The Art of Biography

Introduced by Jane Coates on 18 May 1999

Jane Coates opened the meeting with a half hour survey of the subject from the point of view of a devoted reader of biography, a trained historian and an amateur archivist but not a writer or literary critic.

She began by suggesting a series of topics which might be considered when group members came to discuss their favourite biographies. These topics included some definitions, the recent history of biographical writing, some authors' views of their art, comments on various types of biography and some personal observations on what makes `a good life'.

After briefly touching on the development of the art of biography which can be traced through works of piety celebrating the saint, the hero and the statesman or writing used to destroy reputations — all forms of propaganda or mythology — the speaker moved on to the modern well-researched and imaginative works of which Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians is an early landmark example.

Definitions, taken mainly from the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, included biography itself: the history of the lives of individual men, as a branch of literature, and history: a formal record of the past, particularly human affairs, in order of time. Variants such as autobiographies, lives, obituaries, memoirs, essays and portraits are all forms of biography seen from different viewpoints and compiled for different purposes. Diaries and letters might also qualify, their value depending on whether they are edited by the author or another, and whether or not they are published during the lifetime of the subject.. Interviews, impressions and sketches though more ephemeral could also be included.

Biographies will tend either towards literature or history. The numerous accounts of Jane Austen's life are usually literary biographies because the emphasis lies on her character, the modest events of her life perhaps with a sketch of the public events affecting her, and a discussion of her work but few would claim she affected the course of history.

In the case of Florence Nightingale there is now a very large amount of source material available, much of it to do with the public men and events of her time. While her character and attitudes remain open to interpretation it is hard to imagine a new biography which would not focus on her influence on the events and the lives of her contemporaries as well as ours. Such would be a historical biography.

The great number of biographies coming out every year was discussed. Works about the still living such as Lady Thatcher or members of the Royal Family, even Fergie, though numerous, popular and sometimes serious, usually by their nature will be ephemeral.

Political and literary figures are being re-assessed - Gladstone, Salisbury, Curzon, Asquith, Shelley come to mind. The recently dead are exciting interest, in the case of Catherine Cookson and Paul Scott because of the discovery of hitherto unknown material which presents the authors with difficult decisions in relation to still living family connections of the subject. New lives of controversial figures of the past continue to appear with their apologists writing from varied viewpoints. Recent works on the Burtons, Isabel and Richard, are examples. Neglected minor figures from the past are being skilfully and sympathetically celebrated by enthusiasts who have devoted years to their subjects. Claire Tomalin's The Invisible Woman, the tale of Nellie Ternan, Dickens' mistress, Patrick French's life of Younghusband and Vivien Noakes' Edward Lear are among many interesting recent examples. All these books say something new about the better-known people with whom the subjects of the titles were associated. Ann Thwaite's biography of Emily Tennyson naturally illuminates the Poet Laureate but it also paints a sympathetic picture of her dear friend, Edward Lear, who, it has to be said, found Tennyson an intolerable character. However, Ann Thwaite adds a nice supplement to Vivien Noakes' work. There is an increasing number of examples of this supplementary work, particularly amongst exceptional and intermarried families such as the Darwins, Huxleys and Wedgwoods.

Some suggestions for the qualities which make a good biographer were offered. such as meticulous and accurate research, imagination and sensitivity, and the ability to illuminate contradictions and complexities of character. Stylish and skilful writing in language appropriate to the subject with a well-judged use of the authorial voice combined with humour and wit are also desirable.

It was noted that Michael Holroyd, the author of, amongst others, a life of Lytton Strachey, doubted whether a biographer could ever be truly objective. He was therefore considering writing an introductory chapter to some of his biographies to outline his own life, his experiences and interests to help explain his attitude to and judgment of his subject. He was, he said, an only child brought up by his grandmother in the company of books. He did not go to university but was educated through other people's lives - a justification for the writing of biography if one were needed.

To open the subject for discussion Jane Coates offered the following quotations from two biographers :

From Laura Beatty - Lily Langtry: Manners, Masks and Morals

"Biography is a dangerous hybrid. It combines historical method with emotional response. Its promise is familiarity and its practice betrayal . . . . an attempt to understand, to explain but not to excuse . . . . it is one of the tools for bringing the past to life."

From Richard Holmes - Preface to Shelley : The Pursuit
"The open-ended nature of biography is one of its . . . attractions. No Life is ever definitive: it draws on and rejects past work, it reflects often unconsciously the concerns and questions of our own age, and it passes on something hidden to the future."

Jane Coates