Acclaimed biographer Hermione Lee talks about life-writing as a scholarly and literary pursuit: the fictions and facts that make up written lives, rules that can be broken, conventions that change and motives that remain the same. Urvashi Vashist spoke to her for The Literateur.
Lee is a prolific reviewer and broadcaster, with a wide range of interests including women’s writing, American and Anglo-Irish literature, nineteenth and twentieth-century fiction, contemporary literature and life-writing. She has published books on Philip Roth, Edith Wharton (for which she won the National Book Critics Circle Award), Eudora Welty, Elizabeth Bowen and Willa Cather among others. Her work on Virginia Woolf received the British Academy Rose Mary Crawshay Prize. She has edited anthologies of poetry and fiction, writes for The Guardian, the New York Review of Books, and The New Yorker, and regularly appears on BBC Radio 4. Her biographical narratives recreate the lives of her subjects through a combination of objective detachment and empathy, offering her readers both a panoramic socio-historical context and a wealth of meticulous detail. Despite the wide readership and influence of her biographies, Lee herself has questioned ‘the lingering idea of biography as the complete, true story of a human being, the last word on a life.’
Lee’s most recent book, Biography: A Very Short Introduction (2009), provides a lively overview of the flexible theory and complex history of the genre. Enduring biographies, she suggests, are motivated by a desire to understand and recognise their individual subject; frameworks of human behaviour and identity can only be an unexamined by-product of that story. And though her biographies ‘reflect, and provide a version of, social politics’— and so illuminate both the life and times of the biographical subject and those of the biographer—sympathy remains life-writing’s raison d’être.
One of the most highly regarded scholars in her field, Lee started the first life-writing course at the University of York in the early 90’s, and was elected President of Wolfson College at Oxford in 2008. She is currently working on a biography of Penelope Fitzgerald.
The Literateur: The Oxford Centre for Life-Writing is based at Wolfson. Could you tell our readers about the Centre— what is its scope?
Hermione Lee: Our first major event for the life-writing centre is going on downstairs as we speak [16-18 September 2011]: a three-day conference on ‘Travel and Truth’—travel writing. This morning I welcomed people from five continents at Wolfson, which is great for us.
The Centre for Life-Writing was set up through a generous donation from the Dorset Foundation; we’ve just appointed Dr. Rachel Hewitt as a post-doctoral administrator. It intends to bring together people working in various aspects of life-writing: biography, autobiography, memoirs, letters, diaries, travel writing, film, documentary, anthropology. My idea is that it shouldn’t be just about literary biography. We already have people on board in the sciences, in languages and in history. At Wolfson College, for instance, we have Julie Curtis who’s a Russianist and is working on a Russian literary biography, and Elleke Boehmer who’s Professor of World Literature and wrote a book on Nelson Mandela. . .
Part of my desire is that the College should maintain its character of being not just a pastoral community for the students and the fellows, but also have a concentrated academic and cultural life, provide things the faculties can’t. For instance, people working on the ancient world, in the Digital Humanities, in South-Asia Studies, in Quantum Computing, bring activities into the college, have seminars and workshops. That’s what I’m trying to encourage more.
So the Centre is part of our own academic activity here at the College but is also intended to have a wider reach throughout the University and beyond Oxford. Next term [January-February 2012] Alan Hollinghurst is coming to talk; Hisham Matar, the Libyan novelist; Michèle Roberts; Candia McWilliam. And we’re going to have a conference here on Benjamin Britten and his reputation for the 100th anniversary of his birth, [looking at] the people who knew him, the posthumous myth of Brittenand his considerable connections to Oxford. I’m not organising the conference but it will come in here under the aegis of the life-writing centre. It’ll bring in musicians, biographers, people with an interest in the history of music festivals and so on. That’s the kind of thing we can do.
TL: Do you see life-writing developing into an essentially interdisciplinary discipline?
HL: I think it’s shifting—don’t you? There have always been biographies of figures in different cultures and different disciplines. We had someone here last year, giving a talk on the computing genius Paul Dirac and the biography he’d written about him. What interests me is to have people working in different fields talk about the ways in which biography or life-writing might have an impact and I think biography as a genre is becoming much more fluid, and various, and less constricted by convention. We’ve still got to tell the life’s story, but I think there’s much more overlap between different kinds of life-writing than there has been. And the whole huge wave of interest in memoir writing has obviously affected the way that biography does its stuff.
I keep being told by publishers, or even by someone like Michael Holroyd, that the era of biography is dead—just as we are always hearing the novel is dead, you know. . . We don’t hear that so much about the poem: ‘the poem is dead’, no, we don’t hear that. But [we do hear that] ‘biography is dead’ and this makes me feel, ‘oh God, I’ve become a dinosaur’. . . But it’s not true. I think it’s just changing. And maybe the kind of thing I’ve done—the 900-page, cradle-to-grave operation is giving way to other ways of telling the story.
TL: Is that, perhaps, because so much of the information readers read biographies for is now available on the internet?
HL: I don’t know—I hadn’t thought of that! Maybe so. . . the biography dies because of Wikipedia—what a terrible notion!
Although it seems to me it goes the other way: I think that because you can get so much information about people, and because we’re so curious and we love vicarious lives, life-stories, and other people’s secrets—I think that fuels the interest in biography.
TL: By fuelling the interest in biography, then, you mean fuelling the interest in life-stories. . . and we’re back to the cradle-to-grave operation . .
HL: But then, as Richard Holmes used to say, it’s a big, messy, impure, eclectic art form—or narrative form, if you like—and there are as many kinds of biographies as there are lives.
TL: Changing lives, changing forms of life-stories—I see. But I notice you don’t want to define the ways in which life-writing could be different. Even in the present literary-critical- cultural-climate, which seeks so consistently to define or even delimit the genre of biography, your book on the subject refuses to do so. You begin by saying an ‘Introduction to. . .’ must define its subject, but the book is more like a circumnavigation, rather than a definition, of biography.
HL: Well, I began by thinking, ‘What are the rules?’ And I went through all the rules, and in the end I thought, ‘All these rules are breakable, and none of them necessarily holds water.’
Though—thinking of Philippe Lejeune and his idea of the contractual pact in autobiography—there is a kind of contract of expectation, which operates, perhaps, slightly differently in different disciplines. If you go and get a biography of a big political figure, you expect the total, factual narrative of that big political life, whereas if you go and get the biography of a poet or a playwright or a writer, you will perhaps be prepared for more leeway or more variety in how that person’s life is presented. So you don’t always have an account of everything they’ve ever written within the biography. I think perhaps the expectations are more fixed with certain genres of biography, such as political biography or historical biography. In literary biography, or the biography of obscure lives, there can be more variety.
But I do think these ‘rules’ have to be constantly looked at. Of course you expect ‘the truth’. . . But we know that that’s a very complicated concept. There are always going to be things left out; there are always going to be things that are said differently by different biographers about the same person over a period of time. So—as Virginia Woolf herself said, biographical truth shifts, it’s not always the same. And I think readers are very conscious of that.
That is why I think studying biography is important, and being able to talk about it within an academic context—which has not always been easy to do—and I do think of myself as something of a pioneer in that, because I did start the very first life-writing course—graduate course—in York, back in the early 90’s and mid-90’s. It was thought a rather peculiar thing to do then in an academic context; now it’s flourishing.
TL: How would you feel about a Centre for Life-Writing that no longer remained an adjunct to literary studies at all?
HL: I think that’s very interesting. . . If you had a room full of art historians or archaeologists or anthropologists talking about the concept of life-writing, not just as a literary thing but in terms of other disciplines—that interests me very much. The first big conference after this travel conference that we’re planning to run here, in 2013, is going to be called The Lives of Objects.
TL: Like The Autopsies Research Group at UCL, which works on the ‘lives’ of ‘dead’ objects—it brings together research from Film, the History of Art, the Archaeology department and does ethnographic and anthropological studies . . .
HL: Yes, that’s exactly the kind of model. . . We have links to the Ashmolean—two of the curators are fellows of this college [Dr Susan Walker, Keeper of Antiquities, and Professor Christopher Howgego, Keeper of the Heberden Coin Room], and they are very interested in creating links with the museum, and [thinking about] the way museum artefacts are presented.
TL: How do you see biographical fiction developing? Could you say something about the difference labelling makes—as readers, we approach fiction that’s auto/biographical, and a fictionalised biography, very differently.
HL: There is a lot of fiction being written now which has to do with biography, or fiction which may be based on the story of a real person. An example that comes up a lot in these discussions is Colin Tóibin’s book about Henry James, The Master. But more recently, there’s a wonderful novel by Alan Hollinghurst—The Stranger’s Child—which is loosely, loosely based on Rupert Brooke. It isn’t a fictional biography of Rupert Brooke at all; it’s a fiction about how lives become dramatised, particularly lives in that period. And it’s also a book about England, I think—Englishness and class—and desire. And it’s terribly funny about biographical procedures. . . Rather in the way Antonia Byatt’s Possession takes the topic of biographical obsession—wanting to be in possession, wanting to hold a subject to yourself, that kind of jealousy and rivalry. . . Fictions that have to do with that go back quite a bit—the best novella on the topic is of course Henry James’ The Aspern Papers. . .
There are two stopping points for me. One is—for instance in Michael Cunningham’s novel The Hours. Although I admired that novel (much, much more than I did the film!) I baulk at made-up, fictional conversations between Virginia and Leonard Woolf. Maybe because I’ve written her biography, and I don’t think biography ought to do that. I don’t think biography ought to do what fiction does [in that sense]. I think biography should be fictional, in that it should have a narrative structure, but I don’t think biography should make things up that it doesn’t know.
And then I feel sorry for fiction-writers who constantly have their work collapsed into roman à clef, when they have gone to great lengths to make things up! Novelists are often very hostile to biography—very often biographers appear as dreadful monsters, or idiots . . . They’re the ones that simplify everything. In my work, such as it is, I’ve tried not to do that. When I’ve been writing about major authors like Edith Wharton or Virginia Woolf or Willa Cather, I’ve tried not to collapse the work back into the life.
What interests me more than anything is this complicated negotiation between the life that’s been led or being led and the memory of a past bit of one’s life, and the way in which it gets turned into something else, performed.
TL: Your biography of Woolf—and also Edith Wharton, to an extent—has been repeatedly called ‘definitive’. But in your work on biography you constantly resist that definition, or that kind of term for written lives.
HL: Particularly with Woolf! It’s very nice to be called definitive, but I think it’s lazy, really, as a critical term. I don’t think there’s any such thing. There’s the word ‘authorised’, and there’s the word ‘definitive’. ‘Authorised’ has all its own problems. I’m writing what I suppose could be called an authorised biography at the moment—in that the family has asked me to do it—and that creates its own set of interesting complications. But you could never say, ‘I’m writing a definitive biography of Virginia Woolf’. Since I wrote mine there have been at least two major biographies, and there’s another short one off the presses just now, and so it goes on. It doesn’t end. My book did, I think, something interesting then, both in terms of the form of biography—the way I decided to structure it [thematically, instead of chronologically]—and also in terms of what I was thinking about Virginia Woolf. Which came very much out of that moment, that historical and critical moment. Now I think it would be different.
TL: In one of your essays in Body Parts—your review of Selina Hastings’s biography of Rosamond Lehmann – you said the mark of a good biography is that you immediately want to sit down and have an argument with the author. If you had to sit down with your past self – the author of Virginia Woolf – what would your argument be?
HL: That’s a very good question . . . I think—because I was writing it then—I was very gung-ho, assertive, about the victimhood and abuse and mental illness debates. I was very, very keen to present her as a rational and competent person—a professional writer—and not a victim. Not a crazed inspired genius—the affectionate version of which had been Quentin Bell’s. So I was writing against Quentin; I was writing somewhat against Louise DeSalvo, and somewhat against the Laingian version of Woolf. And I’m glad I did that.
That was why I so aghast when I saw the film—The Hours—because I thought, oh there she is for general public consumption, back in her box! That’s who they think she is: this mad lady in a cardie who walks into the river, and is a frightful snob. And I tried so hard, over five years, to get away from that. So I think it was right for the time.
I think I wouldn’t be so assertive about that now. And then there are all kinds of things I just didn’t have room for. . . You get very entranced by minor characters when you work on someone like Virginia Woolf—they know so many people—you have to restrain yourself from, you know, from going down those side-paths.
I didn’t altogether restrain myself enough with Edith. I was saying, ‘Let’s see her as a European. Centrally, this is about France, it’s about Italy, it’s about England. She’s been treated as this great American who just happened to have spent some time in France, and because I’m European, I wanted to shift that around. And again, the next biography may do something completely different. So yes, retrospectively, you see you’ve done something that was particularly meant for the time: you are inevitably compelled by it, and shaped by it.
TL: So that gives us another way to read biography too—focusing not on the subject of the book but the critical assumptions, the critical moment it’s come out of, that it’s been written in.
HL: You must do. The obvious example—I wrote about this [in the Introduction to Biography; and spoke about it in Episode 1 of BBC 4’s Freudian Slippage, aired on 13 December 2010]—is Freudian biography, or psychoanalytical biography. It’s very interesting now to look back at the beginning of what’s sometimes called ‘the golden age’ of Western biography: works like Edel’s Henry James, George Painter’s life of Proust or, in a different way, because he’s very quizzical about it—Ellman’s Joyce. What’s in the air is the relatively new application of psychoanalysis to biography. It starts with Lytton Strachey, really, back to the 1920s. There are some very extreme examples of it, like Marie Bonaparte’s book on Poe [Edgar Allan Poe: a Psychoanalytic Interpretation, 1949], one of those case-histories in which everything comes down to potty-training. Caricature on my part, but you know what I mean! But the whole genre of biography changed because of psychoanalysis. And now, when you look back at those great pioneering books on the big writers of the nineteenth or the twentieth century, you see that they’re tremendously in thrall to, or under the influence of, or written in the language of, psychoanalysis in a way that wouldn’t happen now.
It’s interesting to see what has happened to James—how the influence has shifted to the professional marketplace life of James: his interest in his career and professional advancement [. . .] whereas Edel’s was a much a more inward, psychoanalytic version of someone calling on his childhood experiences and traumas to write his books. It was rather ‘pure’: ‘Let’s not talk about dollars and pounds and shillings and pence’. Feminism is another example: periods in which feminism in Western culture has been at its most active—not very active at the moment, I think, sadly—you can match up biographical enterprises to that grid as well.
TL: With information about people—about our lives and doings and communications—becoming a matter of accessible record online, do you think biographies become more susceptible to being read, by literary critics for instance, the way fiction is read—with as much if not more emphasis on author and style as the subject?
HL: Yes. . . I teach a couple of life-writing options here; I introduced them when I arrived in Oxford in ’98, one at the graduate and one at the undergraduate level. We do look at biographies the way we would look at novels. We talk about procedures, endings and beginnings, tense, structure, the way in which characters are described . . . It’s fascinating to see the biography as a constructed narrative, as of course it is.
TL: When we begin to do that, however, what kind of distinction do we make, as readers or literary critics, between reading biographical and reading fictional texts?
HL: Well, I do believe in first and second-order literature. I do believe there’s a difference in kind between Wordsworth and the biographer of Wordsworth. I have a sense that there is first-order creative imagination – I think of myself as a professional, decent, second-order writer. The fiction-writers and poets I know, I do think of them as having a different order of imagination, creativity.
TL: So you’re not ever tempted to write fiction?
HL: No, I can’t do it!
TL: What about autobiography—or your reaction to a biographer who wished to write your life?
HL: I think that’s very unlikely! I certainly am very wary of writing about myself. And I’m actually quite private, although I lead a rather public life, within this small environment.
TL: How would you describe the difference between the first and second-order creative processes? The process by which a fiction writer writes a novel and the one by which a biographer writes a life?
HL: Well, when you’re writing fiction, you’re drawing it out of yourself; you are what you have. I don’t mean to say that these art forms are cut off from the outside world at all—you’re drawing on everything around you: your experience or research or historical reading or your politics. But ultimately, it’s your invention. Whereas if I’m writing a biography, I have a responsibility to the subject.
My problem is, because I spend a lot of time teaching, and enabling conversations about life-writing, when I sit down to do it, I need to separate my writing from my analytical mode. I have to have an imaginary wall in my head. I’ve just spent the summer writing a large section of my biography of Penelope Fitzgerald, and I was aware—I joked with myself about it—I was trying not to think about conventions and rules and methods for life-writing. I was trying just to think about ‘how am I going to get this bit of her life on paper?’ rather than thinking about, ‘how would I be analysing this in a class on life-writing?’
TL: You have the ‘parts’ of her life, and create her character out of them.
HL: Well, yes, her character is speaking to you loud and clear, and your responsibility is to shape it so that people understand it well, to make a narrative that will amuse and interest and absorb people, to do justice to her work—because that’s my starting point. I can’t see the point of writing about someone whose work I don’t admire. I start as a literary critic. And then, yes, to handle the material so that you get the right examples, because for every fact in a life there are usually three hundred examples. Though with her [Fitzgerald], there’s lots of material for some bits of the life and absolutely no evidence for other bits. Partly because she lived on a barge on Chelsea reach on the Thames and it sank. And with it sank many of her papers and much of the evidence of her childhood.
TL: So how are you handling that?
HL: With difficulty! Watch this space—and space it may be!
TL: What ‘part’ does your subject’s socio-political milieu play in making her come alive for your readers? How—and to what extent—is the ‘truth’ of your character dependent on recreating their world?
HL: One good example would be very early twentieth-century Paris high-society and Paris culture at the time Edith Wharton was starting to live there, before the First World War. So I can give you—and I hope I did give you—a very emphatic sense of why she was there, how she behaved when she was there, what France gave to her. And then there’s the ambience of the Faubourg St Germain, the very complicated political divisions between the French upper classes, between the royalists and republicans. . . a whole mesh of social connections, into which Proust delves brilliantly and exhaustively in À la recherche. . . I suppose the answer to your question is, in a situation like that—where you’ve got an enormously deep, thick, rich, complicated social environment, you do the bits she did. You do the bits that affected her; you do what she knew of it. You recreate it as it were from her perspective. Otherwise you’d be writing about the whole history of France.
TL: And if your subject’s impression of the time and place is at odds with the reality of the historical records?
HL: Nobody’s such a total recluse. The biography of Larkin [by Andrew Motion, 1994] is very strong on social context—on provincial university life in the 1950s, on the environment, on the politics, on Larkin’s social, right-wing Thatcherism. Even writers who appear not to be mixing much with their social, cultural environment—they’re formed by it nonetheless.
TL: And with such a subject, empathy—or even sympathy—too is one of the breakable ‘rules’ of biography?
HL: There’s always going to be some affect—I think there should.
There’s an interesting case of recent biographies of Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore (which are very different in time from the Alan Bullock book on Hitler and Stalin): Sebag Montefiore leaps in with huge élan and vigour into the portrayal of a mad Cossack with an incredible energy and brio. But each time he says, ‘of course he was a psychopath’, just to remind you that he doesn’t like this guy . . . He’s decided to go for Stalin and do him as the main character—bearing in mind, of course, what appalling and unspeakable things he did to thousands of people. I think that’s pretty good, actually—that’s a way of doing it. He’s not constantly giving a moral account, or a political account of Stalin to the world. He’s plunging you into detail and activity. Which he can do because he had all the post-Cold War information which people previously hadn’t. A lot of what you do is dependent on the information that you get.
TL: We’re speaking once again of biography as the product of a particular moment—the perspective determining the content. There is the Life we do believe to be essentially singular and a matter of objective historical record, but also a cultural trend, in the arts in general and so in life-writing, of playing devil’s advocate. How far would you say biography can leave behind or sidestep or equivocate or throw unfamiliar lights and shadows around what we might in general parlance call ‘the truth’?
HL: As you speak I’m thinking about an artist like Damien Hirst, who is quite shocking in his very up-front way of saying, ‘this is a commercial proposition; this is a scandalous, commercial hit’, like The Skull. Take it or leave it; this is what ‘Art’ can do. There’s a deliberate dislocation from the idea of morality in art works—pure commodification.
I think biography is a long way away from that, it’s a moral form of writing. You’re writing what is supposed to be—if not the definitive, then an account of the person’s life, or people’s lives. You are still caught up in the sense that there is an ethical imperative, that you have to be responsible to the life, and there would be something criminal about deliberately lying or misrepresenting a life.
TL: What about biographies that take misrepresentation as part of their function: commercial biographies, biographies of popular or political icons that seek to vindicate them, or explain those of their public actions that have drawn disapproval from the media or from the public? As you said in Body Parts— those we consider important, of whom we want to know more about—tells us a great deal about who we are as a culture.
HL: I suppose popular biography of media figures are either adulatory because the writer is in the pay of the subject or in thrall to the subject, ghost-written autobiographies, or tell-all scandal biographies, which are weirdly linked to old, medieval saints’ lives. Hagiography remains with us. I don’t take them very seriously as art forms, but I think culturally they are significant: it is interesting to see who is being written about and how, in the popular domain.
TL: Does that kind of adulation or blame seem analogous to fictional characterisation? Or in a more serious biography, the impulse to make a subject’s private actions publicly significant? You interviewed Nadine Gordimer for the magazine Wasafiri in 2003, and asked her about her characters—there is a sense in which her characters need to play out their private lives on a public stage because they do so, as part of the narrative, within a very public political context. The characters’ lives as she describes them necessarily, inevitably, have a political meaning. Might that be said about biographical characters?
HL: Depends on who they are. Everyone you write about, in any context, whatever they do, is going to have some public effect or some political belief or some function in their society, and you must try to work out what that is. You might also be writing about somebody who was very private—as Penelope Fitzgerald was, for instance—where that’s probably just going to be implied rather than laboured because she didn’t have a particularly public life. Although she did get involved with the Royal Society of Literature and PEN, and prize-judging in the last twenty years of her life. How influential she was there I’m not sure. I haven’t got to that bit of her life yet. But that needs to be shown: she was not only a private citizen.
TL: And the public influence of her life may be felt more keenly twenty years hence?
HL: I doubt that. I think she could be in danger of disappearing. One of the motives for biography is to protect disappearing species. Not only write about big names that will live on, but to try and save something of a disappearing species. It’s quite often the impasse of biography—when you say you’re working on Virginia Woolf you get one kind of reaction; if you say, ‘Penelope Fitzgerald’ you often get, ‘I’m terribly sorry, but I don’t know who she is!’
TL: At one point in time you would have gotten a similar reaction to Woolf, though?
HL: That’s very interesting. There was a moment perhaps in the fifties when her star had waned. And Wharton too, just after her death, in the late thirties–early forties—everybody turned against her. They saw her as an awful out-of-date snob.
TL: Any danger of that with Fitzgerald?
HL: I don’t think she’s ever been in vogue. There was a brief moment when she hit the headlines, when The Blue Flower won the National Book Critics Circle Award. She became very famous in America—overnight, really. And then of course there wasn’t another novel, so that moment turned. But she has a cult following. It’s very interesting to be writing about a somewhat occluded cult figure who attracts great veneration from those who admire her but is not widely known. I hope my book will bring her work to more readers. That’s always my main ambition, really, in writing biography.
 Graham Farmelo, ‘‘The strangest man’: the challenge of writitng on Paul Dirac’. Life-Writing: a Series of Lectures on Biography. 25 January 2011; the series also included talks by Rosemary Hill on Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, a Gothic Revival architect and design theorist, Zachary Leader on Saul Bellow, and Jeremy Johns on George of Antioch.
 R.D. Laing (1927-1989): Scottish psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, argued against the biological basis of madness, particularly schizophrenia, which he proposed was the product of an existential crisis, or “ontological insecurity”.