Shelley's (Extant and Missing)
Betty T. Bennett
In her review of a life of Virginia Woolf, Carolyn G. Heilbrun sums up a critical truth about biography: “Biographies are fictions we contrive about lives we find meaningful. Facts are interpretable, and become available to the biographer with a certain randomness.” Biography, then, is a construct of experiences selected from self-reports, reports of others, and various contextual material, linked together through the biographer's imagination. This imagination necessarily operates within an assumed relationship to the subject's life that may or may not become apparent in the work itself. The reliability of any biography, defined as the extent to which it accurately depicts what can be verified, is therefore open to question. But, of necessity, the facts about any life remain, to a minor or major degree untestable. Perhaps this challenge in part accounts for the enthusiastic reviews of so many recent fictionalized biographies—reviews that are all the more extraordinary in an age of almost overwhelming data accessibility.
Editions of letters, however, have the potential to reduce materially such biographical randomness. As important, because the letters incrementally establish the story of a subject's life, these editions may also serve to encourage the privileging of subject over biographer or
Notes are on pp. 230–31.