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Saturday, June 25, 2022

Writing a Life: Overseeing the Evolution of Biography

Xander Haveron-Jones speaks to Dame Hermione Lee about her work in biography and the challenges created for the genre by the rise of social media.

Dame Hermione is a British biographer, academic and literary critic, formerly President of Wolfson College, Oxford, and Goldsmiths’ Professor of English Literature at the University. A fellow of the British Academy and Royal Society of Literature, Lee has written numerous acclaimed biographies—most notably her major 1996 biography of Virginia Woolf, some nine-hundred pages to which Lee dedicated five years of her career. But is the biography dying? Lee thinks not—it has always been a ‘mongrel genre’, undergoing numerous adolescent shifts before finding its shape, and accepted as a respectable form only in the past few decades—with the help of Lee herself, who first included biographies on Oxford’s English syllabus, to some hesitance. 

It’s dusk when I log in to Zoom and wait for the notification: Hermione Lee has now entered the waiting room. It’s depressingly virtually familiar by this point. I’m sat near a radiator and get up to open the window so that I’m not charring medium-rare as we talk life-writing. With that usual ten-second delay between audio and video we’re all accustomed to by now, Lee appears; is she sat in a kitchen? I see a white wall and big glass doors—perhaps I expected her to be sitting in front of a bookshelf—hers would be from floor to ceiling and all the spines broken (as if to say, these books are not for show!) I was hoping to be nosy. ‘We’ve all done that thing as I’m doing now,’ she says, ‘of looking at the pictures behind the person you’re talking to and wondering, oh, I wonder what that says about their character…’

Biography owes much to Lee, who worked to credit the genre when she first began life-writing in the late 80s. Her career having developed alongside the fluctuating genre since its relative infancy, I begin by asking what the role of biography is in a time where individual identity is uniquely sociopolitical: ‘Different kinds of people are being biographised now than they might have been before […] We are all becoming acutely aware of groups of people who haven’t been sufficiently written about in the past.’ She pulls up a book from off-screen and holds it to the camera: this ‘extraordinary’ book which Lee recently read is a memoir by writer Ta-Nehisi Coates about the symbolism and realities of being Black in the US, called Between The World and Me. Lee says it was the recent Black Lives Matter protests which alerted her to the work. The increasing advocacy for representation has extended to the literary sphere, she tells me: more than they had done before, biographies require a sympathetic rendering of a person’s life story, hence demand a writer who can understand their subject and the lived experience which defined them. ‘Supposing I set out to write a biography of Coates—it would be out of the question. Out of the question, and for good reason […] I think the matching of writer and subject is having to be done more and more carefully.’  

It goes without saying that the significance of identity is fundamental to biography. Yet this is perhaps one thing in the analogue times past—but in an age of unique self-representation, the role of social media as a tool of pretence and unchecked self-aggrandisement casts a shadow on the biographies of coming years. Unacademic as it feels to ask an Oxford don, could an individual’s Instagram posts or YouTube vlogs make for respectable study of a person’s life? ‘The crucial question for biography in the future is going to be how it is going to relate to the existence of social media, not least simply in the technical side—the way in which people communicate is much more by email, or on Facebook or WhatsApp now than it has been.’ Richard Ovenden, the Bodley’s Librarian, recently published a book which discusses how our digital selves are becoming part of archives—how they’re edited and processed. Preserved for posterity on floppy disks or hard drives… ‘techniques are evolving to deal with that, although there is, of course, the terrible problem of the huge amount of material for any biographer that this is going to raise.’ Speaking of her latest subject, the revered playwright Tom Stoppard, Lee knows very well that ‘there are a million texts to his friends and colleagues that I will not have seen. And in a way, one wouldn’t almost want to see them, because there would be just so much of that material.’ A text organising coffee or email about the new kitchen installation doesn’t make for the most interesting study. Perhaps that which is written down retains the most biographical protein.  

Picking up another book—this one written by her step-daughter, Josie Barnard, a professor at De Montfort University—she reads a line: ‘It is necessary on social media to perform a version of the self, or even several versions of the self, all of which should ideally be authentic […] decide what kind of radical self you might like to present.’ The evident paradox of social media—namely Instagram—is the necessary tension between a sincerity of the self and the desire to impress, or to be “liked” (Lee mimes air quotes). She assures me that she herself does not use social media. ‘A biographer’s job is always to work out the relationship between performance and some authentic inner self. I think what’s happening with social media is that it’s getting much, much harder to tell the difference.’ There is something to be said of that feeling of permanence, preserving a party or newly-curated outfit made from vintage shop treasures on your colour-coded profile. ‘It seems to me that any lived life—yours or mine—is partly private and interior. But it’s also partly a performance.’ Perhaps that Kim Kardashian book of selfies represents the capitalisation of visual culture and commodification of the synthetic self in a new digital age which she heralded… Or maybe it’s just another coffee table book (those things for people who like pictures, not words). 

Confined to our houses and apartments and Tuscan villas (for the lucky few), we have all been thinking more about the relationship between interior and exterior—of the world, of ourselves… Lee perceives a parallel between our collective response to the virus and the essence of life-writing: ‘When Covid began back in March and April, you heard a lot of people saying, finally, the whole world is in the same boat. For a while, one of the characteristics of this crisis seemed to be that we were all in it together. And as it continued, that became less and less true […] Biography is always poised between asking what it’s like to feel like other people are asking what it’s like to be special and different.’ Suddenly without the distraction of the social interaction we have always relied on, an inwardness is inevitable: yet the embodiment of catastrophe—2020—kept us simultaneously transfixed to the global calamity on our screens, the wide world feeling distant behind the glaze of our bedroom windows. Coincidentally, Lee released a collaborative book on the significance of artists and writers’ houses, the launch held a week or so before that first March lockdown (before we knew it would be called the first): ‘People started to read the book, and of course by then they were stuck in their homes.’ An immersive reading experience. ‘We feel that you can write about someone’s house and the things in someone’s house and as a way of writing biography.’ She recalls a poignant moment when Virginia Woolf returned to one of the houses of her childhood just after the family had moved out, seeing the marks on the wall where all the pictures had hung. 

Lee insists that she could only ever write literary biography. I ask if she could ever adventure with an artist or  performer—‘I’m very interested in them but I don’t think I have the equipment to write about them.’ Arriving at life-writing after a career of scholarship and literary criticism, it was her interest in the interplay between a life and a person’s work which first set her on a biographical course. ‘What I want to do is work out how the life turned into this work. That’s really all I do. So, I would be no good writing about a mountaineer, or a mathematician, because I don’t understand—I wouldn’t have the first clue as to how everyday life gets turned into a product.’ Writing the life of Edith Wharton (Subject No. 5), Lee became very interested in Italian villas and garden design; with Tom Stoppard (Subject No. 7), she entered the theatrical realm (which was new to her), enjoying ‘the nuts and bolts of productions and rehearsals’. It sounds a little like meeting guests at a supper party and choosing to focus on the interesting bits about each one. 

But I wonder if the task ever feels like mystery work? She insists that it’s grounded in the ‘source material’, which sounds a little less exciting than the scandalous whisperings I might have been imagining. Though she tells me there are always findings which change her sense of the narrative: ‘When you start working on someone, I feel a kind of a sort of forcefield builds up so that things kind of come at you that you wouldn’t otherwise have found. I remember very vividly finding a description of Edith Wharton on her deathbed in the few hours after she died […] which I found in the Bernard Berenson archive in Florence, in a sort of ramshackle collection of letters where I would never have expected to find something like it.’ There seems to be a lot of going round and speaking with family and friends and associates—many cups of tea. During the writing of her most recent biography, Stoppard suddenly gave Lee—a few years into the process—a collection of his letters written weekly to his mother between the 1940s and her death in 1996. Moreover, in the six years it took her to write the book, Stoppard inevitably continued writing—new plays, new productions… His writing of Leopoldstadt, the remarkable (autobiographical) story of a Jewish exile from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia to Singapore and then India, required a whole new chapter to be added. Lee describes this as an ‘extraordinary living circle’, the existence of her subject swirling about as she studied them. Though I can see that it takes a particularly devoted academic mind for this sort of thing—I can’t imagine almost finishing a tutorial essay, only for the books to come to life and reveal whole new scenes or characters—shooting holes in my (already dubious) conclusions.  

‘I’m not the kind of person who puts myself into to the narrative, because I don’t enjoy doing that. Although I do tend to make a sort of Hitchcockian appearance on the last page… to just admit that I was there the whole time.’ Spending years living with her subjects, I question whether it’s hard to distance oneself after coming to feel as though you know the person. Lee insists that there can never be such a thing as an absolutely objective biography: ‘From your race, your class, your age, your gender, your education, your political inclinations, you know—you may keep them out of the story, but they’re there all the time you’re writing.’ Lee always remains conscious that it’s not a marriage but a job—a sort of mixture of being a detective and a house builder and a psychoanalyst.’

In a serendipitous return to our initial discussion, I ask how Lee anticipates biography’s development in years to come. She describes the increasingly outlandish approaches and ‘adventurous shapes’ taken, from a life of Shakespeare written as just one year of his life, or turning a life around and starting at the end, or even taking just one day in a person’s life. When Virginia Woolf endeavoured to write her life of Roger Fry, she thought of writing it may be with specific scenes rather than the whole thing or having different people write a group biography about him. ‘In the 1930s, that would have seemed very daring, though would apparently be fairly acceptably nowadays’. I get to thinking that, if anyone should have to write my life, I’d want them to take the sensible beginning-to-end approach—though remind myself that this is something I’ll never have to worry about.

Image Credit: John Cairns

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