Why do women biographers get confused with their subjects? Men don'tby Kathryn Hughes / October 22, 2005 / Leave a comment
Virginia Woolf argued for an androgynous art that would transcend gender and set the novel free to soar in a realm where the maleness or femaleness of its creator no longer much mattered. TS Eliot wanted an impersonal poetry in which his work would be read without any reference to the known or imagined details of his life. Above all what neither writer wanted was for their books to be situated in a network of gossipy and limiting confusion about where they ended and their artistic productions began.
No one, though, has ever suggested the same thing for biographers. Indeed, exactly the opposite has tended to be the case, with a disproportionate amount of the reader’s attention directed towards the relationship between the writer and his or her subject. It is this rather than the work itself—five years of research agonisingly beaten and polished into what is supposed to be a work of art—that becomes the subject under scrutiny and review.
I only realised how true this was when I started giving talks and presentations about my new biography, a life of the Victorian cookery writer Mrs Beeton. One conference organiser asked if I’d be bringing along food for the participants. Another suggested that I might do a cookery demonstration in real time, a proposal which so appalled my mother that she offered to come along and perform the whisking and baking for me while I stood to one side providing a PowerPoint presentation.
Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management isn’t simply a collection of 2,000 recipes, it is also a guide to running your household elegantly and economically. Neither of these adjectives are ones that even (or particularly) my closest friends would ascribe to me, but that hasn’t bothered the audiences with whom I have so far come into contact. Without pausing to consider whether I am any kind of authority on domesticity, they have bombarded me with questions about how to get rid of moths (surely there’s something in a sachet you can buy in Woolworth’s?) and how to stop children eating junk food (don’t know, haven’t got any).
I haven’t, though, suffered as much as some of my female biographer friends. One woman, a university teacher for 15 years, was surprised to find herself asked questions by a national newspaper on the subject of her “career” as a call girl. She had written an accomplished study…