by Nigel Hamilton
The 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 Historians may also research unpublished documents, but they will at best add their tapestry of the past and its patterns.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…)