6 JULY 1985, Page 27


Writers divulge to the world the tricks of the trade at their peril. Anthony Trol- lope's posthumous Autobiography dam- aged his reputation for half a century, and since then few major novelists have said anything about their methods of work. Playwrights have also become reticent: getting Harold Pinter, for instance, to talk about how his plays are written, or even What they mean, is like extracting rhesus negative from adamant. Historians, too, While sometimes willing to pontificate on the writing of history in general, are notably discreet about the fabrication of their own works. That is sensible. The utilitarian clockwork ought to remain hid- den; it helps to maintain that willing suspension of disbelief which all works, fact or fiction, require to some extent.

Biographers, however, are under strong temptation to tell the tale of what they like to call their quest. With the case of A. J. A. Symonds on Baron Corvo in mind, they know that the search can often make more absorbing reading than the biography it- self. Most biographers have a Walter Mitty streak: they see themselves as a literary Sherlock Holmes peering for clues. They incline to believe that every biographical 'problem' has a 'solution', to be discovered by patient industry and psychological in- sight. Richard Holmes actually shares the name of the great sleuth and has now produced a case-book of what he terms his 'adventures'. It deals with his travelling Inquiries into R. L. Stevenson, Words- worth, Mary Wollstonecraft, Shelley and Gerard de Nerval. It is a hybrid: history, current affairs, travel, autobiography; al- Ways interesting, occasionally self- indulgent.

In 1974, when he was still in his twenties, Holmes produced what is easily the best book ever written about Shelley. It trans- formed the reader's perception of the Poet's personality and illuminated his cen- tral flaw: the ruthlessness and cruelty with Which he pursued his life of humanity and beauty. The book was a triumph of indus- !ry and persistence — one might even call It fanaticism. For one who died so young, Shelley lived in a remarkable variety of places and Holmes has tracked them all


There is a lot to be said for this kind of research. Not long ago I visited all Byron's habitations in north-east Italy. They in- cluded the house in the Eugenean Hills Which he lent to Shelley, who wrote some of his finest lines there and which was memorably described by his second wife Mary. These places are always bigger or smaller, grander or more sordid than one had imagined. Seeing them helps a little With the biographical jigsaw. But Holmes

Trade secrets revealed

Paul Johnson


Hodder & Stoughton, £12.95 pushes the case for topographical research further. He thinks that by actually living where the biographical subject stayed, by following exactly in his footsteps (hence the title of this book), the writer can somehow enter into his mind and spirit. But this is metaphysics, not history. Holmes was educated by the Benedictines of Downside, and there is something monk-like about his isolation from the world in pursuit of biographical prey. He is no longer a Catholic, I gather, but a religion lost always takes other forms and he has become a biographical devotee. He tells us that, seeking to imitate Gerard de Nerval's star-gazing on the Paris roof-tops, he entered so thoroughly into his subject that he stepped backwards into a skylight and 'landed in a roar of plastic curtain on the springy floor of the shower-cabinet below'.

There are dangers in this kind of biog- raphical approach. The hard truth a histor- ian has to learn is that many secrets of the past are irrecoverable. I admire Professor Chrimes for beginning his life of Henry VII with the sombre statement that the mater- ials for a biography of him simply do not exist. The notion that the biographer, by sheer hard work and devotion, can in some mystical manner construct for himself a private line to the dead is an illusion. The blurb of Holmes's book says it 'takes us steadily deeper into the imaginative world of biographical research'. That ought to serve as a warning. It is also a contradic- tion, for research is the very opposite of imagination.

Writing on the vexed question of Shelley's supposed illegitimate daughter, Elena, Holmes concedes that a lot of evidence indicates that the child's mother was Claire Clairmont, Byron's former mis- tress. But he himself thinks Elena was 'impulsively adopted' by Shelley from a

foundling hospital, after Claire miscarried a child for which he was indeed responsi- ble. The evidence is contrary to this ex- planation and it is only my interpretation of Claire's and Shelley's characters that stands against it'. A foolish admission. He adds, still more imprudently: . a biographer does become slowly con- vinced about his subjects' characters. After studying them and living with them for several years he finds they become one of the most important of all human truths; and I think perhaps the most reliable. This sense of character eventually grows very strong, and in an extraordinary way a relationship of trust seems to be established between you.

I would say this is largely nonsense; perni- cious nonsense, too, if one is looking for truth. Biography is only an aspect of history; and the moment a biographer believes he has a prerogative insight into his subject's actions, he and true historians part company. He is in fact kidding him- self: the character he has established in his mind is not the real person but an imagina- tive one, a fictional not a historical charac- ter, and one that is liable to take over the narrative, as in fiction, so that the author loses control. Before he knows where he is, such a biographer finds himself arguing away the evidence because it does not fit the characteristic behaviour of the monster he has created.

There are other indications that Holmes is in danger of succumbing to Biographer's Disease. He has some excellent pages on Nadar, the great 19th-century photo- grapher, but lets slip the view (a propos of Nerval), that knowledge of character can be obtained by scrutinising old photo- graphs. Another illusion. A photograph is a very imperfect guide even to physical appearance, as all of us can surely testify from experience. That the photographer is a genius, like Nadar or Julia Cameron, is cause for more, not less, suspicion. A biographer should be wary of deducing much even from a portrait by a first-class painter: but a portrait is more likely to convey truth, both physical and spiritual. Our leading painter, David Hockney, who has experimented a great deal with photo- graphy, points out that a photograph re- flects only one instant of time while a painting is the summation of many, a portrait being the equivalent of thousands of photographs in its capacity to reveal the sitter. Even so it is a subjective comment by an artist; it does not have the objective finality of a birth certificate or a tailor's bill.

My confidence in Holmes was further eroded when he came to the subject of Nerval's madness and suicide. The trouble with madness is that, by definition, it defies rational explanation or comment. A fic- tional character hovering on the brink of insanity, as in Trollope's He Knew He Was Right or The Last Chronicle of Barset, can be fascinating; once he is over it, interest collapses. Hamlet is a great play precisely because we know the Prince is ratiocinat- ing, not raving. The problems of a biog- rapher whose subject goes mad are similar. There is nothing of interest to be written about a madman once he is fairly pro- nounced insane. The biographer is there- fore tempted to brush aside the fact that madness is almost invariably the product of physical causes which have little to do with character or situation, and instead to treat it as another biographical 'problem' de- manding solutions. Holmes falls heavily into this trap. It leads him to suppose that the solution, in Nerval's case, is to be found in the theories of R. D. Laing and David Cooper. Oh dear! Thirty pages further on, Holmes has moved even furth- er from prosaic reality: 'One is tempted to say that, had Nerval been born earlier, he would have been saved by religion; had he been born later, he would have been saved by psychoanalysis.'

At this point I became convinced that the lesson of Trollope's autobiography still holds good. Writing about one's writing is a very risky business. I still believe Mr Holmes is a gifted biographer. But I shall read his future biographies with greater caution than hitherto.