My, my! The Silent Majority has certainly spoken (silently … in private … sigh…)(it would KILL you people to leave comments? You used to do it all the time, when Stevereads was young and sexy!) – who knew you all harbored a love of really good biographies as deep as my own? Or is just that you like to hear me natter on about them? In any case, Nine Lives is now a permanent rotating feature here at Stevereads, and to honor the occasion, I thought I’d make the second installment longer and denser than the first! Hee.
And it’s not just my nattering, I know that – there’s an essential allure to the literary form of the biography, a simplicity that appeals to everybody: let’s follow this one individual story, this life, and see how it turns out. Every one of these subjects starts out equally naked and helpless (well, there are stories about Attila the Hun, but we’re not dealing with him yet! I know just the volume I want to praise, and of course I can’t find it anywhere), all fight through a clutch of the same illnesses, all are either afflicted or blessed by the random circumstances of their lives, and many – if not most – either make an affliction of their blessings or a blessing of their afflictions. There’s an elemental indentifiability in that, a human commonality that’s unbeatable as a dramatic premise. And of course the dramatic payoff is the personal-biographical version of the lottery, because the subjects of these lives take that commonality and then do something with it. They seek to cut a flash, to strike amazement, to reaffirm some virtue or slake some hunger. At some point, willingly or not, they leave the everyday world they share with us and step out onto a broader stage, and they seem to dare us to do likewise.
(Needless to say, biographies that don’t bother with that final step – life stories that just stay in the mundane what-happened-next stage – won’t be considered here; bad enough I have to see the now innumerable examples of I’m a fat/racist/junkie. Still. Now. Yeah. “memoirs” crowding bookstore shelves these days … I’m certainly not going to waste time eviscerating them, or the lazy reading public who find it somehow reassuring to read about losers and nonentities)
Certainly nobody’s life lays down that dare to do likewise as loudly as that of 19th century British novelist Anthony Trollope, who managed to find time in a very busy life to write four bookcases full of novels. In
Anthony Trollope by James Pope-Hennessey, 1973
veteran biographer Pope-Hennessey (we’ll get to his greatest work in the fullness of time here – hint: it’s another biography!) swiftly and adroitly tells the story of Trollope’s gradual, grinding rise to the pinnacle of literary fame and fortune, including the treasured attendance he made every Sunday afternoon at the Priory, the Regents Park residence of another, far more revered British novelist:
But to Anthony it was George Eliot herself he had come to see, and he grew to ‘love her very dearly’. Her particular cast of mind, her ponderous sibylline epigrams, even her lack of humour, stimulated and yet soothed him. His pronounced admiration for Adam Bede, Silas Marner, Felix Holt and Romola gratified her, and he is said to have relished ‘those qualities in her work that secured her the compliment of comparison with Shakespeare’. She, on her side, readily acknowledged the influence of his novels on the writing of Middlemarch. ‘I am not at all sure,’ she remarked thoughtfully to a dangerous literary gossip, Mrs Lynn Lynton, ‘that, but for Anthony Trollope, I should never have planned my studies on so extensive a scale for Middlemarch, or that I should, through all its episodes, have persevered with it to the close.’
The little gasp the reader gets there – no Middlemarch without The Vicar of Bullhampton? – is just delicious, one of the perfect little revelations all really good biographies have in store for their readers. The patterning out of connections we might have missed in less particular overviews, the chasing down of influences and deciding factors – all good biographers since the genre was born, or reborn (we’ll deal with the guy who birthed it, don’t you worry – and we’ll deal also with the guy who re-birthed it) live to do these things, as in
when the author reminds us of the importance of a wife’s cache in a story that too often overlooks it:
David and his band [of fellow outlaws] were good at what they did. They soon became a force to be reckoned with, both militarily and politically. The single most important step in David’s political rise was his removal of the Calebite chief whom the Bible calls Nabal. By marrying his widow Abigail, David appropriated not only his wealth but also his social and political position. This also significantly enhanced his power base. From there it was a short way to the throne of Judah. It is no accident that David was anointed king of Judah in the Calebite capital of Hebron, or that Abigail accompanied him there.
Sometimes the surprises come not so much from the research as from the biographer’s passionate insight. This is overwhelmingly the case in a book some of you will have known would be coming up here (and this won’t be the last time, either), a volume I’ve recommended to many, many a reader grown tongue-heavy on dry-as-dust biographies. Of course I refer to
The Personal History of Henry VIII by Francis Hackett, 1929
in which the author aggressively re-imagines virtually every aspect of the 16th century world his researches have brought before him, sparing a moment to pity poor Katheryn Howard for the whining, dangerous creature she’d married:
The world was betraying his mellow mood. In spite of his big expenses for defense, his ramparts at Dover, Portsmouth and Southhampton had just crumbled. In spite of his big efforts to become shapely, the banquets had undone the early rising, the fistula had closed alarmingly and “he is very stout and marvelously excessive in drinking and eating, so that people with credit say he is often of a different opinion in the morning than after dinner.” In spite of his dreams of making a son, Katheryn was not yet pregnant. It was an unkind world. He mirrored it by his own sourness. He spent Shrovetide “without recreation, even of music.” He stayed in Hampton Court “more a private family than a King’s train.” He abused his people, saying “he had an unhappy people to govern whom he would shortly make so por that they would not have the boldness nor the power to oppose him.” He abused his Privy Council that, “under pretence of serving him, were only temporizing for their own profit, but he knew the good servants from the flatterers, and, if God lent him health, he would take care that their projects should not succeed.” He abused, finally, those who had devised Cromwell’s death. “On light pretexts,” he violently asserted, “by false accusations, they made me put to death the most faithful servant I ever had!”
This was the fitful volcano that Katheryn had to live with.
Like monsters on whose heaving backs two rival pagodas had been reared, this King and this Queen were to affront one another, freighted with toppling towers. But the battle of Henry’s conscientious scruples went beyond the normal. It became an edifice of figment erected tier on tier with the intention of supporting his cause and giving his arquebus the chance to sweep his enemy. Out of his love for Anne grew a divorce, which, to be valid, required an entirely new foreign policy, a new council, a new hierarchy, a new church establishment, a new chancellor, and, strangest of all, a new wife. And with these novelties the man himself evolved, if not a new nature, at least a nature alarmingly new in its assertion.
It’s striking, in reading biographies, how often unhappiness is a recurrent sub-theme. Henry was of course hugley unhappy for most of his life (and it wasn’t just that suppurating fistula – although that would do it for most people – no, his was a nature badly in need of the one thing his position could never tolerate: a best friend), and much of his unhappiness was of his own making. This is true also of another famous monarch of his era, who’s given her most magnificent, enduring tribute in
Mary Queen of Scots by Antonia Fraser, 1969
and Fraser’s long and immensely sympathetic account of that doomed queen’s troubled life (a book I’ve praised before, waaaaay back in 2006, in the tossed-off precursor-feeler to this very feature)(I like the new title better) is constantly, beguilingly betrayed by its sympathies. Fraser wants very little actual wrong to attach to the queen of whom she’s so obviously fond, and although she never stoops to suppressing evidence, she can’t suppress her own historian’s instincts for accuracy either. The result is an endlessly fascinating game of Emperor’s New Clothes:
Elizabeth’s refusal [to grant Mary a safe conduct to travel through Britain] gave Mary Stuart her first public opportunity of rising magnificently to a crisis. She now displayed for the first time that quality of cool courage, when in the public eye, which was to be a feature of her later career. It was courage which owed nothing to physical well-being. At the beginning of July Mary had a renewed attack of the tertian fever, and when Throckmorton saw her on 9 July he noted that it had ‘somewhat appaired her cheer’, although she herself dismissed it lightly and said that the worst was over. Now, when she received Throckmorton on 20 July at Saint-Germain, having heard the news of the denied passport, she was infinitely composed; in a series of speeches to the English ambassador of fine histrionic power, she showed herself to be not only brave, but also reasonable and even charitable towards the woman who had thus rejected her – as well as incidentally having an eloquent command of the language. Like an actress before an audience, the eighteen-year-old queen seemed to derive strength from the fact that the eyes of Europe were upon her.
You can see what I mean here – what Fraser goes out of her way to paint as rhetorical power and eloquence – even as courage – can just as easily be seen (and from her own account) as just the kind of vain foolhardiness that will land the Scottish queen in prison for years, and then send her to the block. Mary couldn’t control herself, so goes the age-old historical judgement against her – if she’d been able to do that, she’d have been able to control those around her and wrest from her life some kind of happy ending. It’s Fraser’s main gift to make us really want that happy ending for her main character, despite herself.
That phenomenon – characters in biographies being revealed in spite of their biographer’s all-but-explicit intentions – happens quite a bit in biographies, which always begin, after all (and often remain) a spirited dialogue between two individuals, writer and written about. It’s yet another allure biographies have for their readers, the nonfiction equivalent of fiction’s unreliable narrator. You think your guy’s a saint (or a monster), so why do I get the impression he was a monster (or a saint)? It’s never more obvious than in a sympathetic work about a historical figure everybody hated when he was alive. A perfect case in point is
Man of War: Sir Robert Holmes and the Restoration Navy by Richard Pollard, 1969.
‘The tides that erode or add to historical reputation,” Pollard tells us, “are as strong and persistent as those that reshape the coastline or redraw the channels of an estuary.” Which is certainly true, but nevertheless, some coastlines are friendlier than others, and Holmes in life was like the icy escarpments of Scapa Flow. If the great diarist Samuel Pepys, the great poet Andrew Marvell, and our old friend Edward Hyde the Earl of Clarendon all hate you – and they all hated Holmes passionately – you’ve got to be doing something wrong. But Pollard is having none of it – he insists his estuary is approachable, even when his own anecdotes tell any impartial reader (in this case not me, but maybe you) otherwise:
For the first fortnight [of the cruise along the African coast from Gabon] fresh gales carried them prosperously onward. But on September 12th the wind fell light. For ten days they made little way. ‘Very little wind’. ‘Calm all night’. The laconic entries leave much to the imagination. A day without wind is a long day in a sailing ship. On the 23rd the storm broke – but it was not the weather. The commanders of the Goulden Lyon, Brill, and Expedition came aboard the Jersey to complain that they were short of water and to propose an immediate alteration of course for the Barbadoes which they believed to be near at hand.
Holmes was furious, both at their incompetence in running short of water and at their slovenly navigation:
I chidd them very severely … I called for their Journalls, as alsoe all the Journalls of the officers that kept any board of all the shipps, and finding them all too much to the westward I told them I thought they were all mistaken. For that observing my pendulas I had on board, which I constantly attended, either they could not be true or … we must be much more to the Eastward …
The combination of personal and professional authority sweetened by a diplomatic appeal to reason carried the day.
Of course, some biographical subjects neither get nor deserve any sympathy from either their biographers or their readers, and certainly Hitler tops that list. In
The Last Days of Hitler by Hugh Trevor-Roper, 1947
the author in 1945 is instructed to make a full historical inquiry into the details of Hitler’s death, just as dozens of unsavory rumors are sprouting on the subject. He goes all over Germany, sifting records still warm from their compiler’s hands; he discovers the marriage certificate of Hitler and Eva Braun – and he discovers ironclad proof that Hitler shot himself and had his body cremated. The resulting work is slim in page-count (especially weighed against the countless Hitler-themed behemoths that would follow) but incredibly strong on insight, always grimly wonderful to read, despite its subject:
This conception of Hitler as a phoenix, rare in human centuries, a cosmic phenomenon exempt from ordinary laws, was not universally accepted inside Germany. It was not accepted by the generals, those hard-headed, unmystical, military engines. To them he was never more than a vulgarian of extraordinary power who fell short of their idea of genius. “When I was working with him,” says Halder, the ablest of that class, “I was always looking for signs of genius in him. I tried hard to be honest and impartial, and not to be blinded by my antipathy to the man. I never found genius in him, only the diabolical.” But one man accepted it completely, and his acceptance of it was the basis of its success. “At long intervals in human history,” he wrote, “it may occasionally happen that the practical politician and the political philosopher are one. The more intimate the union, the greater his political difficulties. Such a man does not labour to satisfy the demands that are obvious to every philistine; he reaches out towards ends that are comprehensible only to the few. Therefore his life is torn between hatred and love. The protest of the present generation, which does not understand him, wrestles with the recognition of posterity, for whom he also works.”
The author of that description is Hitler himself, and it is a self-portrait.
Still, in most cases biographers of sad subjects feel a sympathy for their charges that they want us to share, especially if their charges fall into that mysterious category of people who are miserable mostly for no reason. The American poet Delmore Schwartz was one of these, an extremely talented young man who cut quite a swath at Harvard, impressed all the right people, embarked on a freelance writing career that could only be called meteoric (reading about him reminds you how influential literary book-criticism was – and still is – when it’s well done; Schwartz’s reviews and author overviews were cathedrals of compressed wit and malice), and yet, as we learn in
Delmore Schwartz: The Life of an American Poet by James Atlas, 1977
Even the lavish praise of the publisher Salman Schocken failed to move him. “He thinks you’re the only creative Jewish writer in this country and would very much like to get you to do something for his house, no matter what,” Elliot Cohen, the editor of Commentary, wrote in February; but what Delmore found most significant about this offer was the question of “a permanent connection,” a phrase he underscored.
Such people are always cat people (I’ll resist the temptation to draw conclusions), and Schwartz was one too:
… he reserved his deepest affection [in the rooming house on Kirkland Street, while teaching at Harvard] for his cat, Riverrun – the first word in Finnegans Wake – with whom he carried on an elaborate relationship, feeding her expensive Portuguese sardines, worrying like a parent when she failed to come home, and coaxing her to sleep in his bed.
And the perfect antidote to them (although not to the book in question, mind you! Atlas’ volume is dourly gripping, despite how increasingly awful Schwartz was to everybody in his life as he grew older) is a great biography about a dog person – or even better, about a dog person’s dog! You’ll be expecting My Dog Tulip here, but no: the spot this time goes to a far more refined class of little bitch, and exuberant, opinionated pug who takes center stage in
Clara: The Early Years by Margo Kaufman , 1998
which is nothing less than the tale of her effortless triumphs over every obstacle in the way of her own pampered happiness – even if one such obstacle is her mysteriously demanding human owner:
Once Clara was vaccinated and immune from the myriad virulent dog viruses that could result in instant death, I put a piece of soiled newspaper in the yard and explained the situation: “If you want to go shopping in Beverly Hills, you’ve got to give up The New York Times and use the grass.”
Clara looked pensive, no doubt determining if Beverly Hills was worth such a sacrifice. Meanwhile, Sophie [the less-than-bright other pug] wool-gathered in the yard, shredding bougainvillea, scratching her back against the bark of the jacaranda tree, and chewing grass (which she invariably threw up the instant she came inside). “Dammit, Sophie, hurry up,” I begged.
Clara made a note: The Moron is annoying the Human.
She pranced over to a blooming mound of impatiens and squatted daintily. She received more praise than I’ve received in my entire writing career, and a sliver of Monterey Jack cheese.
And we’ll close this installment of Nine Lives with yet another over-bred pampered show-dog, this time of the human variety. Many of you will be vaguely familiar with Lady Georgiana Spencer, who married William Cavendish, the fabulously wealthy and somewhat remote fifth duke of Devonshire and got her own star treatment in
because the timing of the book’s release tapped it into the collective British/sappy American zeitgeist over the death of Princess Diana and rocketed Georgiana to bestsellerdom. It would be unjust to raise the suspicion of opportunism, and it would be criminal to hint at rushed or shoddy material – quite the contrary: this is an extremely grounded, authoritative life (hard to see how Georgiana could have a better one – or merit it) about a woman who did indeed strike amazement in the kind of well-funded but unaligned adjacency with her noble husband that was described so well by Britain’s third-best novelist (hint: #2’s already been mentioned in this entry! #1, I trust, goes entirely without saying):
If Lady B can raise herself also, if she can make her own occasion – if she be handsome and can flirt, if she be impudent and can force her way, if she have a daring mind and can commit great expenditure, if she be clever and can make poetry, if she can in any way create a separate glory for herself, then, indeed, Sir Jacob with his blue nose may follow his own path, and all will be well. Sir Jacob’s blue nose opposite her will not be her summum bonum.
And yet for all its careful research, a great deal of the wit and titter – a great deal of the fun – of Foreman’s book comes Gibbon-style, in the numerous footnotes describing the peccadilloes of the day:
George, the eldest son of Lord Hervey, died unmarried. The second son, Augustus, who became the third Earl of Bristol, did so in a blaze of scandal. Many years before, he had secretly married Elizabeth Crudleigh, a rambunctious lady-in-waiting at court with ambition and a reputation to match. The alliance was short-lived and both of them agreed to maintain the pretence of there never having been a marriage. Elizabeth then married the Duke of Kingston, who knew nothing of her previous life, but after the Duke died her past was exposed in a court case over the will. The Countess-Duchess – as Horace Walpole called her – was tried for bigamy in the House of Lords in 1776 in front of 6,000 spectators. One of the many peeresses who crammed into the gallery during the lengthy trial was Georgiana. Because of her age and status, the Duchess of Kingston escaped branding on the hand, the usual punishment, and was allowed to retire abroad. Augustus was condemned for conniving in the deception, and his punishment was severe: the Lords insisted the original marriage was indissoluble, thus depriving him of legitimate heirs.
Almost like having the society papers right there in front of you, isn’t it?
So there you have it! Nine more lives to read about, ruminate upon, and, if need be, find at the library! Coming up in about a month: nine more!