The art of biography

There are, conventionally speaking, three ages of modern biography: Romantic, Boring and Today’s. According to this crude tripartite map, Samuel Johnson’s Life of Mr Richard Savage (1744) was the first true example of a form that ripened swiftly in 1791 with Boswell’s monumental study of Johnson himself. Such endeavours were undertaken in a spirit of potent free inquiry, and the biographer’s subjectivity was acknowledged within the narrative. This first phase culminated in William Godwin’s biography of his late wife Mary Wollstonecraft, Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1798), and William Hazlitt’s Liber Amoris (1823), both still much-read and referred to today.

Biography lost vigour under Queen Victoria. It was the epoch of solemn lives and letters, in which British worthies were to be dignified and whitewashed for a growing national pantheon. That, at least, is what we might conclude from Eminent Victorians (1918) by the debunking Lytton Strachey, who saw himself as chief reinvigorator of the genre.

Strachey flattered himself as an iconoclast. Elizabeth Gaskell’s life of Charlotte Brontë in 1857 – to pick just one example – may have started a process of sanctification but not all Victorian biography created a stained-glass figure. You would never realise from Strachey’s account how big an outcry John Gibson Lockhart caused with his life of Walter Scott after 1838, nor the controversy that greeted James Anthony Froude’s study of the historian Thomas Carlyle in 1882. Each of these courageous books was published within a few years of their subject’s death and each met with a turbulent reception.

Still, few would deny that biography since Strachey has been practised with more licence and invention; British biography, in particular, is now exceptionally thriving, varied and interesting. It is hard to imagine Christopher Hitchens’ short and acrid meditation on the life of Mother Teresa, The Missionary Position (1995) – which portrays her as an evil-minded, rapacious Albanian dwarf – being published before Strachey lit his flare-path and established for ever that biography can legitimately mock, diminish and demote.

Not all these developments are to be welcomed. We should, however, celebrate the achievement of modern literary biography in rescuing the lives of writers from the follies of Eng-lit academics. Starting with the so-called New Criticism of the 1940s, which emphasised the close reading of the text above all else, writing became separated from the writer. Discussions of authorial intent, or even of character, were rendered taboo. Happily, the reading public paid scant attention, continued to buy biographies and went to evening classes to learn what was soon to be called “life writing”.

W.H. Auden wrote that there are many writers “whose works are in better taste than their lives”. Yet good biography can show the frailty and even tastelessness of the author’s life and still return us to the power and originality of his or her thought. Andrew Motion pulled it off with his life of Philip Larkin (1993); Byron Rogers’ The Man who Went into the West (2006) presents the Welsh poet-priest R.S. Thomas as a sacred monster but writes with a wonderfully dry humour and poise that finally opens out into a moving sympathy; and Roy Foster’s two-volume W.B. Yeats: A Life shows us a man believably on the make, constructing his own myth about himself as well as some of the greatest verse of our time.

The biographical task came under fierce scrutiny in Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman (1994), which examines the reputations of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes while interrogating the form of biography itself. It is a tough-talking book that divides its readers. The biographer, like the journalist, is in her view a kind of confidence artist, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. Biographers are voyeurs, and so are their readers. Every journalist and biographer, she has written, who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on, knows that what he does is morally indefensible. Her tone is cool and smart, streetwise and winsome: “The pleasure of hearing ill of the dead,” she quips, “pales before the pleasure of hearing ill of the living.”

Something is missing from such fashionable and depressing knowingness. Perhaps a more fruitful analogy than Malcolm’s might be between biography and public séance. Biographers would then recall mediums or spiritualists, communing with or conjuring up the spirits of the dead in all their rich complexity – a psychologically risky enterprise. The good biography is one in which those “on the other side” are successfully induced, after arduous research and by dint of sheer writerly enchantment, to appear to walk and talk again so that we can enjoy their company and, perhaps, even learn from their mistakes.

Richard Holmes has argued that while the biographer must meet his “victims” on terms of respect and equality, their story comes to life at the necessary point that the biographer’s love and admiration for his subject is tested. This is wise and well-said. While I was working on the authorised biography of Iris Murdoch (2001), the breakthrough came when I saw that the power-mad enchanter Elias Canetti – a Bulgarian-born Swiss writer who won the Nobel Prize in Literature – was someone Murdoch feared precisely because she felt a dangerous affinity with him. At that moment she became alive and three-dimensional to me.

One simple form of magic available to biographers is to tackle a whole group of people. In A Sultry Month (1965), Alethea Hayter followed a cast of characters including the artist Benjamin Haydon, Carlyle and the Brownings to give us, in the shortest possible span, an in-depth picture of London, with its complex interlocking worlds of fashion, art and politics, during the summer of 1846. More recently, Michael Holroyd’s A Strange Eventful History: The Dramatic Lives of Ellen Terry, Henry Irving and their Remarkable Families (2009) offered us a theatrical and social cavalcade – from the mid-19th century well into the 20th – full of humane comedic delight and conveying well the strangeness of the past while bringing it simultaneously close to hand.


Such works helped inspire my recent biography of the poet and soldier Frank Thompson, whose own remarkable family and friends acted as a tragic chorus to the drama of his life and early death. Thompson’s father, a missionary to India and later an Oxford University lecturer in Bengali, was the “discoverer” and translator of the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore; Gandhi and Nehru visited the family home on Boars Hill. His younger brother EP Thompson became a famous radical historian, author of The Making of the English Working Class, and leader of the anti-nuclear movement.

Frank Thompson fell in love with Iris Murdoch at Oxford in March 1939, when she talked him into joining the Communist party. (It was through my work on Murdoch that I first encountered him, and I thought him nicer than she then was.) This political allegiance probably influenced his being recruited in 1944 by British intelligence to drop into Bulgaria to liaise with the partisans struggling to topple that country’s fascist regime. It was virtually a suicide mission, and he was captured, tortured and shot in June 1944.

On August 15 1945, The Times published Thompson’s “An Epitaph for my Friends”. It is his best poem, much anthologised: the landmark poem, in my view, of the second world war. Here Thompson, predicting his own end, communicates with us from beyond the grave.

As one who, gazing at a vista

Of beauty, sees the clouds close in,

And turns his back in sorrow,

hearing

The thunderclouds begin

So we, whose life was all before us,

Our hearts with sunlight filled,

Left in the hills our books and

flowers,

Descended, and were killed.

Write on the stone no words of

sadness –

Only the gladness due,

That we, who asked the most

of living,

Knew how to give it too.

These prophetic lines give a taste of what English poetry lost when Thompson died. His was a brilliantly attractive and courageous personality, the product of a remarkable time and an extraordinary family – a very English hero from a very different era. His murder at 23 makes him an example, still to be mourned today, of all young life fruitlessly sacrificed in time of war. This, for me, is the lesson of his story.

Peter J. Conradi’s ‘A Very English Hero: The Making of Frank Thompson’ is published by Bloomsbury

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.