On Biography: archive or interview?

One of the pleasures of being a biographer living with a biographer is that you spend a lot of time talking – often arguing – about the art of biography. Tonight it went like this:

Her: Looking back on the Ted Hughes experience, don’t you regret the extent to which you relied on interviews? All memories are fallible – and you kept finding that different people remember the same events in different ways.

Me: Granted, but it’s really important to get all the memories down before people die or lose their memories altogether.

Her: Stick to the archive, I say.

Me: I did spend five years in the archive, as you know. Besides, look at the history of biography: it all kicked off at the end of the eighteenth century when Boswell wrote the life of Johnson and Hayley the life of Cowper. One based on interviews and reminiscences, the other on manuscripts and letters. Which one do we still read today?

Her: Boswell, of course – but he was actually there in the room, recording Johnson’s words. That’s not like a biographer going to some elderly bit part player and asking them to remember what happened fifty years earlier. Listen, I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Why did I write my biography of the amazing story of Kick Kennedy and how she nearly became Duchess of Devonshire?

Me: You told me that it was because you found her a completely fascinating, charismatic woman.

Her: Exactly. And how do I know she was like that? Not just from what people said about her, but by getting under her skin – reading two thousand pages of her manuscript letters and diaries, leafing through her scrapbooks, reanimating her voice on the page.

Me: But surely there’s a place for interviews – I’ve always loved that book called His Very Self and Voice, which gathers together all the extant conversations of Lord Byron.

Her: You can’t seriously believe those conversations are verbatim. There’s bound to be loads of embellishment. Stick to Byron’s letters, Jonathan, when you write your book about the Romantics. Listen, a woman called Lynne McTaggart wrote a biography of Kick Kennedy over thirty years ago. It was based entirely on interviews because the archive had not been released at that time. I’m certainly glad she wrote it. It’s got some great material in it, but loads of errors as a result of people’s faulty memories. It certainly wouldn’t be worth doing another interview-based biography now, but the material in the archive is so rich that there’s a real opportunity to bring Kick’s voice back to life – that’s what biography is all about.

Me: I grant you that – and of course you’re right that the archive doesn’t lie. I know how satisfying you found it to discover that Regimental Diary which showed that everybody had got a key detail wrong.

Her: I win. I mean, it was those unknown diaries, not anything from an interview, that really excited you when you were writing Ted.

Me: I’ll win the next argument.

Oxford Literary Festival

My two events at the Oxford Literary Festival: details here. Delighted to see that Ian McKellen and I have sold out the Sheldonian. Entirely due to him, of course.

I’m also chairing Frieda Hughes on her new poems and paintings: details here.

Upcoming literary festivals where I am talking about Ted: Stratford-upon-Avon, Charleston.

Upcoming Shakespeare talks, for the 400th: Senate House London, Oxford, Hay, Althorp.

I’ll try and get a calendar onto the sidebar of the website.

Bye bye Ted

Having “put to bed” the paperback of my Ted Hughes biography, returned all the books to the shelves, and shredded hundreds of pages of manuscript photocopies, I reflect for a moment on the long journey of writing the book and dealing with its reception. A friend recently asked whether I have any regrets about all the emotional energy involved. Emphatically not, I replied. Not even over the accusations of prurience? About 40 pages of the book make reference to aspects of Hughes’s sexual life; about 600 to his writing life. But you wouldn’t guess that from the reactions of one or two critics of the older generation. So, any regrets about having incurred their wrath by including some explicit material on a handful of occasions? Well, imagine what people would have said if the sexual dimension had been airbrushed from the biography of the author of Gaudete (the long poem that could be summarised as “Yorkshire vicar’s spirit double in WI orgy”) and of such poems as the Ploughshares version of “Do not pick up the telephone” (“Panties are hotting up their circle for somebody to burn in / Nipples are evangelising bringing a sword or at least a razor / C**t is proclaiming heaven on earth”—not, it has to be said, TH’s most immortal lines). I just have a feeling that if the biography had been a bedroom-free zone, the word “whitewash” would have appeared somewhere.

No, my one regret is that not a single reviewer – though I’ve only seen a selection, so I may be traducing someone here – has drawn attention to the book’s excavation of the hitherto unknown long autobiographical poems/sequences “A” and “Trial” (the latter provides an extraordinary new window onto the last days of Sylvia Plath) or to the reading of the manuscript revisions in the great Gaudete epilogue poem “Waving goodbye from your banked hospital bed,” which was intended as the epicentre of the book’s argument. Mark Ford in the London Review of Books comes close to the latter, and he is to be thanked for that – though naturally I disagree with his opinion that the book pandered to a desire for the sensational. If only he knew some of the truly sensational things I have suppressed for reasons of tact and discretion …