Category Archives: reading report

‘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?

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Stella #2: Miles’ trips to the dentists

Miles Franklin evidently had very bad teeth. Trips to the dentist punctuate her biography. Perhaps I’ve reached the final one, though, because – now in her early forties – she’s just had all the teeth taken out and received false teeth. (The horror of having all of one’s teeth pulled filled me up, reading that last night before bed.)

The question for the biographer: how much to tell about trips to the dentists? In Miles’ case, the biographer is working off extensive, daily diaries, and I’m sure they are full of Miles’ dental agony, of which we are only fed the smallest amount. I wonder, though, if it falls in the category of worth mentioning early on, along with a brief sketch of dental conditions in Federation Australia (and why teeth might be such an obsession), and then not mentioning again until she gets them pulled out?

It is part of the dilemma of conveying a sense of someone’s life – what’s the balance between the everyday and the dramatic?


Stella #1: The prologue

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[First in a series of reading reports, tracing my progress through Jill Roe’s Stella Miles Franklin: A Biography (Pan McMillan, 2008)]

Jill Roe opens her massive biography of Stella Miles Franklin with a simple two page prologue which manages to carry much information lightly. She tells the story of Stella’s mother riding by horse to her own mother’s house to give birth in 1879. In doing so, she maps out the territory of southern NSW which one senses will be essential as the backdrop of Stella’s life. She gives a brief account of Stella’s ancestry by unpacking her name, covering details which could go on for boring pages in a less well crafted biography.

Surely acknowledging the limits of the archives well is a key part of a good biography, and in the prologue the gaps are noted: she took a different route ‘for reasons unknown, possibly to do with the weather’ and ‘it is not recorded whether she was accompanied’. Perhaps these signals can provoke the reader to imagining the scene better and to assuming some responsibility as co-re-creators of the life of the subject as they read.


The “Self-Invented Man”: Debunking a Victorian Hero

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Dark Safari: The Life Behind the Legend of Henry Morton Stanley John Bierman (Sceptre, 1990)

Abandonment, rejection, betrayal. These were the themes that haunted the inner life of the swaggering, assertive little man known to the world as Henry Morton Stanley… For Stanley, a mere mask was insufficient protection; he fabricated for himself a suit of armour, which it has taken almost a century to penetrate. (Opening paragraph)

Henry Morton Stanley was famously the journalist who “found” the missionary explorer David Livingstone. He is a classic subject for the debunking-a-Victorian-hero genre, because – if Bierman is to be believed – Morton was a compulsive liar, a storyteller who invented versions of his life to suit his purposes.
I’m only part-way through the book, but want to offer some initial reactions to its first part, “Self-Invented Man”. The book was a serendipitous find in a booksale; I was only vaguely aware of Stanley as a historical figure, but I am fascinated by the possibilities of Victorian biography. It exists outside the lifespan of anyone alive today (bar the handful of people born before 1900), so it is an archival genre of biography, yet it almost feels in touching distance: the world of the Victorians was a world my grandparents were familiar with, even if they didn’t directly live in it.

Bierman writes well, with requisite wit. He has just the right tone to write Stanley’s story. He has also chosen a fascinating subject.

The gift Stanley left his biographer was an autobiography and other writings which are demonstrably false. Early sections of Bierman’s biography read as an extended commentary on Stanley’s autobiography. A key passage of Stanley’s account is presented and then debunked. As one example, Stanley presents himself as a youthful hero in the children’s workhouse, standing up to the tyrannical master, a rebel campaigning for justice. Bierman finds a contradiction in Stanley’s own account – why, then, was Stanley left in charge of the other children when the master was away? – and deploys corroborating evidence (interviews with other inmates, the workhouse records themselves) to argue the reality was that Stanley was actually the teacher’s pet.

Unlike a biography I recently finished (that of South Australian author, Matilda Evans) Bierman has a wealth of material to work with, and I find the debunking process gripping. The contradictions and fabrications in Stanley’s account reveal so much about the subject’s character and the age in which he lived.

The choice of subject is surely paramount for the biographer. There are so many historical figures who cry out for attention, and yet before embarking on a biography of them, the question probably has to be: what traces have they left behind? What raw materials are there to work with? (Unless, perhaps, the greatest biographer can coax blood from a stone and produce a great biography of a subject who has left little behind. It would have to be a convincingly and fascinatingly speculative account.)