Biography and Black Holes
Although over the years I have read quite a lot of biographies, I haven't read any of the biographies written by Cassandra Pybus (in time, I intend to) but I was intrigued by the reference made by one of her reviewers to 'evidentiary basis' so it may be that my musings on biography relate in a roundabout way to her article.
A long long time ago I wrote a biography. As the book was a biography of an author unread in Australia and, therefore, of little interest to most Australians, it quickly went out of print. But some memories remain from the experience. I already knew that after the death of his wife, my subject had a number of amorous liaisons with various women. Indeed, one such liaison eventually led to his suicide with his lover. In the biography, I made mention of these liaisons in a few sentences, and named one or two of his lovers.
I made no more of this because I believed, and still believe, that these liaisons had virtually no effect on his writing, and with the exception of the woman with whom he committed suicide, little effect on his life.
When I was researching the book in its original incarnation as a postgraduate thesis, I came across various people who claimed to have known the subject of my biography. After a public lecture I gave at an early stage of my research, a woman in her nineties came up to me and said that my subject had been her lover for a time, and my lecture had prompted long forgotten but nonetheless fond memories of him. She seemed inclined to talk further but I was not, and left after thanking her for confiding in me. So far as I was, and am aware, this person hasn't been mentioned anywhere as having had a relationship with him.
The reason why I decided not to pursue the matter further was for the reasons I gave earlier. I saw the liaisons as a distraction at best. Since my biography was published, one or two biographies have appeared but they take the same attitude as me, as do earlier biographies. One exception remains. A feminist biographer and author has written a book (subsequently made into a film) about a famous woman poet who, she claims, had a secret affair with my subject. But she won't publish the letters which provide conclusive evidence of the relationship. I knew of this claim but didn't see any point in making reference to it in my biography. I asked her myself a number of years ago to publish the letters but she said that she was bound by her agreement with the owner of the letters not to.
Since I, and my fellow biographers of this particular writer, value evidentiary truth highly, we've refrained from speculation without strong evidence. Recently, I've been told by a source I value highly that the feminist biographer is correct, and that the affair she wrote of actually occurred. So, in the most unlikely event that my biography were to be republished, I would revise this part of the biography. By a strange coincidence, I've spent the last seven years or so writing papers on the woman poet, and eventually, I'd like to write a book on her.
By another strange coincidence, a book on the same poet has just been published in Michigan by an Australian scholar. The first English biography of the poet will be published in the New Year by an American author.
After the publication of my biography, one reviewer criticised me for not making more of the fact that my subject's eldest son had become a famous actor. I simply mentioned the fact in the text, and nothing more. But it is generally known that the son changed his name out of dislike for his father. His father died when the son was only 12, and one of the saddest photos I've seen is of the son, with his two little brothers, clutching his grandmother's hand at his father's funeral. Growing up without a mother and father must have been hard. I knew that the eldest son refused to speak about his father during his lifetime.
A few years ago I attended a meeting of a society devoted to my subject where his last surviving son, a very old man, spoke about his father. At the end of the talk, he thanked his father's biographers personally for telling him who his father was. We, he said, had created a father for him. We were all very moved by the son's remarks. I thought then that we had been wise to avoid unnecessary speculation.
When I finished the biography, I had the overwhelming feeling that I now understood how little I knew about my subject, how little it was possible to know. It felt as if I had come across a massive black hole which circumscribed the limits of representation, and that any attempt to expand the circumference simply made the hole even more massive. This would be my preferred image of the act of biography.
Leith Morton is a poet and translator who has been involved in university teaching for 19 years.