Where new writing finds its voice

The Comfort of Strangers

Amy Licence

Amy Licence considers biography in the twenty-first century

There’s something paradoxically exciting and reassuring in reading about what Picasso had for breakfast or eavesdropping on Virginia Woolf’s conversations. Amid globalisation and the information explosion of modern times, it is the gossip and the intimate, if sometimes mundane, details about history’s greats that people seem to want to know about. Subsequently, for the twenty-first century biographer this stuff is like gold dust and just like that hallowed substance, it must be handled with extreme care. But recently the art of biography has become even more complicated: I was used to the privilege and excitement of direct communion with the subject when reading a biography, but now, increasingly, a third person is trying to muscle in – haven’t biographers heard that two’s company, three’s a crowd? 

In the pages of newly published biographies you can now read about biographers’ responsibilities, their struggles with previously quiet consciences and the problems that come with exercising an almost god-like power over the afterlives of their subjects. The recent flurry of books published specifically on the art of biography and autobiography is also telling: questions are being raised about how subjects are chosen; how their lives are reconstructed; and how “gaps” and “missing years” can be filled in using legitimate, interdisciplinary and even fictional ways, reshaping the genre for a new century. 

For example, traditionally, use of the authorial first person in biography was at best an indulgence, at worst an authorial faux pas. But recent debate has acknowledged the role of the biographer as more than a silent facilitator behind the scenes, following the examples of such diverse writers as Richard Sherlock and AS Byatt in exploring the overlap between the lives of the subject and the biographer, fiction and fact. 

As a writer with biographical ambitions myself, Michael Holroyd’s Works on Paper and Hermione Lee’s Virginia Woolf’s Nose set my literary and investigative muscles twitching. First I was thrust into the long-cold shoes of the subject, who, after all, has no control over being chosen or read about and in that sense is exploited; the victim of a biographer’s cause. A classic case is Sylvia Plath’s constant disinterment by some well-meaning biographers: after reading Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman in the light of Ted Hughes’s wish that we may all ‘own the facts of our lives’, I’ll never quite look at biography the same way again. Then the fallibility and humanity of the biographer began to eat away at me. I was struck by the tidal forces of trends, agendas and the continual inter-textual dialogue of the modern biography; and how the biographer perceived his or her relationship to their chosen subjects began to interest me just as much as the lives they sought to convey.

The interest in the behind-the-scenes processes of biographical writing has also been mirrored in changing trends in popular subjects: biographers have moved from the great man to the great man’s wife, most recently Vivienne Eliot, Nora Joyce and Vera Nabokov. This new interest in previously marginalised women follows the feminist agendas of recent writers like Carole Seymour-Jones, Claire Tomalin and Hilary Spurling in reappraising the female experience in a world
dominated by, and largely recorded by, men. Writing about Katherine Mansfield, Tomalin wondered whether being the same sex as her subject would give her ‘special sympathy for such a pioneer’ and allow her to ‘find some of her [Mansfield’s] actions and attitudes less baffling than even the most understanding of men’. Similarly, Belinda Jack, in considering her literary relationship with George Sand, acknowledged the presentation of her material was informed by her ‘instinct’ about who her subject really was. And Margaret Forster’s account of Elizabeth Barrett Browning was conceived partly because ‘modern Feminism has inspired new interest’.

Although “instinct” and “sympathy” may seem worrying terms in a biographer’s lexicon, these emotions/responses are impossible to eliminate and are a very important part of the process – but it’s only now that writers are openly discussing them in their published texts.

Certain figures from my own reading past had begun to irresistibly beckon me from the gloom surrounding my chair, like the ghosts of Christmas; marginalised figures who had briefly incited my interest began to call to me, to put flesh on their bones and disentangle themselves from the chains of their more famous companions. 

I read and read and read, gleaning every detail from overlapping works that I could, and slowly one woman in particular leapt from the page. There she stood, resplendent: Fernande Olivier, first love of Pablo Picasso, resident of Montmartre, muse, model and frustrated artist. Dazzled by her beauty, I fought to quell the completely unjustified sense that she now belonged exclusively to me just because she had sparked my imagination. Her appearance forced me to actively face the key paradox of biographical writing: the need to get obsessively close to your subject, and yet not so close that your obsession causes you to begin to assume knowledge of the complex individual about whom you have chosen to write.

Meandering around her in related texts, I became aware I needed to not only become a skilled researcher, dedicated writer and amateur sleuth, but that my new role must encompass the questions and approaches of a social and economic historian. Immediately, the century separating my birth from hers became an obstacle: I would also need to be constantly alert to my own inevitable twenty-first century preconceptions and conditioning. 

To the modern eye, the life of Fernande reads like a relentless test of endurance: pitiful and harsh in condition, often isolated and lonely in nature, her story can easily inspire sympathy in an era when women’s lives have been altered forever by advancing technology, contraception and drastically changing social attitudes. Her choices were limited by the struggle to balance domesticity with creativity and as a result, saw her early academic and artistic promise curtailed by the difficult daily business of survival: my feminist indignation was well and truly roused. Yet I began to understand that this had been the world as she’d known it and it is unlikely she would recognise an analysis of her condition which presented her as a victim or atypical in this respect. Arduous as her circumstances were, her story is radiant in places, awe-inspiring in determination and frequently illumined by her ability to exercise her will and fight for her own happiness. Her stamina is more remarkable than her suffering. And our judgements are as much a product of our modern environment as this woman’s life was of hers: no matter how we try to strip away contextual differences and achieve parity of understanding, I began to fear this would never be fully possible.

Then I came across the hurdle of “gaps”. Wearing my new shiny biographer’s hat, I realised how tempting it is to fill in “missing years” by drawing connections between common dates, to relate events in the wider world to specific moments in a subject’s life. It seemed fair to point out that Fernande’s years of maturation were concurrent with the suffrage movement but the significance of this needed careful consideration. Whilst she was never an ardent proto-feminist, or engaged directly with the more political activities of her contemporaries, her life does show constant conflict between more conservative, traditional values and new codes of conduct and experimentation. There are specific moments when changing social and moral expectations informed her decision-making and resulted in deliberate acts of defiance, which although frequently motivated by personal desire, expose the complex interrelation of individual and context. Choosing to escape from her abusive husband and reject the stigma of her own illegitimacy, for example, seem very modern acts of emancipation, elevating personal well-being above social condemnation. 

Nor should a biographer expect a constant relationship between the individual and what are currently perceived as significant historical acts of change: at certain times in her life, particularly in the early period of domestic bliss with Picasso, her role may have been more typical of women of her era. The interface of her private and social lives was just as complex and erratic as mine and could not be neatly categorised and arranged.   

Off on a jaunt to Paris, equipped with bag-carrying husband and Famous-Five style enthusiasm, I stumbled across a gem. Innocently awaiting me in the shop of the Picasso Museum in the Marais, was a volume of Fernande Olivier’s memoirs which the usually reliable Amazon had failed to turn up. Heart pounding in excitement and hand reaching for wallet, I was already beginning to question how I would use this crucial new material. And fearing it might make me obsolete.

All autobiographical accounts invite the biographer to question motives and degrees of objectivity: who is the best person to recount, for example, the experience of early years: the child itself, parents, siblings, the wider family, friends, witnesses? All these can provide significant emotional truths and, of course, in the subject-centred genre of biography, the individual’s perception of their experiences is unrivalled as a source. However, that individual’s perceptions of the past does not remain constant; we do not evaluate our childhoods in the same way we did at twenty, when we are fifty, or eighty. Mark Gertler and Virginia Woolf produced invaluable accounts of their early years towards the ends of their lives but for each, these were part of a phase of self-assessment that ended in suicide. Was the process of re-entering the past a natural stage in the recognition that the cycle of life was drawing to a close, or a dangerous journey which contributed to the conviction that life was no longer tolerable? A year before her death, Woolf identified in her diary a ‘platform of time’, the gulf between her perceptions of her father: ‘as a child condemning; as a woman of fifty-eight understanding.’ Conscious of the effect of the past upon the present, she wished to set her two selves side by side and compare perspectives, acknowledging ‘What I write today I should not write in a year’s time.’ Then there is the ever-changing perspective of the biographer. As Belinda Jack confessed after her research into the life of George Sand: ‘The woman I found out more about then is not the woman I know.’ 

And so the complexities continue with a multitude of different voices suggesting, telling and confusing what we think we know about our subject. What Fernande’s early diaries gave me, however, that no other source could, was access to her voice: the direct thrill of uncovering her patterns of speech, her syntax and her secrets. Quite simply, she spoke to me. Somehow, in spite of the distance and opacity of historical perspective, she had spoken to me and engaged me and for a significant period of time, I had chosen to bring her life into contact with mine. Wary, objective and balanced as I was trying to be, I realised this was not going to be achievable without a struggle with the fundamentals of 

biography: of one human being connecting with another. All human connections are untidy, so all I could do was plunge into her stories, try to maintain my integrity as a biographer and by making my methods transparent, attempt the most authentic reconstruction of her life possible.