Category Archives: biographical quests

James Wilson’s The Dark Clue: A fictional biographer on the trail of J. M. W. Turner’s secrets


Spoiler alert

In James Wilson’s The Dark Clue: A Novel of Suspense (2001), Walter Hartright and his sister-in-law, Marian Halcombe, set out to investigate the life of the British painter J. M. W. Turner a couple of decades after his death. Walter has been informally commissioned by Lady Eastlake, supposedly to provide a more acceptable account of Turner’s life than a muck-raking biographer named Thornbury, who we never actually meet. With its subject and setting in London at the height of Victorianism, as well as borrowing its protagonists from a Wilkie Collins’ novel, it is a deeply Victorian novel concerned with respectability and repression. Walter sets about interviewing people who remember Turner, and learns contradictory things about the painter. Marian tries to unearth Turner’s early life through letters and journals. They are led toward dark secrets in Turner’s life, only to begin to suspect they are actually being used for other people’s agenda. The mania Walter finds in Turner’s life infects his own, as he unleashes his repressed sexuality and becomes, a little unconvincingly, something of a sex fiend.

It is an intriguing premise, and seems well-researched. However, its epistolary narration works against it, and the whole novel feels as if it is relating events at too far a remove as characters diarise or correspond about things which have happened to them. The most engaging scenes are those which shake off the pretence of being letters or diaries and just directly narrate.

I was drawn to it as an example of the biographical quest novel made famous by A. S. Byatt’s Possession (1990). Many bioquest novels are set in the present with biographers unearthing the secrets of past ages, particularly the Victorian or Edwardian ages. Yet The Dark Clue has an intra-Victorian setting – the mid-Victorian era interrogating the early-Victorian era. The passages most typical of the bioquest are the ones in which Marian uncovers archival secrets. The novel has the quest structure, yet resists the romance conventions of the genre – it has a darker heart, with the quest leading not to personal redemption for Walter and Marian but near-destruction and misery.

The biographical project itself is left quite unresolved, abandoned because of the effect on the biographers. Walter and Marian end up fearing they are being tricked into producing a biography which condemns Turner as a paedophile and murderer in order to get around a stipulation in his will requiring that a gallery dedicated to his work be built if the nation wished to retain ownership of the paintings. This central premise seems slippery to me. Firstly, isn’t the rival biographer, Thornbury, supposed to be the muck-raker? Secondly, and more importantly, Victorian biography avoided scandal. Would there have even been muck-rakers like Thornbury, let alone a gentleman like Walter publishing shocking allegations about a well-known painter? The biographer Froude was heavily criticised in the period for merely suggesting Thomas Carlyle was impotent. The abandonment of the project, at least, is realistic for the period if such discoveries were made. Interestingly, it echoes another bioquest from the same year, Barbara Vine’s The Blood Doctor, in which the secret is too shocking for the present-day biographer (the subject’s descendant) to continue.

I haven’t yet seen the recent film, Mr Turner, so I can’t make the obvious comparison to it, but I do half intend to watch it.


Link: Review of The Quest for Corvo

Fellow biographer Laura Sewell Matter has been reading one of my favourite biographies, A. J. A. Symon’s Quest for Corvo. Her post intertwines a review of the book with reflections on writing biography. I identify with her thoughts on the personal relationship between the biographer and subject, and particularly like this:

Others have admired Rolfe’s work, but only Symons knows it comprehensively. There is, almost, possessiveness in this. Consider two meanings of “subject”: 1. the person or thing being described, 2. one placed under the authority or control of another, as a vassal. If Rolfe was Symons’ subject in the latter sense as well as the former–and arguably a writer is always in control of their subject–at least Symons was a benevolent ruler, who cast his subject in the most favorable light possible, given the life in question.

I hadn’t thought of the second meaning of “subject” in connection to biography, but it does shed light on one of the impulses in the relationship.

I, for one, am really looking forward to reading Laura’s biography of Charles Fisk one day.

Katharine Susannah and the “fifteenth-rate” writer, Charles Garvice


Katharine Susannah became instantly famous across the Commonwealth when she won the Australasian section of the great Hodder and Stoughton All-Empire Competition in April 1915 (the very month of Gallipoli) for her unpublished novel, The Pioneers. It was the big break she had been working hard towards for a decade. I think The Pioneers, for all its faults, is genuinely a very good novel, but at the time of the competition, a number of critics were unwilling to take the winning entry seriously because of the judge, British writer Charles Garvice.

The columnist in Wellington’s Dominion wrote, “…to foist such a fifteen-rate novelist as Mr Garvice upon Australasian writers as judge of their work was little short of an insult” (May 29, 1915, 14). Almost no-one remembers Garvice today, but at the time, he could claim to be the biggest-selling British author alive, having sold millions of the romances he produced many times a year. Among serious lovers of literature his name was a byword for dross. It seems that to have him judge a literary competition was a little like inviting Danielle Steel or Dan Brown to do so today. When his own books are so forgotten, it is a beautiful irony that one of his great legacies was to launch the career of such a significant Australian writer. Even if Garvice wasn’t a great writer, could he have been a good reader, able to discern something special in Katharine Susannah’s work? The Pioneers is a romance, melodramatic at times yet with characters more vivid and a plot more interesting than the genre usually produces.

I would love to know Katharine Susannah’s opinion of Garvice’s work, and the complicated feelings she would have felt at being awarded the prize by him. I think she would have been biting her tongue, and a little uneasy amidst the jubilation.


Garvice has fascinated at least two writers in recent years. In her fine essay “Pursuing the Great Bad Novelist”, Laura Sewell Matter tells of her quest for Garvice, after finding some pages of an Icelandic-language book wash up on a beach in Iceland and eventually tracking it down as a translation of one of Garvice’s novels. She flies to London to read one of only two copies held by libraries in the world. It is a classic biographical quest, the genre I researched for my MA, the quest for Garvice tied up to Laura’s quest to find herself. You can download the essay from her website. Steve of Bear-Alley blog wrote a post on Garvice in 2010, tracking down some biographical details for Garvice, as well as a long (and still incomplete!) bibliography of Garvice’s works.

Tragically eluded: a quote on the fear of the biographer

What you encounter at last, after your metaphorical quest across regions of ice, might be not so much a visage as a sensation, an overwhelming feeling of frustration, of having been somehow tragically eluded; a feeling that includes the immense sadness with which the contemplation of an imperfectly glimpsed past suffuses the soul…

– Brian Matthews, Louisa, 296.

This is the great question that historians and biographers must face: is the past recoverable? Can we get past the fragments it has left behind to some sense of what it was?

I think of how differently people remember the same person who they all knew. Say, for example, rather innocuously, you get to talking about a former work colleague. To some, he could be a hero of sorts, a fine worker and a great contributor; to others, a man with a streak of nastiness. Who is right? I suppose both are right, but some might be more perceptive than others. How perceptive can we be about people we will never meet? And yet, the whole endeavour of writing and reading insists that we can, in some sense, know a person through the words they have left behind.

Writing beautifully, wearing research lightly: Rebecca Skloot’s achievements in her book on Henrietta Lacks


Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Macmillan, 2010) is an exemplar of creative non-fiction, an intriguing combination of biographical quest and popular science. It was ten years in the writing, as Skloot lived off student loans and credit cards on her quest to follow the story of Henrietta Lacks, the black woman whose cancer cells were taken without her knowledge in 1951 and seem to be immortal, multiplying and living on for decades, and used in thousands of medical breakthroughs.

In her long acknowledgements, Skloot writes that one of her friends ‘taught me to care deeply about story structure’ (Loc 5157), and Immortal Life is indeed a brilliantly structured story. Through much of the book, Skloot alternates chapters retelling the life and afterlife of Henrietta and her cells with chapters recounting Skloot’s own quest through the late 1990s and 2000s to uncover the story. A simple but invaluable orienting device is a timeline indicator at the start of each chapter. Other biographies and histories should consider using it. While Skloot is in the action and gives a couple of biographical clues about herself in the prologue (‘I grew up white and agnostic’; she mentions a marriage and divorce during the writing of the book), for the rest of the book she remains restrainedly silent about her own life, except to the extent it directly affects the quest.


From Chapter 29, it is Skloot herself who is at the centre of the afterlife of Henrietta and for the final eight chapters, the quest is recounted chronologically, with the focus on Skloot’s relationship with Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah, who has been deeply affected by the legacy of what happened to her mother, and the way her contribution to science has been long unacknowledged. She mentions in passing that an editor who “insisted I take the Lacks family out of the book was injured in a mysterious accident” (loc 217). While the troubles of the disadvantaged Lacks family and their attempts to deal with Henrietta’s legacy are so important to Skloot’s purpose and the achievements of the book, the editor may have been onto something, however misguided and extreme her remedy. Those final eight chapters almost feel they could be from a different book. The beautiful, understated writing of the rest of the book is overwhelmed by long sections of dialogue from Deborah and the others. It’s captured well, and it’s a story worth telling; I wonder, though, if it needed condensing and balancing.

One of the accomplishments of this book is the way Skloot wears a decade of research so lightly. There are no footnotes through the book, but notes on the sources for each chapter at the end. The book reads more like a novel than most biographies; Skloot has managed to find enough detail to show as much as she tells. Here is the opening paragraph of chapter one:

On January 29, 1951, David Lacks sat behind the wheel of his old Buick, watching the rain fall. He was parked under a towering oak tree outside Johns Hopkins Hospital with three of his children— two still in diapers—waiting for their mother, Henrietta. A few minutes earlier she’d jumped out of the car, pulled her jacket over her head, and scurried into the hospital, past the “colored” bathroom, the only one she was allowed to use. In the next building, under an elegant domed copper roof, a ten-and-a-half-foot marble statue of Jesus stood, arms spread wide, holding court over what was once the main entrance of Hopkins. No one in Henrietta’s family ever saw a Hopkins doctor without visiting the Jesus statue, laying flowers at his feet, saying a prayer , and rubbing his big toe for good luck. But that day Henrietta didn’t stop. (loc 239-245)

She interviewed David Lacks while he still alive, so some of the detail must come from him; she also references the research she did on segregation, and she visited the hospital, observing the Jesus statue and presumably the oak tree. But did she know he parked under it on that day? If she couldn’t be sure, was it an acceptable guess? I’m not sure, but I am in awe of the way her book manages to read as one that is simultaneously meticulously researched and beautifully written.

Moving Among Strangers: Gabrielle Carey remembers the dead

I couldn’t put down Gabrielle Carey’s memoir, Moving Among Strangers: Randolph Stow and My Family (UQP, 2013), so in one important sense, it is a successful book. Yet I was reading it most of all to learn more about the enigmatic Western Australian writer Stow, and on Stow the book intensifies the mystery of the man, whetting my appetite for more without satisfying.

Carey’s mother was friends with Stow when they were both young, and she wrote to him when her mother was dying. After a brief correspondence remembering the links between the families and mentioning some things Carey never knew about her own family, Stow retreated from further contact and died not long after. Carey attended the tribute held in his honour in Perth, and the trip prompted her to re-establish contact with the estranged Perth side of her family. She finds herself embarked on two quests: to understand the secret lives of her parents, and to understand the reason for Stow’s retreat to England to work a barman and publish very little in the last forty years of his life. The connection between the two strands does not always feel strong enough, or more that they seem such different goals. At one point Carey comments on what a messy person she is, and it is a messy book in some ways (in a good and bad way), delighting in co-incidence between the two quests and moving forward with a kind of stream of consciousness. It has the immediacy and pace of a quickly written book, and also some of the lack of polish.

Carey is careful to tell Stow’s associates that she is not his biographer (p. 207); ‘Stow already had an authorised biographer who had actually met him and interviewed him and had been working on his project for more than ten years. My book was something else, although I didn’t try to explain what. I wasn’t sure myself.’ I hope this book is only an appetiser for Roger Averill’s book, when it finally appears, and that it will be the successful account of Stow’s life which Stow deserves and the biographer no doubt deserves after so long invested in the project. (Earlier in the book, she briefly describes meeting Averill in the UWA Reid Cafe, and I couldn’t help imagining I could have been there, typing away on my laptop, not aware of the conversation going on nearby.)

Carey is indiscreet and opinionated, saying things many people would not put in print (‘I…deceived my last husband to have an affair with a younger man from my yoga class’), and perhaps her disarming honesty is part of the book’s appeal. Her judgements are often funny; sometimes grating, when she says something I don’t like, such as generalisations about Western Australia.

It feels to me that the real subject is Carey herself, and that is only a problem if one is wanting the real subject to be something else. I think I tend to find every memoir a little indulgent, which is probably largely an attitude I was brought up with. It might also be the attitude of a biographer, for whom the focus should be on the other, the historical subject one is recovering.

That said, I am fascinated by the genre of biographical quest, and this book has strong elements of it. The quest to uncover the truth of the subjects reveals things the protagonist never knew about their heritage and about their character. It leads them to exotic places (well, Perth, Geraldton and Old Harwich). Some of the story is told in the letters of the subjects. All these elements are present; it’s just that Carey is not trying to produce a true biography of either her mother or Stow, but a memoir of the quest itself. A book should never be judged by what it is not trying to be, and it really is an interesting book.

Biography in forty-five minutes: “The Mystery of Agatha Christie with David Suchet”


In this 45 minute television documentary, actor David Suchet recounts the life of the author who created the detective (Poirot) who made him famous – Agatha Christie. It’s structured as a biographical quest, although there isn’t actually that much mystery around Christie beyond her famous disappearance in 1930, and unlike biographical quest fiction, there are no real discoveries or breakthroughs made. It is actually just an appropriate and convenient way to look at her life through the eyes of what the academic Jon Thiem might call an ‘epigone’, in the guise (undoubtedly basically true) of Suchet realising he has never really learned the life story of the woman behind his character.

There is only so much you can do in trying to convey an entire life in 45 minutes, and this documentary succeeds admirably, while showing clearly the limits of the form compared to a typical biography, which might be 800 pages long. There is little sense of competing interpretations of her life, despite the fact that Suchet moves between interviewing three different biographers of Christie for different periods of her life. It’s all very democratic, and each of them is interesting in their own way, but they surely have quite different understandings of their subject, and yet they’re stitched together as if they offer one seamless account.

In any biography, it is important to give some sense of the time and place, and documentary as a form offers the chance to use stock footage and the music of an era as a audiovisual shortcut, evoking viewers’ pre-existing understanding of the period. It’s done beautifully and skilfully in this example. It takes the place of the biographer’s challenge of giving a cultural and historical context in words, the balance between too much information and not enough; the trick of guessing just what knowledge one can assume on the reader’s part.

It seems to me the structure of the documentary is shaped a lot by who they could track down to interview about a particular time in the author’s life, and hence a strange detour of an interview with Tom Adams, who painted interesting covers for Christie’s paperbacks for years, only for him to reveal at the end of his segment that he never actually met her. It has an appropriateness, because neither did Suchet, and in a full scale biography, it might belong in some way in a chapter on the reception and presence of the subject in other artists’ lives – yet for a carefully timed documentary, it seems an unusual choice. Why not more time with her grandson, or her late daughter, or even with the archival interviews they have of Christie herself? Perhaps there’s nothing that’s visually interesting enough; every biographer is restricted by their sources, and the documentary biographer by the constraint of making something to watch and listen to.