Granted, there are many ways to approach the writing of a biography. But I am always perplexed when a critic complains about the inclusion of details that I find interesting and relevant. In a new biography of a poet, the author describes the woman going to a cafe for coffee at 10 a.m. and tea at 3 p.m. The review I read complained that this material was extraneous. Yet details about the poet's daily habits are clues to a certain temperament and including them helps to paint the picture of her era and her milieu.
What I look for in biography is the story of a life. I want to be as close as possible to the subject (preferably inside her head, with references to journal entries and correspondence) as she deals with success and failure, love and loss, and all the daily stresses that people must cope with. I want to be alerted to her changes of outlook and mood, and her fluctuating relationships with the people in her orbit. I want to know what her days were like—and her nights, too, if she was that sort of person. I don't want to pick up a biography only to discover that it is really literary or art criticism, organized thematically, rather than a chronological narrative that aims to give us the whole person—the life as well as the work.
I recently read a biography that has been widely acclaimed as a riveting account of two artists. Their work is fascinating and in this book it has been amply illustrated and skilfully placed within the context of their epoch and their urban and rural settings. But, no doubt because vital records (letters, mostly) are missing, I looked in vain for a sense of their inner lives, a feature that is all-important to me in biography. I also wanted much, much more about their daily habits and the repercussions of their lives (the man had fled his marriage and much later returned to it; the woman later met and married someone else) on the people in their circle.
When I closed the book, I had learned a lot about the art they made and the homes they lived in. But I didn't know enough about what made these people tick.
(c) Cathy Curtis 2023