Category Archives: biographies of writers, artists and musicians

The other Winston Churchill


I’m collecting in my head all the intriguing figures I would possibly like to write a biography about. I nominate to myself the Other Winston Churchill (1871-1947), the American writer. He was better known at the turn of the twentieth century than his namesake (who is three years younger), such that he apparently requested that the British Churchill use the ‘S’ between his names. He was one of the world’s best selling novelists, but according to William C. Chase ‘a crisis of faith and values causes Churchill to abandon his pursuit of popular success and influence and devote himself to self-understanding. One result will ultimately be the appearance two decades later of The Uncharted Way, a meditation on religion…Churchill desires no popular acclaim, and receives none.’

Introducing an online reader of Chase’s works, Chase mentions that ‘sentimental moral drama cum juvenile romance’ was ‘typical of most of Churchill’s novels, helped him achieve “best seller” status in the early twentieth century, and accounts for the collapse of his reputation after 1920.’ It’s ironic that the same thing that would make someone so very popular would also make them so quickly forgotten – but it rings true of much mediocre or middlebrow literature, film and music. Not just sentimentality or moralising but sticking to the expectations and limits of a genre and an audience.

Of course, a biography has already been written of this Churchill – Robert W. Schneider, Novelist to a Generation: The Life and Thought of Winston Churchill (1976); one may well be enough, and perhaps we do not have the space to remember him further. But in the right hands, I suspect his life could make a fascinating book.

A Long Trudge: Peter Ackroyd’s Dickens

There is, perhaps, little new to say about Ackroyd’s biography of Dickens (1990). Heavily promoted on release (along the lines of the ‘the great living novelist on the great novelist’), it was widely reviewed and polarising. It is often referenced as a landmark in biography, and yet it is now out of print. Or the original 1200 page volume is out of print; more recently Ackroyd released a new, abridged edition, as well as other books on Dickens. The original serves as the source of some streams still flowing out to us today.

As many lengthy tomes have done, the book took me through the gamut of reading experiences, from moments of insight and exhilaration to long trudges of boredom. That almost seems par for the course for biography, which in conveying the scope of a life, can’t help but bring in some of the drudgery – would be neglectful not to, perhaps. James Kincaid, reviewing it for the New York Times, writes, ‘Worst of all is that he won’t go away, droning on for so long that the reader may start to root for death to come to Dickens just to get it over with.’

The biography begins with a prologue describing Dickens’ corpse and the reaction to his death, but for the rest is conventionally chronological, taking us through each year and, indeed, most months of Dickens’ life, including the circumstances of the writing of all his novels and the ways the themes interacted with and reflected his life. Perhaps the harshest and most thorough critique of Ackroyd’s take on Dickens, that of John Sutherland in the London Review of Books, takes the issue of the opening of biographies as a fruitful point of contrast between Ackroyd’s approach and that of ‘real’ literary biographers—that is to say, academics. Kaplan’s biography of Dickens opens with Dickens burning all his letters, a scene which helps us realise that, ‘We may speculate, but we will never know the inner Dickens which those burned papers would have revealed. The biographer must remain for ever fenced-off.’ Ackroyd’s mistake or hubris, according to Sutherland, is to ignore that fence and claim to know Dickens as one genius to another. Sutherland finds some key examples of Ackroyd overreaching and doing just this, as well as a telling passage in which Ackroyd is disparaging of academic conventions like footnotes. Ironically, Ackroyd is hardly speculative by the standard of popular biography, with its psychologising and mind-reading. It is also a well-researched biography by comparison to these. Ackroyd seems to have made two mistakes—writing a biography that resembles academic biography enough to invite judgement by academic standards (Kincaid writes that ‘the work seems unsure of its audience’); and to have overreached with some Dickensian flourishes (such as the descriptions in the prologue as well as the quaint interludes), when the substance of the book is not as ‘hubristic’ as these flourishes might suggest.

Ackroyd chose to eschew not only subheadings but chapter titles, only numbering chapters. Perhaps the desired effect is to make the biography appear more like a novel. The irony is that novelists, when writing anything approaching a fictional biography, will tend to at least borrow this apparatus from biographers and give the chapters titles. Biography is more difficult to give form to than a novel—it’s less focused, is far less plotted. With all its inevitable detours and somewhat loose ends, chapter titles and subheadings give readers some structure to make better sense of their reading experience. The details and chapters blur into one another so much more without this, and I think it a significant shortcoming for this biography—especially considering Ackroyd seems clear in his own mind about which period and topics each chapter covers. It is a very closely structured work, and yet Ackroyd doesn’t wish to give too much away by letting readers see the map of the long journey he is taking them on. (On a similar note, Kincaid’s review mentions how infrequently Ackroyd even informs us which year he is talking about.)

The seven fictional interludes are notorious and receive a lot of critical attention. Dickens appears as a fictional character in these short passages, talking to the biographer or to other literary figures. Perhaps they seemed transgressive or innovative in their time; they speak, of course, of the limits of the conventional biography form and the biographer’s attempt to bridge the gaps into the past. Yet for me, there are not enough of them to make the technique feel whole-hearted as part of the project.

This biography has its great fans and great detractors. I am neither. While seeing some of its merit, I’m disappointed by it as literature; for me, it didn’t soar or enchant.


‘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?

Louisa: the limits of biography


Brian Matthews, Louisa (Melbourne: McPhee, 1987)

Louisa is both an anguished reflection on biography and its problems and the story of the life of Louisa Lawson, mother of the more famous Henry, but a significant Australian literary figure herself, as editor of a woman’s journal, Dawn, and as poet and suffragette.

Frustrated not only by the gaps in the record but also by the inherent limits of biography as a genre, Matthews interrupts what is often a conventional (but good) biographical narrative with an alternative text, the reflections of ‘Owen Stevens’, Matthews’ alternative self:

Owen Stevens, the biographer’s untrammelled self, will say, do, essay and gainsay all those things that formal scholarship cannot condone and which life, unrounded by a style-sheet, uncompleted and unexplained by footnotes, is teeming.

The ‘alternative text’ also contains experiments in form, such as a short story imagining a woman from the 1970s returning to Louisa’s past, and a music-hall drama to convey Louisa in ways conventional biography would not allow.

I have no doubt Matthews expected or even courted controversy, and he did get it. The book sits as the new far end of a spectrum. It has not been taken up as the new way of writing biography, nor was it expected to. But it does demand fruitful reflection from biographers, scholars and readers on just what is permissible and what is desirable in biography.

In a sense, it is a book which wears its postmodernism loudly and, although it has aged well, it still feels to belong to the milieu when the postmodern was still shiny, exciting and the way forward. Today, nearly thirty years on, my feeling is that the biographer is able to wear the influence of postmodern more quietly. Some of the question and objections ‘Owen Stevens’ raises, some of his speculations, could be integrated with the primary narrative – they don’t need to be exiled and, by extension, highlighted.

The relegation of consideration of sources to some brief notes at the end is a strange move. Surely the whole point of the alternative text is to draw some attention to the scaffolding, to the process of arriving at the settled narrative of a biography. Footnotes are a good place to provide the reader with some awareness of the process.

In How to do Biography (Harvard University Press, 2008), Nigel Hamilton argues that it is only when there is an authoritative biography of a subject already published that a biographer is free to be experimental. Louisa Lawson did not have such a biography in 1987, as far as I know, and no doubt this added to some of the criticism Matthews received. On the other hand, the biography was praised as well, and for good reasons.

Hazel Rowley’s Christina Stead


I probably read about the death of biographer Hazel Rowley in 2011, shortly before she was due to appear at the Perth Writers’ Festival, but I’d forgotten. She was still very alive to me, looking out from the back of her book on Christina Stead (1902-1983) as I followed her through Stead’s life. Being a biographer gives an illusion of immortality; the biographer sees a whole life before them, even the subject’s death. Rowley was only 59 when she died, and surely had many more important books to write.

This one is recognised as one of the great Australian literary biographies, and lives up to its reputation. Rowley writes engagingly, and gets the level of detail right, slowing down sometimes to describe particular days, summarising other periods. It’s a 500 page book, but Stead’s life was long and eventful enough to justify it. Rowley tends to use sections of a page or two divided with marks; it’s an effective way to move between incidents or topics within a time period.

Stead comes across as a writer who sacrificed everything for her art. After some moderate early successes, she lived in poverty for decades, blacklisted in America as a Communist and out of fashion as a writer. She and her life companion, William Blake, wrote incessantly, trying to make ends meet, as they wandered like nomads between the USA, London, and Europe. Blake is a fascinating character, sounding something of a genius himself, a man with a photographic memory and endless interests, who could write on anything at will, knocking out entire encyclopedias as well as historical novels and political analysis. Stead’s own work is intense, difficult and significant. She had a late season of recognition when she returned to Australia in the 1970s, after nearly fifty years away, but even this period was a time of loneliness and rootlessness. In Rowley’s account, she lived her whole life wounded by her father, who valued beauty and saw her as ugly.

Katharine Susannah Prichard is listed twice as a point of comparison, but there is no mention of them knowing each other; it’s a line of inquiry I will follow at some stage. There is a generation between them, but both were Australian Communist women writers who moved abroad to launch their careers. Prichard moved back and stayed put, and perhaps it saved her some of the misery Stead was to endure; Prichard also just seems a more optimistic, less difficult personality. It’s been a decade since I read Stead’s masterpiece, The Man Who Loved Children, but she is a very different writer to Prichard, far more experimental, far less Romantic and sentimental, far less plot-driven.

Lisa Hill on ANZ LitLovers has a good review of the biography, summarising Stead’s life and work.

Claire Tomalin’s Biography of Katherine Mansfield

One of my concerns about biography is my failure to yet read a biography I found entirely satisfactory. Veteran literary biographer Claire Tomalin’s portrait of Thomas Hardy came close, and I hoped her biography of Katherine Mansfield (1987) would get even closer. I’ve just finished it, and it was very good, but it still left me with the dry feeling in my mouth of a failure to solve some of the tedium of biography.

I know nothing of Mansfield beyond what I’ve read in this biography, so I cannot judge what must be a somewhat controversial depiction of her. As a biography, it works best when Tomalin dares to make judgements and observe patterns across Mansfield’s life. It works least well for me when it is caught in the tedium of Mansfield’s to-ing and fro-ing with her husband Murry, as they endlessly try to find the perfect place to live and work and resolve their unusual relationship. Yet this is what life is like; it has none of the neatness of a novel – so how to convey it in a biography? Would it be acceptable to summarise slabs of time, and not relate each trip to the Continent? Probably, depending how it was done.

I was interested by the parallels with Katharine Susannah Prichard – beyond their first names being within a letter of each other, they were both born in the 1880s to Australian parents, Mansfield in New Zealand; Prichard in Fiji. Both sought fame and fortune in pre-war London and were there during the war itself. Both wrote across many genres, although Mansfield never finished a novel, KSP’s main genre. They had associates in common; I do not yet know if they ever met. Their writing was very different – Mansfield a modernist aesthete driven by art as an end in itself, and (from the biography) a desire for transgression and attention; KSP both a social realist and a romantic, and driven by her political concerns. It’s ironic that general readers are often confusing the two.

Tomalin writes in the foreword that she began researching the book in the mid-1970s, laying it aside partially because two other biographies of Mansfield appeared soon after this. Yet she decided her take on Mansfield was different to both of these and worth adding; the biography finally appeared in 1987. The extra sources she has to draw on are the recently published (as of 1987) letters of Mansfield and also of D.H. Lawrence, to whom Tomalin shows Mansfield had a more significant relationship than is usually credited. It surprised me to see many chapters with quotes only from published sources like this, rather than archival materials; perhaps there were access restrictions, or just nothing to be found in the archives. The original sources Tomalin uses are largely interviews conducted by her or on her behalf with people who knew Mansfield as a child. It’s amazing so many of them were alive, even in the 1970s; longevity seems to have been on the biographer’s side, with one woman who knew her intensely as a young woman living on to over one hundred. Why, though, weren’t there more comparable interviews with people who knew her in her twenties and thirties? One reason may simply be that most of them are dead, but I feel sure there could have been some more material gathered here.

Unlike many biographies, this one is a pleasure to read, written with a keen sense of both narrative structure and detail, putting us into the company of an interesting and difficult woman.

The biographer as professional burglar: Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman

In her landmark book in the field of biography, The Silent Woman (1993), Janet Malcolm investigates the biographers of Sylvia Plath. It is the reaction to a particular account of Plath’s life, Anne Stevenson’s Bitter Fame, that sparks her quest. Stevenson was pilloried in reviews for being too close to Ted Hughes, Plath’s estranged husband, or at least his ‘camp’.

Malcolm starts out with fighting words about biography:

The biographer at work, indeed, is like the professional burglar, breaking into a house, rifling through certain drawers that he has good reason to think contain the jewelry and money, and triumphantly bearing his loot away. The voyeurism and busybodyism that impel writers and readers of biography alike are obscured by an apparatus of scholarship designed to give the enterprise an appearance of banklike blandness and solidity. The biographer is portrayed almost as a kind of benefactor. He is seen as sacrificing years of his life to his task, tirelessly sitting in archives and libraries and patiently conducting interviews with witnesses. There is no length he will not go to, and the more his book reflects his industry the more the reader believes that he is having an elevating literary experience, rather than simply listening to backstairs gossip and reading other people’s mail. The transgressive nature of biography is rarely acknowledged, but it is the only explanation for biography’s status as a popular genre. (Kindle loc. 145-152)

Yet despite this polemic opening, Malcolm shows considerable empathy for all sides – including the biographers – in the ongoing dispute over Plath’s death and life. Her claims about biography are shown to be true in the case of some of Plath’s biographers, yet clearly not in others. What’s more, the case of Sylvia Plath would seem to me to be such an extreme test case in the ethics of biography that it shouldn’t be used to generalise about the whole. As much as the attentions of a biographer are a mixed blessing, most writers (in the case of literary biography) have sought public recognition for their writings, and for many this is partly a case of wanting readers to understand them, or at least some part of them. Whatever its crimes, biography also brings recognition to forgotten writers. When they are not writing about a sensational figure like Plath, they are often benefactors; I think of John Burbidge working for years on the life story of Gerald Glaskin, a Perth writer whose novels have been largely forgotten (Dare Me! 2014). He did it because he was interested in the man, and thought him worth remembering.

In Malcolm’s eyes, Stevenson’s “crime” was to ‘hesitate before the keyhole’ – to dare to question the entire biographical enterprise, by writing in her (Stevenson’s) preface of the need to be sensitive to Plath’s family. In the course of the narrative, Malcolm goes on to elucidate the terrible, suffocating effect Ted’s sister, Olwyn Hughes, had on Stevenson’s book. (While being, in theory, on the Hughes’s ‘side’.) This emerges as the true reason for the problems with Stevenson’s book; in the meantime, it seems Malcolm is not quite aware enough of the irony of her own judgements and depictions of various living people.

This all said, I think this is a superb book that deserves its status as a landmark in the history of biography. Even when Malcolm generalises and exaggerates, she does so in such a beautiful and provokingly important way. The ambiguities and questions she leaves us with are the treasures. I would hope the effect of the book is not to make writers shy away from the prospect of becoming biographers, but of doing so with a renewed appreciation of their responsibilities.