Literary biography has expanded to take up the space vacated by fiction. But Kathryn Hughes, currently working on a life of George Eliot, fears that the genre's ability to unite academic specialists and educated generalists is threatenedby Kathryn Hughes / March 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
The boom in biography, especially literary biography, shows no sign of abating. There are currently five Jane Austens in the pipeline. Another life of Byron will appear next month, despite the 200 already in existence. I am myself working on a biography of George Eliot, even though a perfectly fine one came out three months ago. In most cases there is nothing new to discover in the way that biographers-as archaeologists of their subject’s secrets-are supposed to. Most major literary figures have been scrutinised so many times that any coded diary or muffled asylum inmate has long since been worked into the plot.
There is, of course, that old saw about every age needing a new version of its ancestors. Instinctively Whig, we yearn to see our own significance prefigured in the past. On occasions this goes beyond simple narcissism to a genuine desire to find reflections on present dilemmas. For example, Eliot’s preoccupations are uncannily our own. Her re-imagining of community in the town, her wariness of a feminism grounded in economic and political individualism, her emphasis on duties over rights have never seemed so pressing. We need a new Eliot to inspire our own reformulations of the balance between public and private dues.
But present relevance is not why publishers commissioned 3,292 biographies last year, nor why those who write them earn advances well in excess of those which go to novelists of comparable standing. Biography flourishes because it assumes, and amplifies, the idea of the coherent, effective personality. It organises itself around the biological plot of birth, sexual love, procreation (possibly) and death. It sees significance in the way its subjects act upon the world and finds a clear relationship between the life they experienced and the art they produced. It is about people a bit like us, or the people we might be if we were clever, lucky and brave.
When one feels that one does not matter very much at all, it is comforting to read about people who did; or at least about people whose biographers think they did. Throughout her life George Eliot was beset by the terror that her life was futile, and that she herself would be scattered pointlessly to the wind. It is her biographer’s job-my job-to pick up the pieces and arrange them into an order which they did not have. In the process, Eliot’s emotional chaos is…