The Biographical Cause

Charles Dickens’ bicentennial year approaches and with it we usher in two new biographies.  Two? Really?  That seems like overkill, however, excessivity and length are two key parts to Dickens’ work, so maybe he would approve.  We could postulate theories that the authors were somehow so captured by their work that they were unaware of the other, however, Claire Tomalin, one of the authors maintains that she is friends with the other author and was thus aware of his intention.  So what, then, is the purpose of two biographies, written almost simultaneously and containing almost identical information?

The answer lies in the nature of a biography.  In a naive sense, biographies fall into non-fiction and are thus taken as true accounts of the lives of their subjects.  However, biographies are really in-between, as they purport to be an account of facts and yet remain a genre of fiction. We are in a skeptical age, and biography is a genre that often comes under attack; an article in The Express complains that literary biographies are just “one puffed-up writer lacerating the intolerable puffed-upness of another”.  In more sophisticated terms, in The Art of Literary Biography (1995), John Worthen writes:

“The fact that we want an emergent sense of the inevitable development suggests the enormously soothing quality which biographies have come to have in our age. Not only do biographies suggest that things as difficult as human lives can – for all their obvious complexity – be summed up, known, comprehended: they reassure us that, while we are reading, a world will be created in which there are few or no unclear motives, muddled decisions, or (indeed) loose ends.”

If this is the case, then the production of two biographies is simply the different authors’ attempts to idolize (as factually as possible), their heroic subjects.  However, as Michael Holyroyd puts it:

“For a long time, biography was regarded as the poor relation of history-which, to put it tactfully, was unfair to both disciplines.”

In our time, universities have taught us that there is no singular truth. In literary criticism every theory has the potential to be valid even if it contradicts other theories of the exact same text.  Under this light, biographers are not automatically failing at telling the lives of their subjects but shaping the facts and combining it with their own experience of the author’s works to create a new combination.  Getting the facts correct is obviously important, but details fall between the cracks. Indeed, Tomalin explains that biographers notoriously get their subjects’ eye-color wrong.

So we must embrace literary biographies not as factual presentations, but as turning the author into a character.  The great pleasure of writing about the dead is that they aren’t there to criticize you.  Tomalin expressed that there is a different Dickens for everyone, but for her the most admirable approach to writing a biography is the love of the subject.  That’s all well and good, but if we are going to produce two biographies simultaneously I think I would be more interested in one as a scathing critique and one as a loving memoir.  Sure it might be interesting to compare and contrast how the two authors utilize Dickens’ life and see how it informs his work, but wouldn’t it be more interesting to have one Rant and one Rave?

I, personally, would love to read a biography that agrees with Aldous Huxley’s critique of A Tale of Two Cities:

“It is vulgar, in literature, to make a display of emotions which you do not naturally have, but think you ought to have, because all the best people do have them. It is so vulgar (and this is the more common case) to have emotions, but to express them so badly, with so many protestings, that you seem to have no natural feelings, but to be merely fabricating emotions by a process of literary forgery. Sincerity in art, as I have pointed out elsewhere, is mainly a matter of talent.”


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