Biography and Compassionate Truth: Writing a Life of Janet Frame
by Michael King
© all rights reserved
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Back in Palmerston North in August 1995, we talked of how we might proceed. I believed that if she were prepared to cooperate with me, to talk with me, to make her papers and her friends and family available to me, that I would need something like two-and-a-half years for research, and a further two years to write a manuscript in close consultation with her, researching further gaps as they became apparent. There would then be something like a six-month period in which the book would be in production. That added up to at least five years. Janet brightened at once and said, "Of course I'll be dead by then." And that seemed to make the whole idea not just more tolerable, but more acceptable.
As things turned out, that timetable was accurate. The biography was published in New Zealand in August of last year, exactly five years from the time we first discussed it. Janet was persuaded not to die, and she faced the whole business of publication and promotion with generosity and courage. But when people ask her what she thinks of the book, she has her answer ready. "Oh, I haven't read it," she says. Which stops further conversation dead. And, indeed, it's true that she hasn't read it at least not between hard covers. But she read the draft chapters in manuscript, and made comments; and she read the whole book at the page proof stage, and made comments.
I spent the bulk of the first eighteen months of research interviewing her on and off tape, sometimes as often as two or three times a week. In that same period I went through her papers, which tuned out to be voluminous, but wholly unorganised a marvellous lucky dip in which a piece of French lace made by Janet in hospital would turn up wrapped in a shopping list; or a letter from Philip Roth or May Sarton attached to a lawn-mowing receipt.
I spent about another year doing further research in New Zealand, interviewing friends and family, chasing up correspondence and other documents; and six months doing the same in the United Kingdom and the United States. Everybody I hoped would talk to me did so, barring two people. And one of those two was the Irishman in London whom she calls Patrick Reilly in the autobiographies and who, even though he is an octogenarian, displayed extraordinary cunning and stamina in managing to avoid and outwit me at every turn when I was in London.
By the beginning of 1998 Janet had returned to Dunedin, the city in which she had been born, joking as she did so though one is never quite sure about this that she was moving for the benefit of her numerous shifts, it might otherwise lack. I was fortunate to hold the Burns Fellowship at Otago University for the following eighteen months in the same city allowing me to write the text of the biography in that close collaboration we had agreed upon.
Originally I had intended to do what David Marr had done in the case of his biography of Patrick White. Write the manuscript in consultation with my subject but not hand it over for inspection until a first draft was finished. But I began to have nightmares about what might eventuate. Supposing I did that, and Janet read the text, and found the totality of it in one reading too much for her. Might she then not smile and say to me, after four-and-a-half year's work, "Oh, I don't think so. Let's wait until I'm dead." And this at a time when I had dated contractual obligations to publishers in four different countries.
To avoid this outcome, which would have generated enormous difficulties for everyone involved apart from Janet, we adopted a different procedure. I would draft two or three chapters, give them to her, leave them with her for about a fortnight while she read and thought about them and sometimes annotated them. Then I would return and we would discuss them. Sometimes I had made errors of fact, which we then corrected; sometimes she thought I had made errors of fact, for which I would then produce the evidence. Sometimes she suggested to me that some episodes were too raw or too intensely private to permit publication, and I would either modify my account of them or remove them altogether. Sometimes I would have made a decision of this kind before submitting the relevant draft chapter to her.
Whenever another living person was involved in the narrative I allowed them to see what I proposed to publish, and I sometimes modified those passages if they made fair or illuminating comments of an elaborating kind.
Does this make the book an "authorised" biography? Not quite. It is a biography written in consultationwith its subject, because that is the onlyway in which it could have been written satisfactorily in her lifetime. The secondary literature was so riddled with error [20 errors of fact in The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Literature] that only Frame herself could provide a clear foundation of reliable fact upon which narrative and analysis could be built. Only Frame could ensure that her family and friends would cooperate with a biographer. Only Frame could authorise access to her correspondence and permission to publish copyright material. Only Frame could release her own photographs for publication.
But the suggestion of one reviewer, one of Frame's would-be-biographers, that I have sat on her knee like a ventriloquist's dummy and voiced only those aspects of her life which she alone wanted to show the world, is preposterous and wrong. Iwrote the text; I proposed what should or shouldn't be there; and Imade final decisions about what would or would not be in the text. And sometimes I made those decisions in the face of Frame's opposition. It is very much to her credit that she not only consented to relive with me some of the most painful episodes in her life; but she also recognised my right, as a fellow professional, to make ultimate decisions about treatment and content.
An author's note at the front of the book draws attention to the two proscriptions which Frame requested, and to which consented: that the book not be a "critical" biography, in the sense of an analysis of her writing; and that I not quote verbatim from my interviews with her.
Let me deal with the second of these requests first (and I might say that I regarded them as "requests", or as preferences", not as conditions). Frame has a phobia about microphones and cameras. Whenever she has been recorded speaking in the past, she has either listened to herself as she was talking and thus become too intensely self-conscious about what she was saying, and simply dried up; or she has forgotten to listen at the time and don so later, at the time of broadcast, and then been horrified at what she saw as the inadequacy of what she said or how she said it.
Her preference now is not to be recorded at all. When I said to her that I needed a record of my conversations with her, and that I would use them as memory aids and not for verbatim quotation, she was then able to abandon any degree of self-consciousness and to speak freely and fluently. And the tapes are marvellous. So I got what I wanted and needed in terms of information and context from her; but I got it on the condition that I not use that material directly. In fact, when I asked her if I could quote sections of the taped conversations that produced information or documentation I could not find elsewhere such as the account of her moment of near-despair in Avondale Hospital in 1952 she agreed that I should and I could.
The business about the lack of critical analysis proved to be rather more problematical. I took it that this was what she was requesting when, in my first taped interview with her for the book, we had an exchange that went thus:
MK: What about analysis of your writing, saying what it "means"?In one sense this suited me. I come at biography out of the discipline of history, not literary criticism. A "life and times" was what I wanted to write, and what I was best equipped to write. It would provide a reliable factual infrastructure on which to base future critical biographies. And some reviewers speculated that that background of mine was one that best suited Janet Frame too, given her frequently expressed derision of what most critics have made of her writing (she described such criticism on one occasion as "works of art with my own book lying as a shrivelled skin beside the newly-sprung essay": and on another she likened the self-satisfaction of critics to that of Little Jack Horner triumphantly extracting plums from the pudding in front of him and telling everyone what a good boy he was for so doing.)
JF: No no no. Just the fact, please , just the facts.
Frame made no adverse comment about my Author's Note at the time she read either the draft of the biography or the page proofs. But, to my astonishment, in the one radio interview she gave to coincide with publication, she said that she had no such objection to critical analysis and that I must have misunderstood something she said. This puzzled me. And I have still not had any explanation from her about why she changed her mind or believed that I had misunderstood her.
All of this does, however, raise the question of whether or not a writer is compromised in the process of becoming an "authorised" or an "approved" biographer; and whether it is preferable, on methodological and ethical grounds, to be that wholly free agent, the "unauthorised" or "independent" biographer. There are no straightforward answers to these questions, particularly when one is referring to biographies of living subjects.
Yes, in an ideal world biographers should have access to all relevant source material about their subjects' lives, and copyright permission to quote from their subjects' writings, especially if those subjects are themselves writers. But we don't live in an ideal world.
Writing about a living subject such as Janet Frame, it was essential that the biographer was able to interrogate her about all those aspects of her life that were unknown to outsiders, or which had been inaccurately portrayed in previously published material. Janet Frame was never going to give that opportunity to a biographer that she didn't know or trust; nor access to her correspondence and permission to quote from both letters and published work.
And of course such privileged access implies a trade-off on the part of the biographer, who is going to be unwilling to damage or to distress the person who has granted the access and, in the process, also dispensed copious quantities of hospitality and good fellowship. The biographer in these circumstances is unlikely to want to bite the hand of a subject who has, quite literally, fed him. Or, to put it another way, the biographer gives away some rights; but in doing so gains access to materials and opportunities that enrich and enhance the text of the narrative.
Circumstances which may cause a biographer so bound to hesitate to publish evidence, at least in a primary biography written when the subject is still alive, include instances of and the effects of incest, alcohol abuse, physical abuse, illegitimacy, insanity and suicide. Anne Stephenson, one of several biographers of Sylvia Plath, writes: "Any biography of Sylvia written during the lifetimes of her family and friends must take their vulnerability into consideration, even if completeness suffers as a result." I agree. But I also note that Stephenson was pilloried as a consequence of this scrupulousness and accused of having sold out her integrity as a scholar in exchange for the regard of Ted Hughes, his sister and his children.
Almost every biographer at some time encounters circumstances that create dilemmas of this kind. Even to discuss them in public in anything like specific detail is to draw attention to the very factors one may have decided not to make public, out of consideration for the feelings, and possibly the physical or mental health, of the people most directly affected. One can say no more except to affirm that there are times when revelation of previously unknown circumstances can precipitate problems of a far more serious nature than a temporary gap in the historical or literary record.
The professional and the scrupulous biographer is always trying to locate his or her subjects in the appropriate social, cultural and historical contexts. One is trying to indicate what makes the biographee "tick". One is trying to shed light on motivation and character, and to identify and evaluate achievement. But one is trying to accomplish these objectives within certain constraints. One is aiming at what I would call "compassionate truth": a presentation of evidence and conclusions that fulfil the major objectives of biography, but without the revelation of information that would involve the living subject in unwarranted embarrassment, loss of face, emotional or physical pain, or nervous or psychiatric collapse.
Although the biographer may feel at times restricted by such constraints, the compensations from a literary and scholarly viewpoint almost always outweigh the deficits. "Compassionate truth" implies working from the record and following evidence to whatever conclusions it indicates; but having at the same time regard for the sensibilities of living people, including the biographee, who may be characters in the narrative. And that conditions what evidence is cited and howit is cited; and what conclusions are reached and how they are expressed.
The whole process is analogous to walking a tightrope. But the resulting tension frequently tightens one's narrative and increases its vibrancy. And the additional balance that can result from communication and trust between biographer and biographee can achieve highly worthwhile professional objectives.
But of course, a biography of, say, Janet Frame published in the year 2000 would not be the same as one published in 2020 or 2050. It could not be. Even apart from the greater freedom to publish which inevitably follows the deaths of all protagonists, the questions asked and the themes selected by another biographer in another era would be different. In this sense, the subjects deserving of biography never die: they keep on growing and changing with the changing perceptions and interests of successive generations of readers. Hence, as Virginia Wolf has said, and her life is an example of the process at work, biographies of major figures need to be rewritten for each generation.
There is nevertheless much of value that canand shouldbe said in the writing and publication of the initial or primary biography. Antony Alpers, mindful, perhaps, of his twobiographies of Katherine Mansfield, saw the nature of biography as a continuousprocess rather than as the sporadic publication of individual books. "That process may be spread over decades", he wrote, "[and] leads to the emergence of an historical view of rather more than the subject alone; and this is merely set in motion by the primary biography. That book has to be followed by [others] "
Indeed. And it will also be the task of later writers to colonise the narrative and analytical spaces left vacant by the primary biographer. And in this manner compassionate truth is, eventually, compatible with and complemented by the dispassionate and disinterested variety.
Michael King is New Zealand's leading biographer and historian. He has doctorates in literature and history, and spent the first half of 2001 as Visiting-Professor of New Zealand Studies at Georgetown University, Washington D.C. His most recent biography, of the New Zealand writer Janet Frame, won the Montana Medal for Non-Fiction.
This paper was delivered as the opening address at the Tasmanian Readers' and Writers' Festival, Hobart, 10 August 2001.
Return to Part One of this Address
In Australian Humanities Review,see also on the subject of biography:
- Adib Khan's Following Janus' Footsteps
- Autobiographies by John Docker
- Adam Aitken considers the representation of Michael Dransfield in Patricia Dobrez's biography.
- In Dogs in the Graveyard Cassandra Pybus raises questions about writerly responsibility and biography.
- Gillian Whitlock reviews Rosamund Dalziell's study on autobiography and shame.
- John Docker launches The Devil and James McAuleyby Cassandra Pybus.
- Brian Castro's Dangerous Dancing: Autobiography and Disinheritance
The University of Auckland hosts an excellent online bibliography of works both by and about Janet Frame (and her writing).