- Literary Biography: An Introduction
Michael Benton takes as his starting point what he describes as biography's continuing status as a "Cinderella" subject within the British academy. He repeats the familiar argument—while acknowledging its slightly stale status—that the genre's failure to establish any theoretical foundation or agreed poetics has meant that it has tended to be ignored, even disparaged, by literary [End Page 552] theorists suspicious of its resistance to post-structuralist modes of enquiry. Benton's intention in this excellent book is not to fill that gap by attempting to formulate a set of philosophic first principles or even to propose a kind of "best practice" for practicing biographers. Instead, his aim is to describe how biography has managed to develop and flourish despite (or perhaps because of) its abject status. Confining himself to the lives of writers of British or Irish origin, Benton chooses to explore the ways in which biographers working both inside and outside the academy—but mostly the latter—have chosen to consign another person's life to paper.
Following an opening chronological survey of the genre's origins, Benton adopts a thematic approach. One chapter, for instance, looks closely at biographical narrative structure by exploring "Beginnings," "Middles," and "Endings" in the written lives of Charlotte Brontë, Thomas Hardy, and Jane Austen respectively. Another comprises an interview with Dominic Hibberd, author of Wilfred Owen: A New Biography, and concentrates on matters of craft—the sourcing and deployment of material—as well as the rewarding yet sometimes tangled relationship between the biographer and his subject. In another chapter, Benton actually models a particular way of doing biography by using a series of iconic portraits to tease out aspects of subjects including the Brontës or Dr. Johnson. This book, then, is organized on what its author calls "federal" lines. Each chapter has its own particular approach and rules of critical engagement, quite distinct from its neighbors. Inevitably the result is a certain lack of coherence, but this is more than compensated for by the way that Benton is able to cover greater ground than a more consistent approach might have allowed. Indeed, since one of Benton's overriding concerns is the hybrid status of biography, incorporating as it does elements of both history and fiction writing, it seems entirely fitting that his commentary on the genre should display an answering flexibility. Thus he moves from literary history to literary criticism by way of direct practice to produce an invaluable introduction to the subject for both seasoned scholars as well as those encountering biography as an object of academic study for the first time.
The opening chapter of the book is perhaps the most orthodox. In "Literary Biography Now and Then," Benton follows a well-trodden path in sketching out key developmental moments. Starting with John Aubrey's scabrous and entertaining Brief Lives, he moves to Samuel Johnson's Life of Savage before arriving at Boswell's epic The Life of Dr Johnson. From here we move briskly through Mrs. Gaskell's book on Charlotte Brontë to Strachey's debunking Eminent Victorians and Virginia Woolf's two seminal essays on Biography in addition to her book-length jeux d'esprits, Orlando and Flush. The fact that the staging posts in this survey are so familiar is strong evidence [End Page 553] of the relative immaturity of critical writing (and thinking) about Biography. We have yet to reach the moment that literary studies encountered in the 1970s, when suggestions of "alternative canons," comprising novels by women, gays, lesbians, and people of color, came thick and fast. As for more recent biographical writing, Benton covers this in thematic chapters such as "Authorised Lives," in which Ackroyd's T. S. Eliot, Holroyd's Shaw, and Sherry's Greene all come under detailed consideration. If there is a lacuna in Benton's historical outline, it is the 1930s, a decade which Hesketh Pearson dubbed "the day of the biographer." The slightly disconcerting result is that Harold Nicolson gets no mention at all, and Pearson himself...