When the time comes to write the life of a great man or woman, the families of the famous suddenly turn into prim, defensive and hysterical gatekeepers, anxious to hide the truth. Anyone writing a biography soon learns that the book's worst enemies are the heirs of the subject.
Typically, relatives consider themselves both priests at a temple and proprietors of a legacy. Those of us who might like to know something about Jane Austen, for instance, were robbed by her family. They went far beyond commonplace acts of vandalism (a bonfire of letters is the traditional favourite) by writing the early biographies themselves. No fewer than seven relatives published versions of Austen's life, including a brother, two nieces and a great-great-nephew.
By the time they finished, she was a plaster saint, scrubbed clean. They gave her every good quality except credibility. The tame, tranquil woman they described may be someone's idea of a nice aunt but she couldn't possibly have written those shrewd, cool, infinitely self-assured novels. As Austen's readers figured out long ago, most biographical writing about her consists of pious lies or insolent assumptions.
An enemy of illusion, a princess of irony, Austen went down in history wrapped in a fantasy fabricated by her nearest and dearest. And in modern times feminists and anti-imperialists casually distort her life for their own purposes.
To Hermione Lee, the treatment of Jane Austen illustrates much that's misguided and much that's amusing in biography. As a critic of her own profession, Lee rigorously analyzes the Austen biographers in Virginia Woolf's Nose: Essays on Biography (Princeton), an abridgement of a collection that Chatto & Windus published in England as Body Parts.
Austen biographers might call this unfair. All very well for Lee, who had reams of material to work with when she wrote her huge life of Virginia Woolf, the 1997 book that made her reputation. Woolf and her friends were as promiscuous in letter-writing and diary-keeping as they were in other spheres of life, whereas anyone who goes to work on Austen needs a lively imagination to fill the gaps between the innocuous letters her family left untouched.
Even so, Lee takes great pleasure in leading us through the many accounts of the day Jane Austen (according to legend) fainted. As Lee says, this was "one of the most dramatic moments in her life" -- or at least one of the few dramatic moments posterity has been allowed to know about. It is, Lee goes on, a place "where all Austen's biographers have to decide what to do with the handed-down family versions."
As the story goes, one day in 1800, the 25-year-old Jane and a friend returned to the Austen home in Hampshire from a visit to cousins in Kent. Jane's mother greeted them at the door with news: "Well, girls, it is all settled, we have decided to leave Steventon and go to Bath."
Whereupon Jane fainted away -- "fainted away" is the term used in all early accounts, as if she had gracefully absented herself rather than falling to the floor with a thump.
Why? Interpreting "the faint," as Lee says, provides a test case for biographers. Was she upset to learn she was moving from the beautiful countryside to a noisy town? (That would appeal to all those who permanently locate her in Masterpiece Theatre territory.) Or was it the sudden bubbling up of feelings that had long been stirring beneath her placid exterior? Perhaps she hated her father's habit of making arbitrary and impetuous decisions. Perhaps she hated her mother's way of bleating out bad news without subtlety or sympathy. Certainly no one wants to classify her as one of the notorious women of her time who got the vapours when thwarted and used ill health as a weapon. Perhaps she had been silently coming to see the unfairness of her position; though easily the cleverest individual for many miles around (as she must have known), she had no control over her life.
Lee enjoys quoting the wonderful array of evasions by which writers dealing with the dead and the great dance around the empty spaces in their research, one of which I seem to have used above. She mentions "there can be no doubt ... must have ... we shall never know ... seems likely ...." She omits my favourite, "We have no choice but to conclude," which serves as a mask for ignorance while presenting the biographer as a truth teller courageously facing up to a difficult fact.
She cites the legends that surround the body parts of the great -- Shelley's heart, reportedly snatched from the flames consuming his body; Napoleon's penis, allegedly owned by a collector somewhere; the bones beneath the headstone of W.B. Yeats in Ireland, which may or may not actually be those of Yeats; and Thomas Hardy's heart, said to have been eaten by his cat.
For Lee, these macabre rumours are like the scattered material ("relics, testimonies, versions, correspondences, the unverifiable") from which a biographer must try to assemble a more or less convincing human being.
The perfect case is the ugly battle over possession of Shelley's heart, which was finally reclaimed from his friend Edward John Trelawney by his widow, Mary. The heart makes a handy symbol for the contest over Shelley's papers and his posthumous reputation. His relatives were anxious that the Shelley known to posterity should be quite unlike the rebellious and irreligious Shelley who had so annoyed them during his life.
While she enjoyed the way Michael Cunningham wrapped his novel The Hours around Virginia Woolf's death, and admired some of the performances in the film version, Lee resented the way the filmmakers narrowed Woolf's character. She was not much pleased by the prosthetic proboscis that the makers of The Hours pasted on Nicole Kidman's face in the deluded belief that it would make her look like Virginia Woolf. But she was more distressed by the air of neurotic gloom that surrounded Kidman at every moment. To help us accept Woolf's suicide, the director Stephen Daldry did everything short of lettering "severe depressive" on Kidman's forehead. "But, but ...." Lee argues, Woolf was a woman of many moods; this portrayal was simple-minded and vulgar. Lee doesn't mention it, but I've always suspected that the bleak and relentless Philip Glass score was actually a major reason for the suicide.