her friends called her this, too and I’ve been presumptuous enough to follow suit.

I felt, after wrestling with the problem for some months, that I’d resolved the dilemma. “Kattie” she was to be. But my two supervisors and my mentor independently commented that “Kattie” was jarring in chapter one, and I can’t help but take that seriously.

In writing chapter two, I’ve called her “Katharine”, which is what I said one couldn’t do. But her son did it in his biography of her; perhaps he didn’t feel “Kattie” sounded right either. No-one, however, could deny him the right to be on first-name terms with his mother. My research the last few months has also uncovered the diversity in the way she referred to herself; often as “your K.S.” in letters, but also many other variations.

In going with the more “conservative” choice of Katharine in chapter two, I’m still on the wrong side of many critics and readers. In the Guardian article, BiopicBill writes:

Poor style, bad taste, and as obnoxious as having strangers who answer telephones at American medical (and other types of) offices call me “Bill” instead of “Mr. Biopic”. Calling people by their given names is just too familiar for strangers, especially for American strangers. For biographers it’s just as bad, except when they’re old friends of the biographee. The rituals of familiarity do not create friends, only contempt for the presumptions of strangers who think their unwanted familiar speech is both desired and desirable.

I don’t think the comparison to strangers on the phone is really an illuminating one. Whatever the relationship is, it’s not that. My inclination is to agree with SierraNorth:

Academics are more inclined to be horrified when biographers dare to use the first names of their subjects instead of referring to them throughout by their last names, a rather cold, impersonal, formal and annoying approach. After spending years researching the life of another person, an author cannot help feeling a bond, a familiarity, and an attachment that becomes personal. So, if a writer chooses to call the subject of a biography by his or her first name, why not! To those who are working on biographies, do what feels natural to you. It is YOUR book. Forget the staid rules of the past.

In that vein, I left my own comment:

Even if it’s a one-way relationship, biographers do come to know their subjects so very well. The reaction by some readers and critics against first names speaks to the inherent conservatism of the genre. It is not disrespectful on the author’s part; it is recognition of the conceit or illusion or hope of biography to know a subject.

The article features some significant antecedents for a first-name basis, including my favourite biographer, Claire Tomalin. Tomalin (whom admittedly I wouldn’t dare presume to call “Claire”) isn’t on first-name terms with all her subjects – her work on Samuel Pepys is “Pepys” all the way. Echoing my initial use of “Kattie”, in the biography I’ve just been reading Michael Ackland calls Henry Handel Richardson “Ettie” in many places, but also “Richardson”.

I expect to vacillate some more on this issue. Thankfully I have time. What do you think as a reader or a writer of biography?

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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

2 responses to ““Dear Kattie, I hope you will allow me to be so familiar”: first-name terms in biography

  • Buffalo

    Katharine Sussanah Prichard is the name of the author, the name attached to the work, but the name of the person, I guess, was Katharine or Kattie Throssell. In any case, I couldn’t see you sticking to KSP for 4 or 500 pages or whatever, it would be a bit dry. My vote is for Katharine most of the time, and KSP or Kattie only when it suits the context.
    This is a debate relevant to other authors too. In your example above HHR is referred to as Richardson although her name, as distinct from her pen name, was Robertson. Likewise, in her biography of Miles Franklin, Marjorie Barnard (I think, I am remote from my sources) uses Miles throughout, rather than Stella

    Liked by 1 person

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