On March 22, 2017, Andrew Motion spoke with the biographer Richard Holmes about the art of biography in the Tudor and Stuart Room of Gilman Hall at Johns Hopkins. Professor Holmes has taught at the University of East Anglia and is a Fellow of the British Academy. He was awarded an OBE in 1992. His book The Age of Wonder won the National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction in 2009.
Andrew Motion: Biography in the broadest sense has been your way of living. How did you get into it? Was there a plan, or did you stumble into it?
Richard Holmes: Was it manifest destiny? Actually it’s a real biographer’s question: How does something begin? How does your life passion begin? Beginnings, origins of things. It’s quite difficult to describe. In my book called Footsteps, I describe a journey. I’m age 17. I’ve been brought up in a Roman Catholic public boarding school. It’s very enclosed, with everything that goes with that, and I was desperate to break out. So what I did was go to France, and I went to the South—not the glamorous Riviera, but to the bleak highlands of the Cevennes, very wild country where a Scot, Robert Louis Stevenson, had also gone as a young man. He wrote a famous book called Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes.
You must imagine this 17-year-old lost down in France. I had a copy of this little book which, in fact, I found in a market stall down there, among the vegetables. It was a Scottish book, very nutritious. I picked it up, saw that it contained a route, and I thought, I will follow Stevenson’s journey. It’s quite short––it lasts for about a fortnight, but it’s through this very wild country and I thought, I’ll do exactly the same. I didn’t take a donkey, but I took a backpack and a sleeping bag and the book, Travels with a Donkey, had a map in the front of it, so I followed this map to the little villages and it was tough going. I used to go a whole day and wouldn’t see anybody. I was up in the wild hill country and great storms, terrifying storms would come––you’d see them on the next hill coming after you. So it was a very intense experience. I was 17 years old, remember.
I didn’t really know what I was doing, but can you imagine that, day after day seeing almost nobody, sleeping out, the character Robert Louis Stevenson––I was 17 and in the book he’s 27––gradually became quite real to me. It was if he was my traveling companion. In one instance, I came down to a little village called Langogne, where there’s a bridge over the river in the heart of the Cevennes. There’s a great account of how Stevenson crosses it with his donkey, and he’s so pleased, for a moment, he’s going to spend the night at the little local inn.
When I crossed that bridge I thought I’d see him or I’d meet him at the other side. Can you imagine? What actually happened was that, as I crossed the bridge, I looked up the river and I could see that there was an old bridge, Stevenson’s bridge––not the one I was on––and it was broken, so there was no way of getting across. Right at that moment, I realized I had been kind of fantasizing my friendship with Stevenson, but there was a possibility of writing about this in a different way. So that was a kind of biographical moment. I think a lot of things began then. I kept a notebook. But I didn’t know where all this was going.
There were comic things too. I had a passport, my first passport, and in those days you had to put an occupation in it and I put: “Age 17, Writer.” I wasn’t anywhere near being that, of course. And what used to happen was that, on occasions when I wasn’t sleeping out, when the storms were really bad, I’d go and find one of these little country inns and I’d produce my passport and the same thing would happen––the Madame would open it up and she’d say, “Ah, Monsieur, I see you are a Waiter.” Can you imagine? Here I was believing I was this great writer already and I was a waiter. Suppose I put travel writer and then I’d hear, “Ah, I see you are a Table Waiter.” I put some of that into Footsteps. So that’s a kind of origin story––finding something without really knowing what you’re doing. The loneliness I think was important, and the fact that it was physically quite demanding.
AM: And discovering that you were not where you thought. You were on the wrong bridge.
RH: That too, all the time, yes. But also not knowing where I was because, by the end of two weeks, I didn’t know what century I was in, really.
AM: It’s very suggestive, that story about being on the wrong bridge. It reminds me of another story you tell elsewhere about finding the initials “STC” in a cave. Will you tell us about that?
RH: Oh, yes. I’ve been doing this for 50 years, you see, so I’m sort of a burnt-out case, but it means I’ve gathered parables about being a biographer. The bridge is one of them, and this is another one. Not to do with Stevenson, not with Shelley, but with Coleridge, who was born in the English West Country in a little township called Ottery St. Mary with a river called the Ottery. Along the bank, there was a cave in the hillside. It was known as the Pixies’ Parlor, and it was meant to be haunted, and I discovered that the seven-year-old Coleridge crawled into this cave––very daring, only seven years old. That tells you something about Coleridge already, that he’s the boy who wants to find the mystery, who would take risks, which he did all his life, including opium. This seven-year-old crawled in and carved his initials, a very modern thing, right at the back, in the stone, “STC.” I knew that later on he didn’t get along very well with his family. His father died and his relationship with his mother was bad, so he left Ottery, but he did come down once when he was at college at Cambridge when he was nineteen, and he went back to this cave and crawled in again, as a 19-year-old, to see if his initials were there, and they were still there. So that meant something to him and later in his poetry he uses the caverns. There are later poems where the cave becomes the cave of old philosophy with its dangerous glitter.
As a biographer I was fascinated to see how this image had grown, so I went to find the cave, the Pixies’ Parlor. It’s about a mile downstream from Ottery. I did all my research in bad weather in November. It always seems to work that way––at least, the lonely times. And the cave apparently disappeared, but I realized that the Ottery over 200 years had meandered, so it was set back, but there it was, in the hillside. It really was quite alarming, this cavern, and I had to swallow a couple of times before I crawled in. I had a cigarette lighter; that’s all I had, and I clicked it on and there, at the back, on the top, I found the initials “STC.” I was so excited. I leapt to my feet, hit my head, and a stone came down––not the piece with the initials on. I staggered out of the cave holding my head, which even in those days was not very well upholstered, and thinking it couldn’t possibly be his initials because the stone was too soft. Two hundred years had gone by.
So I sat in this muddy field––not a moment of revelation, really––and I thought, well, but they’re there, so what’s happened? What must have happened is, of course, of course, generations of people before me had also read about these initials and they crawled in and they must have re-carved the initials each time so they were still there. So it wasn’t the original carvings, but it was in the same place, and I suddenly thought, that’s actually how biography works. It’s not an individual carving––biographies take place cumulatively on the subject. There’s very rarely one biography. They build through time––the number of biographies on Coleridge is quite large––and, in fact, that defines the nature of the form in some ways. It’s not unique like a novel is. If you have Hard Times by Dickens, nothing can alter that novel. It’s as it is and it will be reread, the text remains the same, and so on. Biographies are not the same. If you took a biography of Charles Dickens himself, by John Forster––he’s a great friend––that has altered because of what has been written later, in later biographies. So the biographical process is cumulative. The initials are re-carved all the time and that, again, is like the broken bridge––it’s a kind of lesson in humility which, I think, is a rather important part of the job.
AM: I’ve always thought these two stories––the bridge and the cave––say something important, about ways in which biographers have to be very careful that they’re not making too many assumptions about their own originality. Their own freestanding-ness. And that takes me back to asking you about Shelley, who was your first really substantial subject, wasn’t he?
RH: Yes, one that’s too long.
AM: Not for me, or for anybody, I dare say. But bearing in mind what we’ve just been saying—how people spin in the wind of history, and different facets of their work become interesting or available to us as times change––how do you feel Shelley lives in our own time?
RH: Thinking back, I’m not quite sure how I decided to write about Shelley. I was a student at Cambridge and studied history and literature and I read nothing of Shelley there, he was absolutely out of fashion, he wasn’t taken seriously. So I found I was coming to him originally, for me. I remember first reading Epipsychidion in a laundromat in London on a wet Sunday afternoon and suddenly being completely blown away by it. Again, it had the journeying effect––one of the fascinating things about Shelley’s life is that he travels. In fact, he very rarely stops for more than three or four months at one address throughout his life and it takes him, first of all, out to Ireland and Scotland and then to France and then to Italy, and it would have taken him to Greece, but of course he drowned at age 29 in the Gulf of Spezia.
So I started a journey following Shelley and all the places he had been. I found, in the archives at Oxford, amazingly, his notebooks. Often, now, archives are quite difficult to get permission for access. But in those days, I simply sent a postcard to Lord Abinger––imagine––saying, “I want to write about Shelley, can I look at the manuscripts.” I got a postcard back and it said “Of course, Abinger.” That’s it. So that’s what I did. It’s wonderful to see the notebooks, including the last notebooks, the Italian notebooks, and the notebooks weeks before he drowns when he’s writing “The Triumph of Life.” And on the back of them are drawings for the fatal sailing boat and how Shelley’s going to re-rig the sails. You come very close in that moment.
So I had seen the notebooks of that particular time and I went down to his last place in Italy, on the bay of La Spezia. In fact it’s not at Lerici as everybody thinks, but a strange white, isolated seaside house known as the Cas Magni in a tiny little village called San Terenzo, which is about two kilometers further round the bay. Lerici was a popular sailing center, even then. I went down, again in November, in freezing winter. I hitchhiked down there and I went to a bar. I was trying to find a room. I was passed along to a woman who ran summer apartments for the car workers from the north of Italy who were all back, so she had a lot of free rooms. She had also been a cook, a chef in London during the war. She was a very sweet old lady and she said, “Sure I’ve got rooms and you, young man, can have a set overlooking the sea for almost nothing.” So I stayed there, and the amazing thing about these rooms was that they turned out to be right next door to Shelley’s Casa Magni. So I could sit on my balcony reading his letters and look directly across at his balcony. I could almost hear the conversations going between him and Mary Shelley and all the talk of boats and music and revolution and poetry. So that was another form of “footstepping” which added to the archive material. I don’t want to make it sound too much like a game or a sport. But research has both those elements in it, the scholarly side and the storytelling side.
AM: Just quickly about Shelley: I went to the same college that Shelley had been to at Oxford, University College, and, in my first year, my room was next to the Shelley memorial. It was put there at the end of the 19th century, quite a long time after Shelley died, this extraordinary sculpture which shows Shelley life-size lying naked on, we suppose, the ocean floor. Everybody who came to see it assumed, sensibly enough, that the room next to the memorial had been his own room when he was a student. So, often, there would be a knock on the door and when I opened it, there would be somebody in a posture of profound respect wishing to creep across the floor and inhabit the place he’d been.
More seriously, I can also remember one of those defining moments you’re talking about, going to look at the manuscript of the “Ode to the West Wind” and having that flash of recognition, feeling “his real hand was on this real page and now it’s in front of my eye.” That sense of the time between us collapsing. And then noticing that it was written on October 25, which is the day before my birthday, and thinking, “Well, this is all kind of coming together.” So, yes, you’re right, there is a magical feeling at the center of all this. Something primitive.
RH: It should also be said that one of the reasons Shelley was interesting to me was because he was a revolutionary political writer and this, again, had been overlooked. He wrote wonderful political essays and much of his poetry had a very radical element running through it. And the kind of household he ran with Mary Shelley––not initially married during the Frankenstein summer of 1816 when they were all up on Lake Geneva with Byron. They were a runaway, unmarried family with a child already, in fact. So the kind of life he was living itself was a form of radical statement. I had grown up in the end of the Sixties, so there was a kind of echo between these Romantic figures and all that Sixties radicalism and hope and experiment. The time at which any particular biography is written becomes significant––what is its resonance with the time and culture of the subject? There was a resonance between the 1960s and the French Revolutionary period. So that gave me a particular angle, a point of leverage. It was very important to me to write it that way, and it is a quite political biography.
AM: It is. I felt that very strongly the first time I read it. Now, please tell us about the notebooks.
RH: On that first Stevenson trip, I kept my first notebook. I didn’t know what I was doing; I just kept the record of what I was seeing and feeling. I’ve got over 200 of these and I always keep them going. I discovered that, having worked on this for long enough, there was a kind of pattern in the way I’ve kept notebooks. With my own students at the University of East Anglia we talked about how you keep notebooks, and one of things I found was that I kept them like double accounting. So on the right-hand pages, I put my research material––the most accurate objective factual stuff, the archives stuff, the dates, the quotations, the traveling details about the areas, places where my subjects were. But then, that didn’t cover everything which was happening to me as a researcher, as a biographer, and following in the footsteps is often quite intense. It can be quite lonely, kind of demanding. So there was all that other subjective experience of the writing going on and what was I going to do with that? And the answer was that I also wrote that down, but I put it in the left-hand side of the book. It sounds like a ridiculous formal thing, but in fact it works quite naturally that way, and it’s still like that. This is a completely modern one [holds up notebook] with two sides. I found that being able to put down your own, personal, subjective reactions, which might be, for example, when you’re irritated with your subject, or you’re embarrassed about what they do, or you admire them but you don’t know how to put it, or the way you might dream about them, or the way that when you go to the places you can’t find the connections—so the disappointments. All of that personal stuff is still important. Record it, I tell my students, put it on the left-hand page; it’s part of your research story.
You can see how the division between the objective research fact and the search for the truth is a primary drive for a biography. Looking for the truth all the time and not doing a historical novel. You’re writing, researching, trying to establish the truth. But all of that other material shouldn’t be wasted. It should be put down there because the final result is one of . . . it’s quite a difficult thing to describe this, but one of the instruments of the biographer is a kind of empathy. It’s an ability to put yourself in the position of your subject and to see how he or she is thinking or looking at the world. But at the same time, of course, that’s very dangerous because you may be self-projecting, imagining you’re this person. But if you keep your subjective materials and experiences written down, you can see the division, so you can use it. I would say that almost nothing on the left-hand pages gets into the biography and, yet, it affects the way I write. I think it was Kipling who said you riddle the fire and the prose becomes better and the research becomes better, and you riddle out that personal, projective material. The two-sided notebook is one way to do that, and I’ve still kept them. I don’t know what the hell I’m going to do with them. We’ll see.
AM: Of course, there are biographers who don’t do that. We were talking earlier today about the new Elizabeth Bishop biography, for instance, in which the author is highly visible.
RH: Yes. And again, I’ve found working with students that very often when people come to look at biography, I discover what they really want to do is write autobiography. They want to write about their own lives. Fair enough, but that’s a different discipline and by using this technique you can spread out, separate out the self-narrative from the objective narrative. Biography really is a different discipline and I think it’s a wonderful one to teach, because it makes you recognize what’s happening in the outside world, the other person, the other identity, the other time. I found with my students that even if they were novelists or poets, this was very valuable––the discipline of looking at the exterior world, someone else’s experience, trying to record it, and it refreshes your own. When we started it was the first postgraduate biography course at UEA and I had no idea who would be interested in it, if people would be.
AM: Remind us at what stage in your career this was.
RH: This was far down the line. I’d never taught at all, but in 2001 I got a mobile phone call saying, “This is the University of East Anglia. Would you like to be a professor of biography?” To which I said, “No, absolutely not.” And then I thought about it and they called back, “Well, try it, see what happens.” We had no idea who would come to such a course. So we opened it and in my notebook, on the left-hand page, I kept a record of the students who did come.
AM: I should say, I was down the corridor teaching poetry at UEA at the same time, so we did overlap as colleagues for a bit.
RH: Yes we did––our wild, pale faces rushed past in the corridor. In a single year with the students, my notebook records: an Irish poet, an American Mormon, a general practitioner from Oxford, a Pakistani Air Force pilot, a Japanese businesswoman, a TV researcher, the ex-headmistress of an English public girls’ school, a human-rights barrister from London, a Vassar literature graduate, a Canadian TV executive, a financial journalist from the city, a Norfolk asparagus farmer––one of my best pupils—a Birmingham social worker, and a mother of three from Sussex whose sailor husband, I slowly discovered, was dying of cancer.
Now all of that went into the mix. Extraordinary, that was just one year of students. The ages were completely different––some of my students were 20, 21, 22, and some of them were in their mid- or late 60s. So this produced a seminar where very young people are talking to much older ones, their life experiences are crossing and mixing. When you’re doing biographical subjects you bring your own experience. It produced an extraordinary seminar, I think, and it worked as a discipline. The Irish poet, for example, hadn’t come to write biography but she said it gave her a whole new range of subjects to work on. It took her out of herself.
The question you’re always asked about your teaching: Can you go on writing at the same time? Because there’s no doubt that teaching absorbs a part of you that writes. You get involved with the subjects that your students are working on and your own imaginative work goes into what you’re teaching. But in fact that was a period that I began researching a book that became The Age of Wonder, which is about Romantic poets and writers and Romantic scientists. It took me a long time to work on and make that crossover between science and poetry which has become very important to me. So it turned out to be a wonderful research period after all. I thank my students a lot for helping me with that.
AM: You’ve spent a long time writing about other people’s lives, and I want to keep on talking about that. But I also want to ask about yourself. I believe you’ve written poems in the past, and perhaps still do?
RH: I once published a very thin volume of poems. It was called One for Sorrow, a very suitable title. I don’t think of myself as a poet, but I find that the sense of the precision of language and the fact that it makes language new all the time when you’re working on poems is a wonderful help. I wouldn’t say it’s like your language “gym,” but it’s a sort of way of working on your prose and that is very important. And, also, if you’re writing about poets I think you need to keep your hand in.
AM: So you do still keep your hand in? And I know your mum wrote poems.
RH: Yes, my mother was a children’s writer and regularly published poems, and looking back she read to me as a very small kid long before I could read for myself. One of the earliest things she read to me was from Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, and I have this vivid memory of her reading to me on summer evenings when you close the curtains because you’re a child and you’re meant to be getting to sleep. There’s a Stevenson poem exactly about that called “Bed in Summer.” Also one called “Travel” which has haunted me ever since—“I should like to rise and go/ Where the golden apples glow . . .” So that’s an interesting origin for me.
AM: Saying that might raise in people’s minds the idea that biographies require, in certain respects, a degree of self-denial.
RH: I think it requires a certain degree of self-knowledge. I don’t feel denied by that at all. I was going to say I never wanted to write fiction, but I have actually published some stories.
Also I’ve written these three studies in which I’m looking at the way biography works and the history of biography: Footsteps, and a book called Sidetracks, and this one, The Long Pursuit, is the third. My publisher said, “Oh no, Richard, a trilogy.” I look at various aspects of writing, about science and biography, and, also, about biography and fiction: Can it ever meet? Is there any way in which the biographer can invent things and obviously, clearly, the answer to that is no––you’re in the business of telling and researching the truth. And yet, the kind of narrative drive that shapes a biography is quite close to fiction. You choose the way you lay out the scene. You choose what emphases to give, how fast the book moves. Because a life does not move at a steady beat. Look at any biography and look at the particular time that’s given, say, to the first twenty years of a life and what happens in the later period. There’s a great decision: Which is the most significant part of that life? And “significant” is a problematic word. You have to choose how to distribute time in a life. You have the same sort of control over the material that a fiction writer has, but in a different way.
However, I wanted to try to trail my coat a bit more. I have written a book about ballooning. My publisher said, “Very unlikely Richard.” But, actually, it’s a wonderful subject. It runs through from the Revolutionary period in France in the 1780s and it goes to England and then it goes across Europe and then, of course, it comes here to America. The first balloon flight—this is a technical detail that you’ll want to know—was made by an Italian, Vincenzo Lunardi, and it was made up the road in Philadelphia, and he launched from the old prison house because the only place they could keep the crowds back was in a courtyard, and he flew across the Delaware carrying a note from George Washington saying, “This man, he may be Lunardi the Italian, but he’s a good man, look after him.” It was the earliest form of passport. That’s one of my favorite stories.
Ballooning is actually a very interesting subject, partly because both men and women went ballooning––there’s a gender equality in that. And they’re very adventurous and courageous people, which I like. But also, they’re fantasists. Balloonists are fantasists. They will tell you about their flights and they’ll have their logbook with the record of their amazing adventures, but then there will be certain adventures where you think, no, I don’t think this can have really happened. It becomes a poetic fantasy. So, there’s a chapter in This Long Pursuit called “Ballooning” which is about Coleridge and Edgar Allen Poe. Almost the first story that Poe published is called “The Remarkable Adventures of Hans Pfall,” which is not a phallic pun but a falling pun, I think. It’s a deadpan piece of reportage about this Dutchman who mounts a huge balloon in America and flies right up to the moon. And he arrives on the moon, meets the inhabitants, and, indeed, he flies back. This is some time before the Apollo program, as you understand. It’s written in wonderful technical detail about the amount of gas needed, and so on, and he published it in the New York Sun and for about four days it ran as a story and caused a sensation. Then it finally dawned on people––it’s an entire hoax, no one has taken a balloon to the moon.
Then he published another story about the first flight across the Atlantic by balloon––again reportage and again deeply detailed––again utterly false, a brilliant hoax. Then I discovered what appeared to be a third story. Poe was a great admirer of Coleridge, and he wrote this piece in the New York Sun about Coleridge going up in a balloon in 1812 in the English West Country. Coleridge was, indeed, in the West Country in 1812, at a very difficult time of his life, as it happens. There was a kind of romance going on outside Coleridge’s marriage, which was very unhappy I think, and also the whole problem of opium, too. Poe recounts, again with lots and lots of detail, how Coleridge goes up in a balloon at this difficult moment, and floats nostalgically over the Quantocks countryside around Nether Stowey, where he was once so happy with the Wordsworths, and looks back at his own life and the romance . . .
AM: That’s a brilliant piece of writing, isn’t it? The deer bounding through the bracken as he looks down on the dog that comes into the yard and barks.
RH: That’s Poe’s supposed quotation from the Coleridge journals. So you might think no, this must be another hoax––Poe has invented this story too. But in fact the hoax goes one point further: There is no Poe story at all. I wrote the whole thing. I put it solemnly in the “Ballooning” chapter with the quotations from the Coleridge journal, which I also wrote. I’m still waiting for some reviewer to realize this. And now I’ve told you. But it’s a deliberate attempt where I’m experimenting with exactly the introduction of fiction into biography. What is the effect on the reader? You might believe it when you read it first, like I think you believed it, Andrew, and then doubts . . .
AM: I wasn’t sure what I was believing actually. I just thought, this is wonderful, but also kind of fishy. In fact, it was even fishier than I thought.
RH: So, what I’m interested in, is that you read it first and you think, O.K., this is Poe’s invention, but it reflects on Poe’s genuine admiration for Coleridge. This has a bearing on Coleridge’s standing in America, which was very high, and much earlier than in England—Emerson came to see him at Highgate, and so on. So I thought, now that’s interesting, and even if it was Poe’s hoax, would my reader see that this is an important part of the story of Coleridge’s reputation? And then, what would happen at the point the reader realized, no, it’s an entire fiction, a biographer’s fiction? What’s the status of that bit of writing now? Does it tell us anything about Coleridge, that fake journal? Or not? And I’m still waiting for the answer. I have lit the blue paper and I’m waiting for the explosion. So we must be careful about biography. That’s my message. Be careful about biography.
AM: What we’ve been touching on there––making things up, being transgressive––makes me want to ask you a question about how you think biography has changed during the course of your career as a biographer. It’s probably fair to say that when you started writing––it’s fair to say because you helped to make this happen––you coincided with a golden age for biography. At that time, the early 1980s, I was working as a publisher in London and when we were short of money, we used to commission someone to write a life. We would sell serial rights for a few thousand pounds to a newspaper, and we would sell ten to fifteen thousand copies of the book, and we would make some money. That lasted ten or so years, then it stopped. So, obviously, something has happened to the market in biography. And something to the form as well. Not just in terms of candor—what can and can’t be said—but in terms of author involvement. Nowadays, as we were saying, it is quite usual for an author to make him- or herself visible in the course of a biography, in a way that never happened in the old days.
RH: Yes, it has changed a lot. That’s one element––there’s much more experimenting going on. I’m not really an expert in the market––I never think of it like that. I think of the subjects I’m drawn to. For me, the greatest change has been when I started to write about science. In 2008 I wrote this book called The Age of Wonder and it was a kind of dangerous book to write in some way. Humphry Davy, the great chemist, who was also a friend of Coleridge, features centrally in it, and William Herschel, the great astronomer who discovered the seventh planet, Uranus, and influenced Keats’s and Shelley’s poetry. So it crossed over boundaries. I didn’t know what would happen. I have to tell you, in terms of market, that’s been my bestseller. I had no idea that would happen, but it did. I think a lesson from that is follow your heart, really.
But in terms of changing forms, I wonder if any of you know a book by Julian Barnes called Flaubert’s Parrot. It’s written about an imaginary biographer who’s researching Flaubert. Very good book. It was written in the late ’80s, and that was beginning to bend the form because it was real research but it had an invented biographer. And the Alexander Masters book, a British writer who wrote about a down-and-out in Cambridge. It’s called Stuart: A Life Backwards. It’s a wonderful book. From the opening scene you know biography is going to change. It’s just a bit of dialogue. The subject, Stuart, walks in with the manuscript of the biography in a Tesco bag and says to the author, “Alex, it’s all bollocks boring.” And then they begin a discussion about the nature of his life. Stuart says to Alexander Masters, you haven’t understood my life at all. You’ve got it the wrong way around. You ought to tell it backwards. So Masters starts again, he rewrites it, beginning with Stuart as he is, down and out, and gradually going back to his teenage years and then the childhood and so on. He reconstructs the whole life like that, in reverse, but also in conversation with Stuart, in almost the way that Boswell did with Johnson. That’s a kind of experiment with form that’s going on in our time. Not experiment for experiment’s sake; it’s the subject, in my view, that dictates the form.
The other big change, I think, is that when I began in the 1970s, there was comparatively little good biography of women subjects. It just wasn’t there. There might be many lives of conventional heroines like Queen Victoria or Florence Nightingale, but in general biography of women just hadn’t made an impact. Of course that has seen a complete sea change, think of Mary Wollstonecraft or Sylvia Plath. Although it’s a change not completed, in my view. For example, women in science. The middle section of my book, which is called “Restorations,” contains five studies of women in science. These include include Mary Somerville, a remarkable 19th-century mathematician who became a great friend of Maria Mitchell, who was the first woman professor of astronomy at Vassar. There was a great connection between the two of them, a meeting of both science and the imagination, across the Atlantic. Recording that kind of connection is an act of justice, and a lot remains to be done. That is one of the things that is changing the subject matter.
I think people are also interested in the life that, before, would only have been in a footnote, the apparently minor life. Johnson said, “Sir, I can write the life of a broomstick.” The point is broomsticks are important and they have a life of their own, and I think biography is altering to try and take that into account. Of course you have to have the right materials. And that’s not even getting into subjects like political biography, which over here the Americans are masters of––Robert Caro’s Lyndon Johnson biography, for example. That’s another epic form that’s changing. Yes, a lot of change.
AM: I’m particularly interested in the question of how you write the life of “broomsticks.” Those who, as George Eliot says, rest in “unvisited tombs.” But if there’s nothing in the public record and they’ve been dead a long time, it’s fiendishly difficult, isn’t it?
RH: Yes, but a successful example of that is Alexander Masters’s latest book, A Life Discarded. It starts off with a friend of his discovering by chance in a metal barrow, one of those roadside dumps, a whole series of abandoned diaries, over a hundred of them, completely anonymous. They don’t know who these diaries belong to, or where they come from. Masters writes the book gradually reconstructing this unknown life from a series of minute clues. Only halfway through do we learn that the subject is a woman, for example, and that her life has been shaped by various small tragic dramas and betrayals. The effect is riveting, and the biography recovers her from anonymity, in a sense gives her back her life. It’s a triumph, but also of course it’s a great stroke of luck. I must say that up to halfway through I thought Masters had invented the diaries. I thought he was making a critical point about biographical experiment. But no, they really do exist. And so that’s another way of looking at what Johnson called the “broomstick” life. And among many other subjects, modern biography can do that very, very well I think.