Sunday, 15 November 2009

History, Mystery & Myth: a UEA Conference

A Bauhaus-inspired building of the University of East Anglia was the venue yesterday for a postgraduate conference for researchers in biography and related fields, enticingly entitled "History, Mystery and Myth". I arose before dawn and pointed the prow of my Renault Clio towards the rising sun: when in the spring we reluctantly parted company with our ancient RAV4, the Scarlet Whizzer, I thought a car named after the Muse of History and painted in sober academic black would be appropriate for someone considering enrolling on the Buckingham Biography course.

I arrived in Norwich in good time for the opening address by Kathryn Hughes, convenor of the University's Life Writing course. Her underlying theme is that in biographical writing the cradle-to-grave saga is in itself no longer enough, even if during the twentieth century these sagas increasingly included the crumpled sheet and the psychiatrist's couch. Readers of biography these days want more than just the facts, referring to W H Auden's sonnet "Who's Who".

A shilling life will give you all the facts:
How Father beat him, how he ran away,
What were the struggles of his youth, what acts
Made him the greatest figure of his day;
Of how he fought, fished, hunted, worked all night,
Though giddy, climbed new mountains; named a sea;
Some of the last researchers even write
Love made him weep his pints like you and me.
With all his honours on, he sighed for one
Who, say astonished critics, lived at home;
Did little jobs about the house with skill
And nothing else; could whistle; would sit still
Or potter round the garden; answered some
Of his long marvellous letters but kept none.

Nor are readers looking for an unproblematic mirror of themselves or a concordance of their own lives, whatever publishers may still be thinking. They seek something which transcends "truth", whatever that may be. This something is the "myth". She gives Ann Wroe's book Pilate: the Biography of an Invented Man as one that is nine tenths about the latter and only one tenth about the former (appropriately for the man, one might add, who famously asked "What is truth?"). Others which exemplify this trend (if trend it indeed is) are Lucasta Miller's The Brontë Myth and Sarah Churchwell's The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe

She modestly does not mention her latest biography, The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs Beeton. The review of this in the Spectator talks of how "the most successful cook-book of the age has long since taken on a symbolic, even mythical status." Long after her physical death while still in her twenties Mrs Beeton was revived by the successive publishers of the many books on household management that bore her name to become the mythic embodiment of the good housewife.

Therefore increasingly the subject of the last chapter of a biography is changing. In the late nineteenth century this chapter was devoted to the death bed: the assembled grieving relatives, the last words, the mournful burial. In the early twentieth century it is increasingly devoted to the posthumous reputation.

The ensuing conference consisted of four papers, written by life-writers from Belgian, German, Polish and Slovenian as well as British universities, being presented in each of four sessions and ended with a round table discussion with four biographers. Much of this was interesting: some was fascinating and illuminating, about which I will be talking briefly at our tutorial on Tuesday.

Proceedings ended getting on for eight o'clock, by which time the reception at the campus residence into which I was booked had closed. After restrained imprecations, "Descend, O Muse!" I invoked, and my Clio bore me back to Buckingham in time for a not too belated bed.

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