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Writing Biography & Autobiography


This is the first excerpt from Writing Biography & Autobiography by Brian D Osborne

We shall be running three excerpts from this title from the A & C BlackClick for A & C Black Publishers Publishers References listing Writing Handbooks series, by kind permission of the publisher.


Managing the matters of truth and objectivity

Just as you need to remember that letters, reports, census forms, legal documents and so forth were not created simply for our convenience, so you also need to remember that what is written in them may not be true.

Historians and biographers place great emphasis on distinguishing between ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ sources. In essence, a primary source is a document written at the time to which it refers – a census return, a diary, a letter, a tax-form; while a secondary source is an interpretation of history – a newspaper, a history book, another biography. A secondary source may be contemporary with the event it describes or it may be much later, and there are clearly gradations of value in secondary sources. For example, one would normally place more reliance on information in a scholarly textbook than on a weekly magazine article, or take a report in a broadsheet newspaper more seriously than one in a popular tabloid.

This is a valuable distinction, and where possible and practical one should certainly always try to go back to primary sources. But primary sources are not infallible. They may have been written with partial knowledge. They may have been written to put the best possible interpretation on the author’s actions. They may indeed have been written deliberately with the intent of deceiving. An entry I found in the 1841 British Census had a woman’s age given as 58. From other sources I knew that she was in fact 71 at that time. By the 1851 census the same lady was giving her age as 72, when of course she had reached the age of 81. She died in 1856 at the age of 85, so we do not know what story she would have told the 1861 Census! The biographer needs to develop a profound scepticism, to take nothing on trust. Always ask yourself why a document was written, why it says what it says, whether its statements are internally consistent and whether they can be backed up by other sources. In the Census example I mentioned there is in fact another problem: the rules for the 1841 Census dictated that for those aged more than 15, the return should round down to the nearest five years. The enumerator who recorded the lady's age as 58 was actually making an error, so we have a doubly erroneous primary source – one of the errors appearing to be a woman being coy about her age, and the other an enumerator failing to follow instructions.

Not all unreliable primary sources are deliberately false, of course. Sometimes genuine ignorance on the part of the writer or compiler means that they give wrong information. A particular difficulty in dealing with any time before the 20th century is making allowance for the slowness of communications. You need to have a rough idea of how long it took letters to travel from one place to another.

The novelist L P Hartley wrote in The Go-Between: ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’ This is a great and important truth, awareness of which should always be with us when writing biographies; and making proper allowance for that truth is one of the core skills that the biographer has to learn. It is not just a question of grappling with the technicalities, such as how long it took a letter to go from London to York in 1700, or what ‘nice’ meant in 1650, or what the SPCK was. Through time, life’s moral and ethical dimensions change, and the biographer – while not being required to abandon 21st century morality, ethics or religion – has to appreciate that in the past, perfectly decent people could support views or advocate policies which to most people today seem outrageous or evil.

Slavery, for example, was for centuries a perfectly normal part of life and commerce. People who considered themselves, and were considered by their contemporaries, to be good, decent and virtuous profited from it. As we are well aware, large parts of British industry and commerce, to say nothing of the British Empire, were built on it. Looking back, few of us today would dispute that slavery was wrong, and indeed there were always people morally opposed to it; but because an 18th century person profited from the slave trade is in itself no reason for the 21st century biographer to attribute immorality or hypocrisy to their subject…

Now objectivity may be an unreachable goal. It is extremely hard to ‘get outside’ your own preconceptions and prejudices and be truly objective, but it is essential for the biographer to be aware of those prejudices and perhaps seek to compensate for them.

No biography is, or can be, the full, unvarnished story of a life. This would take a library full of books to record, would take longer to read than to live and would be monumentally boring: ‘Robert went to bed and enjoyed six-and-a-half hours’ unbroken sleep.’ Our job as biographers or autobiographers is to select, to condense, to simplify, to draw inferences and conclusions – and, I would suggest, to present the evidence to our readers in as open and fair a way as possible. Of course this is not easy. As soon as we start to select we introduce our own minds, personalities and prejudices into the equation:

I think this fact is less important than that.

• I think this letter need not be quoted.

• I think an extract from this document will be sufficient.

• I think if I summarise this argument in this way, that will be adequate.

• I think that if I introduce this idea here it is better than introducing it there.

• I will describe this character in these terms rather than in some other way.

Being selective is inevitable and necessary – but we need to be aware that we are doing it, that there are other options, and that the way we have chosen owes everything to our characters, our background, experience, education and formation.

There is a couplet from Rudyard Kipling’s poem In the Neolithic Age:

There are nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays

And – every – single – one – of – them – is – right!

There are certainly just as many ways of constructing biographies. Whether they can all be right is certainly an interesting thought, but one which need not detain us now; what is important is that we remember that there are always other ways of presenting the information we have gathered. Our choices are not necessarily ‘right’, nor are they ruled by some objective truth like a law of physics.

The nature of your subject will of course have a huge impact on this question of objectivity. Can you be really objective if you are writing about Adolf Hitler? Can you be objective, from the other direction, if you are writing the life of a Saint or of a character whom you have always admired? Of course, most of our biographical subjects fall somewhere in the middle range of humanity – somewhere between the extremes of St Francis of Assisi and Hitler – but even so, they may present some problems. Do you allow yourself to be judgemental or do you present the evidence and let the reader decide? If the latter, be aware that your selection and presentation of the evidence is inevitably going to be coloured by your own views and background. If you try your best to be even-handed and fair, and conscientiously attempt to show your subject as a man or woman of their time burdened with all the intellectual and social baggage of their age, rather than as an unmitigated villain or a total saint, you will probably be accused of rehabilitating them on one hand or denigrating them on the other. Nobody said that writing biography was easy!

In Truth to Life: the Art of Biography in the Nineteenth Century, A O J Cockshut says that the biographer has to:

… submit his interpretations to the pressure of facts. The difficulty of biography as an art lies mainly in this tension between interpretation and evidence …

and he goes on to note that:

… a batch of letters and dates is not a biography. Books written by authors who were uncertain of what they really thought of their subjects, or afraid to say, are quickly forgotten.

Biographers are sometimes said to fall in love with their subjects. This may be a slightly exaggerated statement but there is quite clearly a temptation to become ‘uncritical’, because you have got to know and perhaps understand somebody, and maybe feel that you know them better than anyone else. This is probably as dangerous and certainly as unsatisfactory as the ‘knocking’ type of biography.

The type of biography or autobiography that you are writing has a major effect on all these questions of balance and objectivity, of truth and interpretation. A brief article for a popular magazine must inevitably shortcut some of the issues, because of its readership and the constraints of space. Rather than laying out a chain of evidence and discussing the interpretation of the evidence, as one would reasonably be required to do in a full-length book or in an essay for a learned journal, authors are probably expected (and can probably afford) to be much more direct and judgemental – while, of course, remaining true to the essential facts and to their view of the character. A biography written for children might properly simplify, but hopefully not distort, the issues. The degree of simplification that was felt necessary would of course depend on the age group for which the biography was intended.

So, having looked at some of the basic issues in writing biography – and we will return to a number of them later in this book – what form will your biography or autobiography take?

The next excerpt from Writing Biography and Autobiography will be published in the May Magazine.  It is published by A & C Black at £12.99

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© 2004 Brian D Osborne