Biographising the Famous & Dead
Thinking about this lately.
Living people are complicated and multi-layered, make jokes, contradict themselves, change as they age, have different viewpoints at twenty from the ones they hold at fifty. They are almost impossible to fully understand and would take years of close study to be able to describe with any accuracy or completeness. But the Famous and Dead are different.
Or they are if you happen to be a certain kind of biographer.
The first thing about the Famous and Dead in certain kinds of biography is the known facts about them are all the facts. Or at least all the salient ones. The rest can easily be filled in with inference or repetition. Like, the 20 or so fragmentary facts we have about Shakespeare’s life are more than enough for certain kinds of biographer to just guess the rest and be probably right. I mean when you’ve read his will, a list of his debtors and his tax returns, what else do you need to be able to figure who he fell in love with and what he really thought of James 1?
It’s all made easier too by the fact that the Famous and Dead were apparently born, lived and died with a single set of opinions, traits and feelings. If a man was described as ‘forgetful’ by someone who knew him aged ninety-seven, then he was obviously ‘forgetful’ from birth, and so certain kinds of biographers are quite justified in considering how being ‘forgetful’ at school would have caused problems, and what those problems might have done to his psyche, and how that damaged psyche might have given him a complex and how that complex might have made him depressed, and then they can call it a solid fact that this person was forgetful and chronically depressed about it.
All this is of course definitely true once it has been said, because another fortunate thing is that biographers of a certain kind always know more about the Famous and Dead than they did themselves.
I mean, suppose our aforementioned ‘forgetful and depressed’ man spent his life visiting aquariums, and writing about how fish were just wonderful. You or I might just assume he rather liked fish, unless there were some strong evidence in his own behaviour to suggest otherwise. But certain kinds of biographers know better than this. They don’t even need evidence, since intuition is more than enough. They can simply say that ‘despite all outward appearance’ (great phrase frequently used), he actually hated fish quite a lot and preferred newts. And that is enough to make it true.
The only thing that is required as an axiom to be taken literally about the Famous and Dead are their jokes, because , as we all know, in the olden days they had no sense of humour or irony, and never made a joke about anything. If our man once said “I’d find a dead horse more interesting than Simpkins and his slideshow,” then that is what he meant – literally. This forgetful, depressed, fish-phobic, newt-lover liked dead horses for company.
And there’s a lot more books in that.
Lewis Carroll has had more than his share of this treatment from his biographers of course. They mostly either had no facts available so just made stuff up (Reed, Taylor), or ignored the facts and…well, just made stuff up (Green, Hudson). Even the best of them, who strove to get some real understanding of their subject (Cohen, Clark in places, Lennon, to the extent she could at the time), would too easily fall back on just ’knowing’ what his/her hero really meant, even if that is entirely contrary to anything he actually said. One biographer, for example ‘knew’ that ‘despite all outward appearance’ Mrs Liddell ‘hated’ Charles Dodgson. He didn’t say how he knew. He didn’t need to. He was a biographer. He just knew.
The situation is, hopefully, changing a little now, but it’s a legacy hard to escape. It hangs about, and even very new biographies and source texts can stray into the ‘well I just ignored that fact because I was sure Carroll didn’t really mean it’ kind of mindset. For example, ‘Esoteric Buddhism’ or Theosophy as it’s now known, formed – as Carroll says in his own foreword – the basis of his last novel Sylvie and Bruno. As such it was clearly highly important to him personally, and a vital expression of his own spiritual exploration. It also set him within a very important philosophical and spirtual context within his own time. But one recent biographer decided he/she knew better. And that when Carroll said ‘Esoteric Buddhsim’ he really meant ‘Japanese Buddhism’. And why? Because – apparently – the author read up on Theosophy and decided it was not the sort of thing Lewis Carroll would have liked!
So, there y’are Mr D. Now you know what you really thought.