Everyone is fascinated with the lives of others, particularly when they are shooting to stardom, or descending rapidly from that space. Biographies are one of the most popular genres of books read these days as we sift through other’s lives, wistfully wondering what it would have been like to have lived such a life, or maybe glad we haven’t done so.
Recently, I have read four biographies. One of them, of a 1,000 pages, almost seemed as long as the life it described as I ploughed through it: Juliet Barker’s life of Charlotte Bronté. It took five years to write and, apart from raising my offspring, I have never devoted that much energy to a single project, and so was overwhelmed at her effort and wrote to tell her so. I later picked up another biography of Charlotte; this time by her friend Mrs. Gaskell. It was over 600 pages, but they were much smaller pages. It was amazingly readable, though I had been forewarned by Barker that it was totally inaccurate.
I was fascinated with the Brontés’ saga because they were such a dysfunctional family, yet they produced at least two great novels, *Jane Eyre* and *Wuthering Heights*. A severe father in a motherless household, a druggy, ne’er-do-well and alcoholic brother, a wretchedly uncomfortable home in a severe climate and three timid girls who each wrote at least one bestseller. The story of how they did it is what pulls people to reading biographies.
The next biography I tackled was the one about A.A. Milne, the author of all the Christopher Robin and Pooh Bear stories. It was by Ann Thwaite and, again, it was a hefty 550 large pages. People tuned in to Facebook and Twitter aren’t about to attack anything that long these days, but I am old-fashioned, love the smell of books and am game for anything when it comes to a literary challenge.
People accused Milne of staying childlike all his life and he wrote a famous response: "When I am told, as I so often am, that it is time that I ‘came to grips’ with real life - preferably in a brothel, or a public bar, where life is notoriously more real than elsewhere, minds more complex, more imaginative, more articulate, [one’s] soul nearer the stars - I realized sadly that, I should bring back nothing but the same self to which objection had already been taken." I love this quote. It resonates with me as I have always wondered what "growing up" really means when I view corrupt politicians and spin advertising protecting crummy products and... the list is endless.
The tale of Christopher Robin’s sad upbringing (that was actually the name of Milne and his wife’s sole child) drew me to read later the wonderful books Christopher Robin wrote about those years when he had been a fictional child, as well as a real one. One biography leads to another.
The last book I read in my recent trip into bio land, was *Dorothy Parker: what fresh hell is this?* by Marion Meade. Dorothy was the master of the fast quip and the short story; as Tom Masson said, “all of her things are asides.”
Again, it took a few days to read those 450 pages. I couldn’t put it down as it was about a group of people that had persuaded me many years ago that North America was the place to be for a budding writer, and the Algonquin Hotel in New York City was the exact spot for the greatest possibility of success.
It was at the Algonquin Hotel that Dorothy Parker, Alexander Woollcott, Harold Ross (editor of *The New Yorker*), Robert Benchley, Heywood Broun, Robert Sherwood, Frank Adams and George Kauffman ate lunch regularly at the round table, and oh, how I longed to join them!
It was only later that I discovered that Woolcott ate himself to death and most of the others were alcoholic. Their sex lives were similarly in disarray. Benchley was portrayed as a family man, whereas he womanized all over the place, and Dorothy went through men at a voracious and suicidal pace. She stated firmly, “People ought to be one of two things, young, or dead.” Little did she know she would drag on in a state of alcoholic stupor until she was 74.
Still, it was their writing that drew me to the Algonquin Round Table crew. Which brings up the basic question that all biographies pose, “Can one separate the man or woman from their achievements? Can we enjoy a great book, a fine poem, a work of art knowing that the creator was a total waste of time?
Mark Twain claimed that biographies only described “the clothes and buttons of the man,” but I think the best do better than that. They bring consistency; balance pluses and minuses in a person’s life; and present some kind of a unified tale. Some say biographies are written for revenge and, indeed, in some cases this may be so, as in the case of *Mommie Dearest* that Christina wrote about her mother, Joan Crawford.
If you are planning to write a biography, in order to avoid a libel suit, you must be ever alert, particularly if it involves members of your family, for they can be least forgiving.
A good overview of biographies is Biography: a brief history by Nigel Hamilton. This book will have you scrambling for pencil and paper to note down “must-read” biographies.
|Date||Time||Where||Contact Person||E-mail Address||Contact Phone|
|May 6||2pm||Nanaimo Harbour Front Library||Anthony Martinemail@example.com||250-753-1154|
|May 17||2pm||Parksville Public Library||Jamie Anderson|
|May 24||2pm||Courtenay Public Library||Natalie Cattofirstname.lastname@example.org|
|June 2||2pm||Victoria Public Library - Central Branch||Judy Mooreemail@example.com|
|September 23||afternoon||Vancouver Public Library||Karen Greenfirstname.lastname@example.org|
|September 24||7pm||Nanaimo Worstorm Poetry Coffee House|
|September 26||7:30pm||West Vancouver Memorial Library||Sheil McClellandemail@example.com|