Tag Archives: Practice of Biography

On Discovery

by Nigel Hamilton

téléchargementThe email, when it came, caused my biographer’s heart to miss a beat. A diary which the archive had thought lost – or not to have existed, despite mentions of it in a number of places – had been found! It was lodged together with other, more formal papers, in another file, and thus had not been catalogued as such.

It was just what I wanted. Instead of having to imagine what was in it, or assume it never existed, I would have it at hand: all 35 pages!

As an historical biographer – indeed any kind of biographer – there is perhaps no more exciting moment than this: discovery!

Relatively little work has been done on discovery in biography. In fact there is probably more discussion in academia of Professor A.S. Byatt’s novel Possession and its theme of biographical discovery than of any actual, real biography – or of discovery in general in biography. Which is a shame, for discovery is what motivates the biographer certainly as much as does the desire to construct a true portrait of an individual. The two really go together today, in fact they are almost inseparable.

Literary critics and scholars, of course, were delighted by Professor Byatt’s novel, since it threw up so many interesting tropes and insights into fiction – moreover into fiction as imaginary sleuthing. But I would wager there is probably no single major biography published today that has not involved real-life sleuthing just as intriguing and potentially story-altering as the plot of Possession – sleuthing that goes largely unrecorded, either by the biographers themselves, or by scholars of biography.

As theorists of biography and investigators of the practice of biography we would do well, I think, to do more of what Richard Holmes did so well in Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer – only from the POV of our profession, as distinct from (or similar to) other professions.

Discovery is, after all, a remarkably potent lure in biography. Historians may also research unpublished documents, but they will at best add their tapestry of the past and its patterns. The biographer, however, is hoping to discover something deeper: something a novelist can only invent or plagiarize. The biographer is on a particular human being’s trail. He or she is constantly constructing and refining an identikit portrait of a subject: a jigsaw puzzle in which many pieces are missing, or are damaged, and therefore unreliable. Or, to use yet another simile, the process of biography is akin to the penciled answers we draft when doing crossword puzzles. The answers may seem to fit at first – yet still turn out to be wrong.

(Not that there is ever a right or wrong in biography, other than deliberate fabrication or insincerity.)

Discovery is thus a sort of blind man’s white stick, testing the ground for obstacles – yet also allowing the wanderer to move forward and avoid the falls or pitfalls in trying to understanding a real life.

In this sense Discovery is to the biographer what laboratory testing is to the theoretical scientist: searching for evidence that may contradict or confirm the hypothesis which the serious biographer, consciously or unconsciously, forms during the long journey towards the construction – or reconstruction – of a human life.

How many times, one would like to know, have biographers had to alter their hypothesis thanks to Discovery?

We certainly have many interesting examples of the value of Discovery in the legal profession, where it plays a huge role today in the preparation of both civil and criminal cases. Discovery is the right of a client’s lawyer to see what information the opposing counsel has, relevant to the case in question. It was through Discovery, after all, that the right-wing writer, David Irving – who had sued the historian Deborah Lippstadt for libel in calling him a Holocaust-denier – was brought down in the High Court in London, in a case quickly dubbed “History on Trial.” Thanks to access to Irving’s correspondence with his publisher, the historian Sir Richard Evans was able to question Irving’s methodologies as a self-appointed “historian,” and show the court that Irving was not only a fabricator, but did not deserve the appellation “historian” at all.

For the biographer Discovery is just as important as it is to the jurist, despite the lack of attention that has been paid to it. For the biographer Discovery is a sort of compass-check when unsure – or too sure! Or in search, simply, of confirmation, or proof.

In a long life as a biographer I certainly treasure those moments of Discovery. Not just for myself, moreover, but bit by bit, discovery by discovery, as contributions to our craft. “I am glad you persevered,” the archivist wrote me her email, “and now we all know that this diary exists and where it reposes for the sake of other researchers.”

An accolade worth all the gold of El Dorado to the humble biographer.

(Well, not all the gold…)

Nigel Hamilton

Janet Malcolm as Censor

Also read Nigel Hamilton’s article “When writing biography, should any part of a life be off-limits?” and comments in The Conversation 

By Nigel Hamilton


Janet Malcolm at it again?NigelHamilton

Oh, dear! Not content with publicly defending Ted Hughes’s right to censor all writing about Sylvia Plath – who committed suicide when Hughes left her for his mistress Assia Wevill – Ms. Malcolm has once more gone into the breach of print, this time to defend Hughes’s second wife, Carol, who now controls the Plath literary estate. And in the venerable New York Review of Books, in its forthcoming February edition, no less!

It is not a pretty picture, at least for those of us who care about biography and literary studies.

Ms. Malcolm’s new article is titled “A Very Sadistic Man.”[1] It purports to be a book review – namely of Professor Jonathan Bate’s new life of Hughes, Ted Hughes: The Unauthorized Biography.[2] Carol Hughes withdrew copyright permission to quote more than minimal “fair use” of words written by Hughes and Plath during their lives, once she suspected it was going to reveal Hughes’s extraordinary sexual appetite and exploits.)

Ms. Malcolm feels for the Second Mrs. Hughes (the first was Sylvia Plath), just as she felt for Ted Hughes when, as an essayist-journalist, she was writing the series of New Yorker articles that became Ms. Malcolm’s book The Silent Woman: Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, in 1993.

That book was hailed by the critic James Wood (now also a New Yorker writer) as “one of the deepest, loveliest and most problematic of the things Janet Malcolm has ever written.” It was “so subtle, so patiently analytical and so true” in its dissection of the problem of writing about Sylvia Plath, “that it is difficult to envisage anyone writing again about Plath and Hughes. She is the cat who has licked the plate clean.”[3]

To biographers and those who actually knew Ted Hughes this was not only silly, but infuriating, for it was clear Ms. Malcolm had simply been suckered by Hughes – whom Ms. Malcolm had never actually been able to meet in person, or even correspond with. Instead, Hughes had fobbed her off with his sister, Olwyn Hughes: a sort of monster, successfully guarding the Plath-Hughes Literary Estate or castle for decades.

Ms. Malcolm’s problem, like all who had tried to write about Sylvia Plath, was this: that when Sylvia Plath successfully committed suicide on February 11, 1963, it was found she had left no will. Possession of her manuscripts and copyright in everything she had ever written had thus passed to her widower, Ted Hughes – who, separated from Sylvia, was sleeping not with his main mistress Assia Wevill that night, but with another girlfriend, Sue Alliston, when his wife gassed herself. In fact he had taken the telephone off the hook in the small apartment on Cleveland Street in London where he was living, and only found out about the suicide the next day.

Details of this calamity had largely been covered up – and Hughes had no intention of telling Ms. Malcolm the truth, any more than he had told earlier writers.

Balked by Hughes, Janet Malcolm lost interest in Hughes himself, so contented herself with the trying experiences of those attempting to write about Sylvia Plath. The stories they told Ms. Malcolm of the legal difficulties placed in their path by Olwyn Hughes made for harrowing – but fascinating – reading among those of us interested in the pursuit of biography. However, Ms. Malcolm was, in the end, unsympathetic to our collective curiosity. In the memorable first chapter of The Silent Woman she gave her view that biographers had become altogether too intrusive – as, to be sure, had readers of biography. “Voyeurism and busybodyism” was all it amounted to. “The transgressive nature of biography is rarely acknowledged,” she claimed, “but it is the only explanation of biography’s status as a popular genre.”[4]


Clearly Ms. Malcolm had never read Dr. Johnson’s writings on biography, or much serious modern biography. She certainly declined to quote any examples. Instead she contented herself with the notion of modern biography as a form of burglary, in which the biographer breaks into the private quarters of his or her victim to search for, and carry away, “the loot.” Ted Hughes was to be seen, she felt, as the poor victim, both of his wife’s death and the chorus of biographical thieves invading his privacy and feminists furious at his control of Sylvia Plath’s literary works. He should be left alone to grieve for Sylvia. Moreover, he was perfectly within his rights to do so: by using (or misusing) the law of copyright, and that of libel, to protect himself – and to have control of anything anyone wished to publish about Plath or himself.

Ms. Malcolm’s support of such censorship was rocked five years later, in 1998, when Hughes stunned the literary world by publishing Birthday Letters. This was a sort of biography or memoir in verse: recording his marriage to Sylvia, and written secretly over the many years since her suicide. It was clear he had employed Olwyn for so many years so that, thanks to her censorship, only he, Ted Hughes, would legally be allowed to paint Sylvia Plath’s portrait, or his relationship with her.

This had all worked to Hughes’s enormous financial advantage – indeed it had proved a brilliant stratagem. Janet Malcolm, like others, had been bamboozled into rising to defend him, outside his castle gates, without ever having to meet him or know the real story of his life – especially the somewhat murky story of his relationship with Assia Wevill.

Death comes to us all, however – and with Hughes’s death in 1998, shortly after publication of Birthday Letters, the plate that had been licked so clean by Ms. Malcolm was bound eventually to be sullied by revelations. In 2006 it was, in a new book about Ms. Wevill[5] – who had eventually committed suicide in the same manner as Sylvia, gassing herself in 1969. (Unfortunately Assia had not only killed herself, but had murdered her and Hughes’s daughter, Shura, when Hughes declined to marry her.)

Ms. Malcolm kept silent at that point. But now, ten years after the Assia Wevill revelations, Jonathan Bate’s new biography of Hughes has roused Ms. Malcolm to go back into print – this time to defend another of Hughes’s mistresses, Carol Orchard, a nurse who supplanted Assia Wevill after her death and became the second Mrs. Hughes.

Ms. Malcolm hates Bate’s book. It is intolerable, in her view, that the private life of Ted Hughes should be exposed to public view, even seventeen years after Hughes’s death from colon cancer. She castigates the “blabbings” of Hughes’ contemporaries that are quoted by Bate, indeed she laments that “the dead cannot sue,” since the post mortem revelations of biographers “can be excruciating for spouses and offspring” who have to “read what they know to be untrue.”

Here Ms. Malcolm goes too far. As in journalism and fiction, biography abounds in “kiss-and-tell” works, and one can have great sympathy for survivors. But most serious biographers like Professor Bate are seeking, as Dr. Johnson explained when extolling the challenge of modern biography, to understand a significant (even sometimes insignificant) individual – an individual, moreover, in all his or her guises, quirks and characteristics. “If a man is to write A Panegyrick he may keep vices out of sight, but if he professes to write A Life he must represent it really as it was,” Johnson told Boswell.

Bate – a Shakespeare scholar – has written a 662-page book; he is not out to inflict embarrassment. Au contraire, he is actually interested in the truth, if he is allowed to access it.

It quickly became clear to Professor Bate, however, that despite Carol Hughes’s initial enthusiasm for his project, he was not going to be allowed to write the truth – and that everything he showed her would be subject to her censorship, with the Damocletian sword of copyright permission being held over him. In the end he and his publisher’s lawyers decided they must publish the biography as unauthorized – sacrificing Carol’s permission to quote from Plath’s and Hughes’s writings, but preserving at least a serious biographer’s independent judgment.

Bate’s book is of door-stopping size and length, but the Second Mrs. Hughes read only sixteen pages before declaring, through her lawyer, it was enough. She objected to it as “offensive” – what the French would call insupportable – issuing a public statement through her lawyers.[6]

Given some of Bate’s revelations – particularly the ménage à trois Ted Hughes conducted until finally deciding to marry Carol Orchard – it is understandable Carol does not wish to read more. Nor need she, if she does not wish to. But Ms. Malcolm?

Sad to say, Janet Malcolm has declined to recognize she was bamboozled by Ted Hughes and his sister Olwyn, or that her Silent Woman was pretty much a free pass to Hughes – who had destroyed Plath’s last diary, “lost” her unpublished novel, and lived a private life of extraordinary sexual drama.

Ignoring this, Ms. Malcolm has chosen to reprise her 1993 stance, and has decided to support the widow in her hatred not only of biography, but all biography that tackles the private as well as the public life of an individual, Dr. Johnson be damned. “If anything is our own business it is our pathetic native self,” Ms. Malcolm intends to claim in the New York Review of Books. “Biographers in their pride think otherwise. Readers, in their curiosity, encourage them in their impertinence.”


Impertinence is a word seldom used in our confessional age. Ms. Malcolm (who has never written a book with footnotes, let alone an index) nevertheless cannot bear Professor Bate’s “squalid findings about Hughes’s sex life,”[7] which include accusations of rape, sexual sadism and a lifelong pursuit of adultery, whatever the costs. For her, Hughes’s life was “ruined not just once, but twice”[8] by his partners’ unfortunate suicides, for which he bore no responsibility, and he should be left to rest in peace.

Bate’s biography, in short, is a frightful example of what Ms. Malcolm still thinks of as biographical burglary. In her article she accuses Bate of “blowing up” Ted Hughes “into a kind of sex-maniac” – in fact she happily quotes (and mocks) in her piece some of the many women’s accounts of Hughes’s “vampirish, warlock” approach to adultery: accounts Ms. Malcolm finds a mark of Bate’s “cluelessness about what you can and cannot do if you want to be regarded as an honest and serious writer.”[9]

In another post I would like to comment on Bate’s actual biography. The book disappointed me above all because Professor Bate was not permitted to quote legally from the many thousands of Plath and Hughes documents he needed for a serious biography without permission from the second Mrs. Hughes – permission which Mrs. Hughes withdrew.

Moreover, having met Hughes myself, I felt Bate did not adequately – i.e. with sufficient biographical skill – address Hughes’s real problem, or tragedy: his raw sex appeal, which he seemed unable or unwilling to control, and which got him into so much trouble with women.

I remember asking an Irish poet, who knew Hughes well and had spent time with him in Italy, about Hughes’s misfortune to have two successive partners who committed suicide. “Well, Nigel, it’s loik this,” he replied. “Ted is loik a lighthouse – drawing the ladies onto the rocks. He means to warn them away, but they come nevertheless.”

When I later met Hughes in person, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London after a poetry reading with Seamus Heaney, I saw what he meant.

A woman friend introduced me, and Hughes, who’d had his back to me at the bar, turned to shake hands. He wore a dark corduroy jacket; he was much taller than me; his shoulders seemed amazingly wide. And that face! Long, chiseled out of stone, the nose resembling that of a raptor, the eyes staring from their deep shells. He exuded sexual energy. In a Heathcliff way he was the most aggressively masculine figure I had ever met in my life, leaving me temporarily speechless – and he remains that still, decades later.

For Ms. Malcolm the relatively few mentions of Hughes’s sexual fierceness in a 662-page biography are, however, too much – whereas for me, as a biographer, they are not enough to move me in explaining Ted’s tragedy: a second-rate poet, married for a time to a great poet; a man who became a great literary figure in Britain, rising from a working-class background to become the English poet laureate; the hunting and fishing friend of princes; and the owner of minor castles across the land. Yet leading, as he pursued this trajectory, a double-life he was never able to address in his work, as Sylvia had begun to address the demons, by contrast, in hers.

Fierce serial sexual conquest, I suspect, made up for the ultimate creative constipation which Hughes himself lamented – and I would like to have read in Bate’s biography more of that dilemma, given the vast, treasure-trove of Hughes’s papers in British and American archives, which can be seen but not quoted without Carol Hughes’ permission. And surviving lovers, who can still be interviewed.

As for Ms. Malcolm, I would love her to get off her high horse and read the recently-published letters of Iris Murdoch – who was a great novelist, and a considerable philosopher.

As the literary critic John Sutherland noted in the New York Times Book Review last week, the edited volume throws light on many corners of Murdoch’s career, but the “central focus is on Murdoch’s sexual career” – an aspect that allows her to come vividly to life, and was fully backed/authorized by her last husband, John Bayley, who died only two weeks ago.

Murdoch had “an unusually wide carnal experience,” from Nobel prizewinners to chauffeurs, Professor Sutherland writes. “Was it nymphomania?” he asks. “This volume’s selection of letters tacitly suggests that Murdoch’s sexual activity can be seen as part of her quest to live as a ‘whole person.’ The different aspects of her life did not always coincide. There was an ‘austere puritan’ Murdoch, who sternly set her face against promiscuity, and there was another Murdoch, her Mr. Hyde, who could proclaim ‘I am a sadomasochistic male homosexual.’ Which was the real Iris?” Sutherland asks.[10]

We might ask the same of Hughes. Ms. Malcolm doesn’t, sadly. And that is a shame – for biography, together with fiction, allows us to explore the multitudinous facets of human life, and try to make sense of them – as the Great Doctor so emphatically urged us. Not to judge, but to know.

Nigel Hamilton

(Also read Nigel Hamilton’s article “When writing biography, should any part of a life be off-limits?” and comments in The Conversation )

[1] Janet Malcolm, “’A Very Sadistic Man,’” New York Review of Books, February 11, 2016

[2] Jonathan Bate, Ted Hughes: The Unauthorized Life (Harper, 2105)

[3] James Wood, “Interview: A Woman of Letters,” Guardian Weekend, 15 October, 1994.

[4] Janet Malcolm, The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, (Knopf, 1993), 9.

[5] Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev, Lover of Unreason: The Life and Tragic Death of Assia Wevill (Pavilion Books, 2006)

[6] Kevin Rawlinson, “Ted Hughes’ widow criticizes ‘offensive’ biography,” Guardian, 14 October, 2015

[7] Malcolm, “’A Very Sadistic Man,’” loc. cit.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] John Sutherland, “Her Kind Regards: Iris Murdoch set aside most afternoons for her letters, sending thousands through the years to friends, lovers, fans,” New York Times Book Review, January 24, 2016.