And so the years passed . . .
Sara Wheeler expresses the frustrations and joys of tackling a biographical subject without any material ‘Biographies,’ wrote John Updike, ‘are just novels with indexes.’ An overheated observation, perhaps, but a comfort to the hapless author struggling to bring a minor subject alive with flimsy material. I should know. I have tackled two lives of men who left little in the way of a paper trail (not a problem confronting the 400th biographer of Napoleon). Morning after morning, as the blank screen stared balefully back, I longed to write, ‘And so the years passed . . .’, since I rarely had any idea what my victims were up to.
So why tackle obscure subjects in the first place? Well, I like people who don’t inhabit the mainstream. Flaws and failures attract me as much as star quality — it seems more human to huddle among the also-rans than to carry off prizes. Ordinary lives often illustrate universal themes, a fact Anthony Powell recognised when he said he’d be a keen reader of Burke’s Bank Clerks. In poetry or novels it’s accepted that the human heart is the place where the real dramas are acted out. Biography, on the other hand, tends to be judged by the political or intellectual success of the subject, and I think that impoverishes the genre — if you want to write about what it is to be human you’re not going to work on the life of George Bush, are you? Writers can ventilate ideas with greater facility if they are not grappling with a stellar reputation, and although biography cannot invent facts, it can find other ways of bringing a subject alive in the hearts and minds of the reader.
So there you are, at your desk on day one, with next to no primary sources and a blank screen. How are you to fill the gaps? You can’t make it up; you can’t invite the reader to take his choice; you can’t do nothing. One solution, I have found, is to depict a figure in a landscape — in many cases a tiny figure against a hectic and polychrome background. That way one can at least try to understand the social and psychological dynamics that made things happen, and to use a single biography to illuminate a generation. Similarly, the insertion of a substructure of more concrete historical themes is no different in function, in many respects, to the scaffolding in a novel. But it is vital for any chance of success, and needs to be minutely researched as a kind of compensatory mechanism.
You could argue that it is more legitimate to tell the story from the outside, as in real life we only experience others from the outside. And yet and yet: I did not want — passionately did not want — to take a doggedly factual approach that ignored a whole layer of imaginative and emotional experience. What I wanted to know most of all was why my subjects did things. But what is motivation? It is a deep-sea fish, swimming around in the feculent depths of the subconscious. Which of us can say that we understand the tangled skeins of fears and desire that control our own behaviour, let alone those of our husband or our wife, letting even more alone that of a long dead stranger? Increasingly I came to see the lack of material not as a biographical handicap but as a cipher for the unknowability of anyone else’s inner life (or of one’s own). In Chloe Marr A. A. Milne writes, ‘If in the end [he] still remains something of a mystery, [we] should not be surprised: for every human being is a mystery, and nobody knows the truth about anybody else.’ The truth is more complicated than it seems in any biography.
But the material! In my own research I sometimes found that even when there was a written primary source recording an episode in the life of my shadowy subject, it had the irritating habit of conflicting with another primary source. My most recent biographee, Karen Blixen’s lover Denys Finch Hatton, was a close friend of Alan Parsons, the writer and civil servant who married Viola Tree. In a moving memorial published in the Evening Standard in 1931 a few weeks after Finch Hatton was killed in his Gypsy Moth, Parsons described Denys’s role as best man at the grand Parsons-Tree wedding in July 1912. He had turned up in an old shooting coat and was mistaken for a drunken gamekeeper. But when I checked the shipping register I discovered that on the day of the wedding Finch Hatton was languishing in the Suez Canal aboard a ship en route from Mombasa to Marseilles.
I close with another example illustrating the difficulties of recording the unrecorded. When there is little verifiable or written information there is a horrid temptation to use uncorroborated material — a trap to be avoided whatever the cost. The issue first revealed itself to me when I was writing the life of Apsley Cherry-Garrard, one of Captain Scott’s men and the author of the 1922 polar classic The Worst Journey in the World. For Cherry’s last restless decades I relied on the testimony of his 85year-old widow (she was 30 years Cherry’s junior). During the second war she and Cherry lived near Baker Street in London in a sixth-floor flat underneath Bertrand Russell, his third wife Patricia Spence, known as ‘Peter’, and their schoolboy son Conrad. The widow told me how Cherry, lost in the fug of a black depression, had become so enraged by the sound of one of the Russells hammering on the piano that he despatched his wife upstairs to ask them to desist. This was an intimidating task: an uneducated young woman from the provinces issuing orders to one of the towering intellects of the Western world. Anyway, she did it, and I wrote to Conrad, by then the fifth Earl, to ask if he remembered his grumpy neighbour. He did, and offered perceptive comments from a mature perspective. ‘But’, he concluded the letter, ‘we never owned a piano.’
Sara Wheeler will be speaking on this subject at the Royal Society of Literature on Monday 27 March in the Kenneth Clark Lecture Theatre, the Courtauld Institute, Somerset House, London at 7pm. For further information call 020 7845 4676.