A biographer’s long breath

Back in September, on 27th to be precise, a former professor of American and English literature at Leeds University, Park Honan, died at the age of eighty-six. Since another former professor of English literature recently expressed to me the view that ‘biography isn’t serious writing’, I might be inclined to paraphrase Chebutykin in Three Sisters and comment: ‘one professor more, one less, does it matter?’…

In Honan’s case it does. He was one of the greatest literary biographers of our time. His 1974 biography of Robert Browning is arguably unsurpassed, and he recovered Matthew Arnold for us as a human and humane Victorian thinker. Honan’s excursions into the biographies of Jane Austen (1988) and Christopher Marlowe (2005) genuinely fleshed out lives that it had become usual to regard as obscure and unknowable. He even unearthed new aspects of Shakespeare’s biography, leading the doyen of British Shakespeare studies, Stanley Wells, to call the 1998 Shakespeare: A Life ‘the best available life of Shakespeare’. Honan’s posthumously to be completed biography of T.S. Eliot is likely similarly to shatter assumptions.

The obituaries offer glimpses into many fundamental questions about biography. For instance, although he was an ‘academic’, Honan wrote for the general reader; yet in Paul Vitello’s words (International New York Times, 21 October) his books were ‘praised by scholars for giving historical context to the lives of his subjects and for uncovering previously unknown information’. The perfect balance, then, and a pretty rare achievement. I shall probably return to a few of the ‘fundamental questions’ in this blog before I have finished, but let me touch on just two now.

In Vitello’s words, Honan believed that it is the biographer’s job to ‘inhabit his or her subject’s time, place and personal history’. Honan’s collection of essays Authors’ Lives: On Literary Biography and the Arts of Language should be an adequate answer to professorial disparagers of biography. There he makes it clear that biography is not just the construction of a narrative, it is understanding the life of a person from the past. This, Honan wrote, meant ‘changing oneself, one’s outlook, one’s orientation, until it is possible at least approximately to think and feel in the distant and lost world of the subject’.

I fervently believe this. Biography is an act of objective empathy: you study scrupulously the material/factual evidence you have about the ‘personal history’ and the ‘subject’s time and place’, but your actual job is to think and feel yourself into those worlds. ‘Inhabiting’, though, raises the usual problems of this kind of process. To put it bluntly, you have to inhabit, but you have to come out again in order to have a view of your own. You have to let go of your self to ‘become’ the self of the biography’s subject, but not quite: you have to recover your own identity in the process of writing the biography. These are rather philosophical matters, which I won’t delve into here. They relate directly, though, to another question that tributes to Honan have raised.

Each of his biographies took about a decade to research and write. This to me seems too long. Partly it is explained by the fact that he was holding down a university teaching job at the same time. Probably, though, he positively believed ten years was necessary as a guarantee of conscientiousness. I have to admit he was more realistic than me there, because thinking I could write George Calderon’s biography in two and a bit years was naive! But the reason I think ten years too long is that personally I couldn’t be engaged in that day-in-day-out empathetic process for that length of time. It is nervously exhausting and I want my own ‘self’ back. Park Honan had longer breath than me.

Next entry: 23-31 December 1914: Christmas at Foxwold

 

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About Patrick Miles

I am a writer who specialises in Anton Chekhov and is writing a biography of George Calderon.
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