Hermione Lee approaches the study of biography as a practitioner as well as a critic. Her 2009 book, Biography: A Very Short Introduction, reflects a thorough and personal knowledge of the craft of life-writing. She especially empathizes with writers facing the impossible task of constructing “the complete, true story of a human being” using the tools of a “mixed, unstable genre, whose rules keep coming undone.” Her hesitant embrace of the genre playfully manifests itself throughout the book, as well as in her own works, especially her wonderful 1997 biography of Virginia Woolf.
Lee digs into the actual words of biographers and brings to surface the pivotal moments and techniques that allow the transcendence of books such as Plutarch’s Parallel Lives and Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson. In a chapter called “National Biography,” she traces the struggles of Thomas Carlyle and other writers to determine what (and who) they should include in biographical studies. Changing habits, tastes, and trends shaped the biographical works produced throughout the years, or at least helped determine which works received a wide readership. Lee’s winds her way through the practice of biography by means of questions that strike the conscience of many life-writers: what is the purpose of biography? What tone should biography take? What elements of a life should one include, and what should one discard? What is the proper relationship between a biographer and her subject? Which metaphor best describes biography—the gruesome scientific cuts of autopsy or the feelingly sketched drama of portraiture?
Throughout, Lee stands at a remove from much of biography. She disapproves of biographical accounts constructed with a sensationalist tone. She argues against life-writing that produces smear campaigns rather than an empathetic investigation. She rightly censures authors that crudely denigrate the lives and choices of their subjects. And she often sympathizes with individuals who grow queasy at the idea of another human being investigating and summarizing their life for profit.
She addresses a particularly pertinent problem for the modern world of biography—to what degree should a writer embrace the use of modern psychological theory to understand a person’s life and interpret their behavior? The greatest biographies seek to understand the very minds of their subjects, so that the individual under review seems to breathe life into every page; the muscular theories of psychology (ancient or modern) seem like useful tools for digging into the earth and excavating the mind of an individual. But Lee seems to side with Richard Ellmann on the use of psychological theory—it too often manipulates the biographer, rather than the biographer manipulating a generalized psychological theory. She argues that “some of the most masterful literary lives of the mid-20th century—Leon Edel’s Life of Henry James (1953-77), or George Painter’s Marcel Proust (1959)—now seem skewed by their psychoanalytical bias… however rich and deep Edel’s account of James’s social, personal, and literary context, such moments in his biography seem over-schematic and infantilizing.” In Lee’s reading, psychoanalytic biographies fail to endure except as “historical moments in the interpretations of those great writers’ lives,” a fate she ascribes to all biographical approaches. To give a work greater longevity and spirit, she seems to suggest building a new theory of psychology, one custom built for that particular individual human being. Yet it seems impossible to believe that one can approach the life of another without assumptions regarding human nature, and that these assumptions direct one where to look when describing the life of the individual. At the same time, one can readily appreciate her point that biographers use psychology or psycho-analytics too readily, and without enough questions (one might say the same of religious or Platonic or philosophic interpretations of individual life).
Her selection of quotations enliven the book and often present an ironic edge to the proceedings—she begins with a ‘theme’ for each chapter, and then uses pertinent quotes and examples to steadily undermine the theme’s power to convey the attributes of a successful life-study.
A particularly fun thought comes from a Robert Graves poem, “To Bring the Dead to Life.”
To bring the dead to life
Is no great magic.
Few are wholly dead:
Blow on a dead man's embers
And a live flame will start.
Let his forgotten griefs be now,
And now his withered hopes;
Subdue your pen to his handwriting
Until it prove as natural
To sign his name as yours.
Limp as he limped,
Swear by the oaths he swore;
If he wore black, affect the same;
If he had gouty fingers,
Be yours gouty too.
Assemble tokens intimate of him --
A ring, a hood, a desk:
Around these elements then build
A home familiar to
The greedy revenant.
So grant him life, but reckon
That the grave which housed him
May not be empty now:
You in his spotted garments
Shall yourself lie wrapped.
Today we remember Graves more for his memoirs, poetry, and historical fiction rather than his early biographies of T.E. Lawrence, but all of those genres can burn close to biography, and may require similar skills. He and Lee both see the odd spiritual pairing found between the biographical writer and his or her subject matter. Biography lacks the medical precision and efficiency of the autopsy, or the immediacy and efficiency of portraiture. But it requires a unique art, a dance with the dead, wherein the dead gain strength from the writer and begin to move again; the writer, however, comes closer to joining the dead with each line.
Refreshingly, Lee provides neither a ‘how to’ list for life-writers, nor a ‘definitive’ guide to recommended biographies. She instead introduces the key ethical and academic questions pertaining to biography. The answers to those questions arise as suggestions rather than prescriptions, and come from not only her own viewpoint but from the many sources she uses to guide the book’s conversation.