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The Claim that a Biography Fails to Make Readers ‘Know’ Its Subject

Critics too often complain that a detailed, life-spanning biography with copious firsthand information (from diaries, letters, other published or unpublished writing) has nonetheless failed to make the subject known. I've come to believe that these naysayers lack an understanding of biography as a genre and fail to realize the impossibility of their expectations.


Consider your own friends and family. Can you truly say, even if you have known them for many decades, that you fully understand them? An aspect of being human is the essential "unknowableness" of any other person—or even of your own motivations and deepest feelings, desires, etc. The millions of fleeting impressions in a person's brain cannot be fathomed by anyone else. And yet we do claim to know people close to us, in the sense of anticipating what they will say or do and finding that what they have said or done to be in line with our knowledge of them.


A biographer who has access to hundreds, even thousands of pieces of firsthand documentation—like Jackie Wullschläger, author of Monet: The Restless Vision, who drew on more than 3,000 of the artist's letters—obviously still cannot access her subject's brain. But it is possible to demonstrate what the person believed, and loved and hated, and failed to understand, and worried about, and hoped to do, and regretted that they had done, and so forth. By illuminating these things, the biographer allows the reader to know the person, insofar as that can be done.


However, I do not believe that it is necessary, or even desirable, for a biographer to wrap up all these observations into a tidy conclusion or theory that purports to "explain" her subject. People are so complex that any effort to stuff them into a conceptual box is doomed to failure. I say, let the facts speak for themselves, and allow the reader to form her own notion of who the person was—a form of  "knowing" that actually will be somewhat different for every reader, because each of them will process the information in a way unique to her own power of understanding.


In the words of Clare Carlyle, author of the strikingly original new biography, The Marriage Question: The Double Life of George Eliot, "Writing a person's life means living with them intimately, struggling to understand them, wondering how far they can be trusted, dealing with the ways they resist, annoy, disappoint, challenge, and elude you."


© Cathy Curtis 2023


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