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“Dickens’s Dream” by Robert William Buss: We see the author through his characters

Biography is an art form as old as literature itself. Xenophon wrote the life of Cyrus the Great in the early fourth century BC. His research methods — oral tradition, gossip, mythologising, creating heroes and villains — were not so very different from those of the biographers of modern celebrities that are the stock in trade of publishers’ Christmas lists. Equally, there has always been a symbiosis between biography and dramatic storytelling: there is a direct line of descent from Shakespeare’s dramatisations of the lives of Julius Caesar and Henry V to the Abraham Lincoln biopic that did so well in this year’s Oscars.

There will always be an appetite for lives of those whom the Victorians called “men of action”. Every society has its “great men” (and now women), those whom Thomas Carlyle called heroes. For many it is a matter of regret that Katie Price and Cheryl Cole are now the subjects of popular hero-worship that in Carlyle’s time was bestowed on Horatio Nelson and John Wesley. When Victorians eager for self-improvement read the lives of the latter, they felt that they were meeting their heroes; when people today, who would not otherwise pick up a book, queue for a signed copy of a celebrity memoir they too feel a kind of validation: my hero has inscribed her name for me (even if she hasn’t actually got around to reading her own ghosted autobiography). It is easy to sneer, but the biographical narrative of redemption — abusive father, impoverished childhood, then the chance to “live the dream” — feeds a hunger, even as it is accompanied by the Schadenfreude that goes with the hero’s setbacks and self-inflicted wounds.

The lives of writers are a rather different case. What makes them endure is the quality of their writing, not the drama of their lives. You can’t really understand, say, Napoleon or Hitler without knowing about the arc of their lives. But many readers and critics would argue that you can gain a deep appreciation and understanding of, say, Shakespeare and Jane Austen without knowing anything about their lives. After all, the original spectators of Hamlet knew nothing about Shakespeare’s life and few of the original readers of Pride and Prejudice even knew the name of the author — the title-page simply said that it was by the author of Sense and Sensibility, which in turn said only that it was “By a Lady”.

Literary life-writing also has particular problems with the traditional form of biographical storytelling. The writer’s life does not usually conform to the “rise and fall” structure that works so well for Cyrus the Great, Julius Caesar, Thomas Cromwell, Napoleon and Hitler. The three best-known writers in the English language are William Shakespeare, Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. Of these, only the third is a natural for biographical treatment. For one thing, there is a strong autobiographical element in his work: David Copperfield mirrors his own childhood experience in the blacking factory, he could write with utter conviction about the Marshalsea debtors’ prison because his father was confined there, and so on. For another, it is a truly dramatic life. Rags to riches, fame and travel, a juicy sex scandal — all the elements are there. And furthermore, his capacious correspondence gives the biographer a wealth of raw material. No wonder that he has been the subject of numerous biographies, many of which are as long as his novels.

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Nicholas Ennosrr
April 4th, 2014
6:04 PM
I think that the problem with literary biography is perhaps the rise of the internet. Before this, people were unaware that William Shakespeare of Stratford was only a figurehead and not the true author of the plays. Shakespeare biographies have now become segmented into two types: ones like those of Jonathan Bate, which are really fiction written to uphold the traditional authorship. And unofficial biographies which actually investigate scientifically who the true author(s) was/were. Ordinary people are less likely now to believe in the authority of Professors of English when a simple click of a mouse reveals that they are merely upholding an authority that they need to do in order to further their careers. What Jonathan Bate does for Shakespeare, his wife Paula Byrne does for Jane Austen. To further her career, she must trot out again the familiar facts of the dull life that was Jane Austen's,albeit in a different format. It would endanger her career if she told the truth, which is that the true author of Jane Austen's novels was her cousin, Eliza de Feuillide. Thus Jonathan Bate, his wife Paula Byrne and their ilk continue to provide pap biographies for the dumbed down masses, which by their nature are bound to be very dull and not best sellers.

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