Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Sources

Academic journal article English Studies in Canada

Sources

Article excerpt

I TAKE MY CUE FROM A VICTORIAN ANECDOTE about an immensely learned scholar, Fellow of an Oxford college, being wheeled out on his ninetieth birthday to share his accumulated wisdom with the assembled student body. Peering down at the upturned expectant faces the ancient sage uttered only five words: "Gentlemen: Always check your references." "References" isn't quite the term one might now use, and "Gentlemen" are notoriously a thing of the past, but in all essentials that is a pretty good summary of what I myself want to say here. Sources are of course the indispensable fountainheads of all biography, the word itself suggestive of clear, pure, and inexhaustible springs. But because such promised clarity and purity can so easily become in some way corrupted, betrayed, or downright befouled, I thought I might reflect a little on the problematic aspects of some of the sources most commonly invoked--and on the difficulties and responsibilities of biographers when engaging with them.

In pronouncing upon such matters I don't lay claim to much in the way of accumulated wisdom. Nor do I think of myself as "a biographer," let alone a theorist of biography. But I can at least claim or confess to having committed biography in the past--long-term with Thomas Hardy, more flirtatiously with Browning, Tennyson, Henry James, William Faulkner, and Robert Louis Stevenson. I have thus done some service on, so to speak, the frontlines of biography and become familiar with the kinds of skirmishes and even full-scale battles that can readily occur there. Not too much should therefore be inferred from my having in the past delivered papers entitled "On Not Writing Literary Biography" and, more specifically, "On Not Writing a Biography of Robert Louis Stevenson": I have a fondness for negative titles even when they are not altogether justified by the content that follows. I once toyed with "On Not Giving a Lecture" but found it hard to get started.

Given biography's need for evidence as direct, as specific, and as authentic as possible, an ideal authenticity might reasonably be expected to follow from the biographer's occupying--or having once occupied--a position of intimacy with the subject, as, say, child, spouse, lover, or personal servant. In practice, unsurprisingly, there's a strong tendency for such privileged access to be productive either of egregious panegyric or joyous assassination: every great man has his disciples, said Oscar Wilde, and it is always Judas who writes the biography. Of course, biographies based upon otherwise inaccessible private sources-or upon archives known to have been subsequently destroyed--are almost automatically liable to suspicions of special pleading, either for or against, and any prospective biographer encountering a living subject should keep it keenly in mind that the latter is an intensely--indeed, supremely--interested party and hence, as with autobiographies, not wholly to be trusted.

Most literary biographers, however, are by the nature of things less likely to encounter their subjects in the flesh than to find themselves dealing with families, friends, executors, lawyers, agents, servants, and so forth, and such relationships can present difficulties of their own. My former colleague Richard Purdy, Thomas Hardy's distinguished and (let me assure you) always dignified bibliographer, kept a secret on-the-spot record of his important conversations with Hardy's widow in the years immediately following Hardy's death but was deeply embarrassed, so he once told me, by the need to excuse himself for the frequent washroom visits that gave him his only opportunities to jot down whatever had just been said. The English poet and playwright Henry Reed spent several years working on an eventually abandoned biography of Hardy and later drew upon that experience in an aciduously amusing radio play called A Very Great Man Indeed, dedicated to the proposition that the friends of the deceased, though ostensibly helpful, may prove in practice to possess not just defective or selective memories but their own personal agendas, ranging all the way from simple self-promotion to active revenge. …

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