What makes a good biography? Show the person.
Biography and the Art of Living. Part II.
I wrote for the National Review that the problem in the Roald Dahl row is not that his work was tampered with—literature is always tampered with—but that copyright law gives one small group of people the exclusive right to change his originals. For The Critic I asked, who is more evil, oil companies paying taxes and investing in renewables, or the NIMBYs who prevent wind turbines from being built?
This is the second post in a series about “Biography and the Art of Living” based on a salon I ran for the Interintellect Thesis festival. Today the question is: what makes a good biography? Putting aside sex, scandal, gossip, and all that jazz, I would give two answers. Biography should show you the person. And it should try to explain them. This post is about showing the person. Explanation will be covered in the next post.
In 1832, about two years into their friendship, when Harriet Taylor was married to John Taylor but having some sort of affair with John Stuart Mill—though, frankly, we don’t know a lot about what was going on—she wrote to Mill saying that John had forbidden her from seeing Mill anymore. Mill replied with a letter in French. It is a heartbreaking letter and essential to any account of Mill’s life.
Richard Reeves, Mill’s most recent biographer, does not show us the letter itself, but instead writes this paragraph.
If they were not in love by the summer of 1831, they certainly were by the following year. Harriet decided to tell her husband, who forbade her to see Mill again. Initially she attempted to heed the command and Mill received the devastating news in a letter delivered by the loyal Lizzie, on his return from a summer walking holiday with Henry Cole in the New Forest and on the Isle of Wight. He wrote back dutifully, promising not to write or call and thereby add ‘one extra drop into her cup of sorrows.’ Mill also slipped some forest flowers for her into the envelope and held out hope that their paths would cross again: ‘At whatever time, in whatever place that may be so, she will find me always the same as I have been, as I am still.’
That’s a perfectly good piece of writing. But even if you are not writing a play about the Mills (as I am) it leaves you wanting to know more about that letter, no? So off I went to the Complete Works of John Stuart Mill, Vol. XIX only to find the letter is in French. I am a poor linguist and so went to check the earlier biography of Mill by Michael St. John Packe, published in 1954. He relates the same episode like this:
Accordingly when Mill returned at the beginning of August 1832 from a fortnight’s walking with Henry Cole in the south of England, in vigorous health, bursting with news to tell her, and laden with flowers he had collected for her, he found a note forwarded by a go-between, most likely Lizzie Flower, to say that all was over and they must meet no more. His sorrow was overwhelming, but he managed a tragic and dignified reply in French, which reached her by the same means as hers had come:
“Blessed be the hand which traced these characters! She writes to me—that is enough: although I do not pretend it is not to say good-bye to me forever.
She must not believe I accept such a farewell. Her way and mine have separated, as she says. But they can, they ought, to meet again. At whatever time, in whatever place that may be so, she will find me always the same as I have been, and am still.
She shall be obeyed; no further letters of mine shall disturb her peace, or pour one extra drop into her cup of sorrows. She shall be obeyed, for the reasons which she gives,—she would have been, even if she had confined herself to telling me her wishes. To obey her is for me a necessity.
She will not refuse, I trust, the offering of these little flowers, which I have brought for her from the depths of the New Forest. Give them to her, if necessary, as if they came from you.”
But as with all good love stories, the estrangement was the beginning not the end.
It is standard practice now to write like Reeves, not Packe, part of a long reaction against the Victorian habit of over-quoting from source material in biographies. I believe the mid-century practice of quoting extensively but judiciously, which Sylvia Townsend Warner does in her splendid biography of T.H. White, is preferable to the modern idea that biographers ought to prioritise smooth narrative over block quotes. Packe also uses free indirect speech at one point, the phrasing “all was over and they must meet no more” coming directly from Harriet’s letter to Mill.
In my late bloomers book, I do not often quote long passages. My profiles are too short and the crucial material for the arguments I am making is not often in such big chunks. But one reason I am interested in biographical drama is to arrange the raw material in a condensed narrative without too much interference from the writer. (In my play of the Mills I use most of this letter, chopping it in with Harriet’s letter, to try and create a sense of dialogue—letters being a form of Victorian dialogue.) Biography needs to adjust away from the overmighty biographer and get back to quoting letters again. That was what I hated so much about Alexander Master’s book A Life Discarded. Too often, the biographer writes about themselves without simultaneously illuminating the subject.
Just show me the person directly instead!
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That sounds wonderful, Henry: using verbatim quotes to create the play, etc.
Wishing you the very best in all of your worthy projects, including the play!
What an extraordinary and beautiful letter. Thanks for presenting the whole thing.
When I was younger, I rarely quoted much from my subjects, unless it was a passage of verse. As you say, I prized the smooth continuity of my prose.
But gradually I realized that quotation gives both additional energy and humanity to an essay or review. The author’s personality shines forth directly better than any paraphrase I could offer.