Writing Biography

“It was in the Romantic period that two roads diverged in the wood of literary Life-writing” (Bate). Jonathan Bate’s recent review of several new biographies of the Romantic poet John Keats in the Times Literary Supplement (TLS) raises a fascinating point of discussion.

ImageBate explains two models of biographical writing that emerged during the Romantic period: “Boswell’s Life of Johnson (1791) had no truck with the idea that biography has a duty to be comprehensive . . . Boswell took the view that the biographer’s duty was not so much to deliver all the facts as to bring the character of the subject alive by narrating a series of vivid scenes . . . This, of course, worked wonderfully because Johnson was at his most brilliant in the art of table talk. The silent work of thinking, reading, writing and revising that fills the days of most writing lives is far less amenable to Boswellian treatment. William Hayley’s Life of Cowper (1803) accordingly offered an alternative model, proposing that letters are the richest resource for the literary Life-writer. And in the case of a quiet, introspective poet such as Cowper, he was right.”

For writers and readers alike—whether of history or biography—the question demands answers. I’m currently writing an intellectual biography of Sara Coleridge (1802–52). History, ideas, and chronology shape the story, but many of the greatest moments belong to the splashes of life from her letters, diaries, and the personal reminiscences of her friends.

Bate’s TLS article poses the problem this way: “Thus the two roads diverged. If you believe that a writer’s inner life is best revealed through small details closely observed by friends (why did Dr Johnson keep his orange peelings?), then you should follow the Boswellian path. If you prefer a comprehensive, panoramic and more objectively arranged scene, then you will follow Hayley and begin with the chronological arrangement of your subject’s personal correspondence.”

The answer, of course, depends on the individual subject—this is no moral quandary. But I suspect that it also depends upon the reader and the aims of reading in the first place.

Imagine for a moment the one person you would love to meet from history. Perhaps it’s Julian of Norwich or Philip II of Macedon or Mahatmas Gandhi. Now imagine you had six months—or sixty years!—to spend with that individual and hear the intimate moments of family, taste the surrounding culture, and peek at the private writings that others only partially glimpsed or barely knew existed. How would you go about writing that life? Put differently, as a reader dependent on the perspective of an author, what kind of writer would you prefer to tell that “sacred history”? Would you side with Boswell or Hayley?—and why?