Biography and the limits of non-fiction

I keep dipping into Ruth Scurr’s John Aubrey: My Own Life. It’s very compulsive reading, but I don’t have time at the moment to let it run away with me as I would wish. Nevertheless, I’ve read enough both of the ‘diary’ Scurr has produced and her Introduction to be able to say that they certainly challenge received ideas about biography. I shall try to get to grips with her innovativeness before long, but in the meantime any follower who has read Scurr’s book is very welcome to get the ball rolling by leaving a Comment to this post.

In my post of 6 March I touched on several issues that Ruth Scurr raised in an essay in The Guardian, but underlying them all was my wariness, unease, about bringing biography closer and closer to fiction, in fact novelising it. I fret equally, though, over the opposite question: whether a biography can be one hundred per cent non-fiction — whether it is possible to keep elements of fiction out!

Take my last two posts. They are predicated on the ‘fact’ that George Calderon was home on leave from the 9th Battalion Ox and Bucks at Fort Brockhurst from Good Friday to Easter Monday 1915. My reasons for believing this are:

1. Kittie in her memoirs says he regularly came home ‘for Friday-to-Monday leave’.

2. I would expect him to want to be home with her at Easter.

3. The very last of George and Kittie’s 247 books to be found (2013) is Thomas Sturge Moore’s Hark to These Three Talk about Style (London, Elkin Matthews, 1915), and in the front is the inscription: To Mr & Mrs Calderon a token of a neighbourly Easter from the author. 1915. For the Calderons’ close relations with their neighbours the Sturge Moore family at 40 Well Walk, see my post of 20 November 2014 and others. It seems unlikely that Sturge Moore could have written this inscription if both George and Kittie were not there to give the book to.

Yet it takes, perhaps, a conscious effort to remind oneself that it is still not a FACT that George was at home at Easter. For that one would need a dated letter or document to say so. Thus non-fiction has here effortlessly drifted into fiction…or fiction effortlessly crept into non-fiction. And it is all too easy for the biographer to let this happen.

Sturge Moore’s book, incidentally, is a veritable repository of Edwardian aesthetics. There is no evidence that George read it, but I would dearly have liked to know what he thought of it. There is evidence that he found the whole notion of ‘style’ dubious. He seems to have felt that the man was the style and the man had to have something to say. In January 1899, when Kittie and he were sharing their critical views in correspondence, he wrote:

I don’t know what beautiful writing means, except that it is a very offensive thing used by affected essay-writers.

Next entry: Two separate biographies


About Patrick Miles

I am a writer who specialises in Anton Chekhov and is writing a biography of George Calderon.
This entry was posted in George Calderon, Personal Commentary, Timeline and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s