Biography 24.3 (2001) 653-656
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The eight essays in Biographical Passages illustrate the possibilities of biographical writing as well as articulate vastly differing views about its form and content. The essays move from Victorian sensibilities to post-colonial ones; the views of the writers in this volume conflict and converge in much the same way Victorian and Modern and Post-Modern biographies do. The biographer reading Biographical Passages will find the volume's essays model the innovative possibilities of biography. Though many of the essays' writers do not overtly articulate their own "rules" for biography, taken together they do demand much of other life-writers. The biographer must root out vast amounts of material, find the life in details, and objectively and interpretatively build a character who actually lived in a particular time, in specific places. Academic biographers must account for conflicting theoretical groundings as they move back and forth between their own consciousness and their subjects. The biography is then greeted with critique: too biased, too traditional, too salacious, too detailed, too general, too Western, too theoretical, not a proper biography. This concern with the "proper biography" is part of the Victorian hang-over remaining in present days. Yet each of Biographical Passages authors violates others' rules while creatively inserting their own.
The editors ground biographical criticism in essays about Victorian biography, then move increasingly into modern and post-colonial biography. Law and Hughes close the volume with their short biography of Mary Lago. Their essay returns to Victorian methods of telling, but Lago's life exemplifies the post-colonial biographer of the subaltern and the feminist, so the essay works quite well to close a book which purports to move through the theoretical sense of each century. Law and Hughes carefully define the terms of Lago's engagement with such biographical subjects as Rabindranath Tagore and Christiana Herringham. The care taken in doing so harkens back to the precision and supposed objectivity of Victorian biographers, but illustrates rather too much the "Victorian artist's family biography," Julie F. Codell's subject in the fifth essay. Although Law and Hughes dedicate the book to Lago, their essay, while convincing, is little more than a paean to Lago's life-work.
Codell's essay critiques the too familiar biographer who writes "widows" biography. She insists this familiar biographer acted out the Victorian necessity to synthesize "discrete social, domestic, and professional selves." The familiar biographer's subjects--for example, J. M. W. Turner, G. F. Watts, and Edward Burne-Jones--were artists, a suspect identity in Victorian England. The family biographer countered this Victorian suspicion of the artist, [End Page 653] a subject covered in Codell's section on the "literature of degeneracy," which sought to equate the artist's genius with madness. Codell critiques both the Victorian myth which rendered the artist "dangerous," as well as the biographer's response which set out to correct society's suspicions by using family text and/or photographs. Codell's move to photography as a biographical project moves her essay from the Victorian to the modern.
The most conservative and definitive essay on biography is P. N. Furbank's "The Craftlike Nature of Biography," which follows Law's and Hughes's introductory essay on Victorian biography today. Furbank insists on biographers' rigorous attention to the readers' expectations, ranging from appropriate dates to chronological progression to reliance on fact. He insists on absolute objectivity, something any modern or post-modern critic finds theoretically impossible in any genre. To forward his insistence on biography as a craft, Furbank denies the biographer artistic freedom, distrusts literary biographers as potentially envious of their subject, and warns against fancy language. His essay is more exploratory than dogmatic, however, and he concludes that biographers do establish a relationship with their subject, and therefore need "regular habits of soul-searching" in writing the story of the subject's life.