Tag Archives: Charles Dickens

From white-washing to uncovering secrets: this week’s research quest for the history of biography

My research quest this week has been to try to better explain the shift from respectful, white-washed biographies of the Victorian-era to the biographical preoccupation by the late-twentieth century with uncovering secrets. (It’s a question I have already addressed in my MA thesis, but I’m revisiting it as I revise a section of the thesis for publication.) As an example, Charles Dickens’ original 1870s biography by his friend John Forster did not mention Dickens’ long affair with the actor, Nelly Ternan. The secret was long out when the definitive story of Nelly was written in the 1990s, Claire Tomalin’s Invisible Woman. For some time now, the reading public has expected biographies to “tell the truth” about a person’s life, and not leave secrets out. My essay connects this shift to the rise of biographical quest fiction, such as A. S. Byatt’s Possession: A Romance (1990).

Not that much has been written on the history of biography. Those accounts which do trace its development over the twentieth century inevitably point to New Biography as the turning point – the triumvirate of Lytton Strachey, Virginia Woolf, and Harold Nicholson. Strachey’s Eminent Victorians appeared a few months before Armistice in 1918 and set about debunking the heroes of the Victorian age, and forging a new style of biography. While most scholars are perhaps too quick to label most biography since as post-Stracheyean, Robert Skidelsky (1988) makes a compelling contrarian case that contemporary biography does not resemble Strachey’s project at all. “What chiefly distinguishes the contemporary from the Victorian biography (apart from its greater professionalism) is its greater degree of explicitness about private life and its greater psychological penetration; neither of which, I think, were important aspects of Strachey’s original programme.” (9) Strachey himself wrote only from published sources, avoiding the problems of dealing with literary estates or the hard work of research. He called for brevity in biography, a few telling incidents, not the numbing accumulation of detail. A biography without archival research and of only a hundred or two hundred pages is not a common sight in today’s literary landscape. If Skidelsky is right, who can we look to in order to explain the biographical turn?

Freud is one candidate, but he was not someone for unearthing secret papers from the archives either. Long before The Da Vinci Code was Freud’s biography of Da Vinci, and it did not involve lost letters or diaries, but Freud re-intrepreting Da Vinci’s dreams and character. However, the mainstreaming of Freudian thought, of concepts like repression, is surely another piece of the puzzle.

Other candidates:

  • The rise of celebrity culture, and the expectation that we will know their private lives. The gossip pages spill over into even serious biographies.
  • Related to this, Skidelsky talks of a shift in motivation for writing biography – “not because they achieved great or unusual things, but because they led interesting or unusual lives.” (13).
  • A melding of Strachey’s interest in debunking heroes and other developments in culture and biography – the professionalisation (and increasing scholarliness) of biography; a return to the long biographies of the nineteenth century after a flirtation with Strachey’s brevity; the general tendency toward revisionism and suspicion.

It’s a pity Skidelsky pulled down Strachey as the model for contemporary biography so effectively without naming a replacement. But this is where I come in. Perhaps a clearer answer will emerge.

Skidelsky, Robert. “Only Connect: Biography and Truth.” In The Troubled Face of Biography, edited by Eric Homberger and John Charmley, 1–16. London: Macmillan, 1988.

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.


“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.

Bold or careless?

There is a deep resemblance always between a writer and his work, but it has nothing to do with his expressed opinions or sentiments; it is rather that the form of his work embodies the form of his personality.

– Peter Ackroyd, Dickens, 232.

It’s sentences like this that got Ackroyd in trouble with some reviewers when his monumental biography of Dickens appeared in 1990. It takes a boldness or carelessness to make pronouncements and generalisations like this one. I can think of possible ways in which he’s wrong about particular authors, but it also has a feel of truth; in this case, he is talking of the ‘variegated mixture’ of ‘humour; poetry; declamation; melodrama’ in not just Oliver Twist but all of Dickens’ novels. To extend the idea: Borges is enigmatic, brief, timeless. Auster is playful yet intense, full of life’s strangeness. Oh, this is getting very subjective. Counter-argument: we mainly know authors through their work; the ‘resemblance’ is inevitable and misleading. But maybe Ackroyd has a right to his judgement, given the preface tells us that he’s read every extant letter etc of Dickens.

‘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?