Hermione Lee is a master of the biography, and in talking about three of her own subjects – Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton and Penelope Fitzgerald – she seeks to give an insight into how you can capture the character of the person in a biography, not just recount their history.
“If a story begins with finding it must end by searching,” quotes Hermione. “This is the theme for today.”
You spend a lot of time in archives in researching for a biography, and people must wonder, “What are these biographers after in the subject’s archive?” They become like Scrooge, hoarding their findings, details, evidence, and “essences, to get at that peculiar thing called character.”
It’s often presented as much like character in fiction as they can: there’s adventure and tragedy, at least, she says, that’s the parts the reviews always seem to pick up on. “But how can the biographer reach the character of the subject?”
“We start with the lowest form of biographical life: gossip. It’s a vital ingredient involving exaggeration, inaccuracy and spite.” But through this distorted lens you get one version of the character. Virginia Woolf was found to have written multiple letters on the same event, one polite, one note so. The difference, when read out, is quite hilarious, but even this gives an insight into her that mere history cannot.
From snippets it shows that she can be daunting to others and mischievous, amongst other things. “Gossip is going to get at the character. Do not bypass the low, disrespectable side.”
Edith Wharton was a great example of finding descriptions of her by witnesses – one in particular was about her two days after she died, comparing her animation and radiance when alive, and how she appeared in death.
Penelope Fitzgerald was stoic and reserved; you would search very hard for the person within the work. As a teacher, some of the most vivid descriptions of character came from her pupils, and the writing she would do when marking. While she had been a very secretive person, there were ways to glimpse at her life before writing at 60, and fame at 80.
“When you think your search is over there will be more to come,” explains Hermione. Once the biography is released, some hidden information or letter collection will be released. When it happened with Wharton and the book of new information arrived in the post, Hermione says she cried.
As to why biographers ignore the final wishes of some writers who don’t want to be written about themselves, Hermione concedes, “Writers don’t want to be revealed.” They want the writing to be the only concern, but it isn’t to a lot of people.
“What I try to do in my work is think not about how the way of life translates immediately. What I initially want to see is where the differences, the disguises, the masks are. Look at who sits down with all their contradictions at the breakfast table, then goes away and writes The Wasteland.”
“Writers deserve all the afterlives they can get if it brings them new readers.”