According to the Arvon book of Life Writing, the life writer, ie the biographer, is someone who is “betwixt and between,” “invisible but there.” This makes sense to me, although part of me resents it, too. Sometimes I feel like waving my flag and saying, Hello! I am here!! Listen to me!!!. But usually, I stay buried under authentic period details — the carriages, the fires in the fire places, the screenless windows, the chamber pots, the infrequent hair washing, the maids. The other day, though, I poked my head out to say that the best modern equivalent for staying at the same hotel with Lord Byron was like living near an ill behaved rock star. Probably this will get cut. But isn’t this what the fiction writer has to do as well? Reveal self through characters and places and words and paragraphs? Not autobiographical detail (unlike, say, a blog post).
One of my favorite biographers, Miranda Seymour, says that when she teaches introductory classes on biography, she hands out copies of a document (a diary, a letter) and does not tell her students anything about the identity of the diary/letter writer. Then she asks them to write a little sketch of the person based on the document. She says the sketches are as various as the people in the room. In other words, the life writer is the one creating the life, not the other way around, although, always we have to adhere to what actually happened; if the person went to Portugal, then the person went to Portugal. Generally, though, readers remember the subjects of our books, not us. Lest we be disappointed, says the Arvon book, we have to remember that this means we have succeeded. Our goal should be to put our subject on the stage, pull the strings from behind the curtain. I suppose this is right, although somehow it smacks of martyrdom, a sort of goody two shoes approach to writing — the other person is more important and so I will put them first kind of thing. And yet Hermione Lee’s Virginia Woolf is so different from Lyndall Gordon’s. And Miranda Seymour’s Mary Shelley so different from Emily Sunstein’s that I wonder what exactly it is that happens when we tell the story of someone else’s life, whether the stories are fictional or not. We’ve shaped, crafted, plotted, imagined. We (the biographers) arrange details; we pace the story, dreaming it up as we go along, using the dates, the weather, the people, the furniture, but still dreaming, which does suggest a weird creation process, that a biography is actually created by us, the biographers, the life writers. Not the life livers. A conundrum of a if-a-tree-falls-in-the forest variety. If a life is lived and is not written down, is it still a life? What is it exactly that biographers create?
Can you tell I am re-writing the Frankenstein chapter right now? Mary starts writing it when Shelley goes away on an adventure with Byron. She is only eighteen and has a five month old child. They are on Lake Geneva, where I am not going this summer.