Category Archives: the nature of biography

Biography and wisdom: Hermione Lee’s Virginia Woolf #1


It’s rather unfashionable to look to biographies to influence how we live. It’s the sort of impulse behind nineteenth century hagiographies, for one thing. But reading through a friend’s proposal for her work in progress, she spoke about the hope for her biography to be stimulate the reader into thinking about their life choices and what made for a good life. And she was right – biography can and sometimes should do this. I found Hermione Lee’s Virginia Woolf (1996) doing it to me, whether that was Lee’s intention or not. (I finally finished this 920 page tome last week, many months after beginning it.)

Woolf’s seriousness about reading was the most definable thing which comes to mind. “Reading, quite as much as writing, is her life’s pleasure and her life’s work. It is separated from the rest of her activities by its solitude and withdrawal, but she is always comparing it to other forms of behaviour and experience – relationships, walking, travelling, dreaming; desire, memory, illness.” (loc 9223) She lived to read, it meant as much to her as anything. People sometimes joke about how much books mean to me, yet I’m not nearly as serious a reader as Woolf. Reading Lee’s excellent account of Woolf’s reading (she has a thematic chapter on it) provoked me to think about the role of reading in my own life, and gave me permission to allow it to be meaningful without feeling apologetic.

There were many other ways this biography had me thinking about my own life in areas like decisions, friendships, home. Wise biographies can be instructional in a subtle way . I’m sure it’s one of the pleasures of biography, but it bears no resemblance to the didacticism of nineteenth century biography. And this is one of the wisest biographies I’ve read; perhaps I can add “wisdom” to my checklist of requirements of the great biographer. It’s not the most obvious thing to say about this book, but for some reason it’s where I’ll start.

Biographical contradictions: Drusilla Modjeska Vs Victoria Glendinning

A key moment in the history of Australian literary biography was a panel on biography at the 1988 Adelaide Writers’ Week. On the panel were Australians Brian Matthews and Drusilla Modjeska and Britons Victoria Glendinning and Andrew Motion. Glendinning was already an established traditional literary biographer; Matthews had just published the postmodern Louisa and Modjeska was about to publish the hybrid fiction/biography of her mother, Poppy. In 1996 Graeme Turner used the panel as a starting point for exploring the state of Australian literary biography in his essay “Reviving the Author”. The Southern Review collected the papers in one of the more substantial statements on biography in Australia. Now Drusilla Modjeska has returned to that panel and her dislike of Glendinning’s approach to biography in her memoir (out last month), Second Half First. At the time, Modjeska made the comment the Australian biographers (well, particularly her and Matthews) were interested in exploring the lives of those not usually considered worthy subjects for a biography. “How extraordinary,” Glendinning said, apparently condescendingly. Continue reading

Reviews of biographies: downplaying biography and the biographer

There’s a review of Adam Begley’s biography of John Updike in this weekend’s Australian. It’s a biography which I felt relied far too heavily on Updike’s stories for insight into his life, unpicking the fictionalisation of each piece Updike wrote in an exhaustive and unilluminating way.

Yet, typically, in this review we get so little engagement with the biography itself. Instead, in this case as in many others, a review of a literary biography is a chance for the reviewer to reassess or recap the significance of the biographical subject. A review will draw on the portrait offered in the biography, and give some quick assessment on how good a biography it is, but it will not tend to properly discuss the book as biography. The concept of biography as a literary form is short-changed, and the significance of the biographer downplayed.

It’s understandable why this happens; it reflects the status of biography. Yet reviewing biographies as biography could be a major step forward in the development and recognition of the riches and potential of the genre.

“That’s the only intelligence I shall convey to you except by word of mouth”: the difficulty of biography

He went down with Catherine to see his parents at the cottage in Alphington which he had found for them. “They seem perfectly contented and happy,” he told Forster. “That’s the only intelligence I shall convey to you except by word of mouth.” In that last sentence, of course, lies all the difficulty of biography, for how is it possible now to guess at what passed by mouth, by the sudden expression or by the unintentional phrase? The whole meaning of a life may be evoked in such moments which cannot now be reclaimed – like the life itself disappeared utterly, leaving behind just written documents from which we can only attempt carefully to reconstruct it. But the biographer does know some things which may not even have been clear to Dickens himself as eagerly he moved forward through the world, each day a new confirmation and extension of his being; we know that the parents were not happy, for example, and that John Dickens would soon be forging bills with his son’s signature.

– Peter Ackroyd, Dickens, 314.

In this excerpt, Ackroyd acknowledges the pain of the gap, of the clue in Dickens’ letter that he had something significant and sensitive to say which is now unrecoverable. (Ackroyd exaggerates; there are so many other difficulties too!) When Ackroyd talks of the ‘meaning of a life’, he is suggesting that the ‘true’ self is not the one presented in the documents which have survived. (But he probably means an inner state more than anything, and that may not be conveyed truthfully verbally either.)

Ackroyd also notes the consolation of a biographer – of knowing what will come, of knowing things about ‘characters’ in the subject’s lives which the subject does not yet know or may never know.