Anne Chisholm: The human factor
Filed under: Biography
Anne Chisholm spent ten years working on her biography of Frances Partridge. She describes how her work coalesced with her own life
RSL Review 2009
In the writing of biography, the writer’s life is a vital ingredient. The whole process is human and interactive, most strikingly when the subject is still living or recently dead. On one level this is to state the obvious: research and writing take years and determine the shape and content of every day. But there is another, deeper level, where the subject’s experiences, thoughts and emotions seep into the biographer’s psyche, so that in the search for the patterns and meaning of someone else’s existence the chemistry of the writer’s own mental and emotional life can be subtly changed. And the longer the task, the more intense the connection.
Or so I have come to believe after spending almost a decade preparing a biography of Frances Partridge. The process started when the idea first arose, in 1999. At first, I was doubtful. Not long before I had published a biography of an elderly, living subject, Rumer Gordon, and the experience had left me wary. Not that I had lacked the co-operation and eventually the friendship of my subject, and most of her family; but I had been disconcerted by the balancing act required between the professional and the personal, the moral unease captured by Janet Malcolm’s studies of biographers, including herself, at work. I should, I decided, do well to avoid that territory in future.
I can now see much more clearly than at the time why I changed my mind. One reason was professional and easily explained. After rejecting several would-be biographers, Frances Partridge was now ready to accept one; she was offering all the help she could give, including regular interviews and complete access to her rich store of unpublished papers, diaries and correspondence. She was all against concealment and in favour of even uncomfortable truths. Her excellent memory stretched back over the twentieth century to before the First World War; her acquaintance ranged from Wittgenstein to Snowdon, let alone the entire Bloomsbury group; it would be idiotic to turn down the chance to work with her.
But there were other, private reasons which I barely acknowledged even to myself. I had been drawn to Frances less because of her connection as a young woman with Bloomsbury than by the diaries of her late middle age, which I had reviewed for the TLS in the early 1990s. As well as being a gifted diarist, clever, funny and exceptionally observant, she had shown herself to be unusually sensitive to painful human predicaments; her record of her husband’s decline and death and then, not long afterwards, of the sudden loss of their only son had moved many readers, including me. It was not just that she wrote about fear and sorrow without self-pity or sentimentality, but that she came across as a great survivor, determined not to be overwhelmed, able to celebrate the beauty and variety and humour of life even while it brought her terrible pain.
When I first realised this about Frances, I had no reason myself to need her as a guide to survival. But by the time I was considering writing her biography in 1999, my circumstances had changed. My husband’s health had begun to falter, and as I contemplated signing up for four or five years work on a new book I could not help knowing that during that time I would very likely have to watch him decline, perhaps die. Among my unspoken thoughts as I made up my mind were these: I should not have to travel much, if at all, to research Frances’s biography, so that I should not have to leave him for long, and that if indeed I did find myself in the same position with my husband as she had been with hers, I could not wish for a more bracing and encouraging presence in my life, in person and on the page. Thus my decision to write about Frances was conditioned from the first by my sense of her not just as someone who had led an unusually interesting life and known a great many interesting people, but as someone whose character and experiences had enabled her to find a way through anxiety and unhappiness. Perhaps, by working on her life, I would learn the secret; perhaps, by writing it, I would be able to pass it on.
As the work got under way, such thoughts receded. My regular sessions with Frances at her small, bright flat off Belgrave Square, with its Boris Atrep fireplace and paintings by Duncan Grant and Carrington, were always a pleasure, our conversation ranged widely, our friendship grew; one of Frances’s greatest qualities, and one of the main reasons why her company was prized into extreme old age, was her naturally curious and sympathetic attitude to other people. I often needed to remind myself that she had many friends, but only one biographer, and that I was there to explore and scrutinise, not just to enjoy her company and conversation.
Then, early in 2002, my life changed with a telephone call. My nephew Jesse, whom I had brought up as my son since his mother died when he was four, had been killed in a car crash. He was 32, and left a partner and a baby daughter. Suddenly I was where Frances had been when her only son, Burgo, had dropped dead one morning at 28, leaving a young wife and infant daughter. A mutual friend told Frances the news; she wrote to me at once: ‘I know what such horrors are like.’ I did not see her for some time; when I did, she was extraordinarily kind but also bracing, encouraging me back to work, which along with friendship, music and natural beauty she had found the only consolation. Always a small woman, in extreme old age she was as insubstantial as a dried leaf, but she radiated human sympathy. Like many in trouble before me, I drew strength from her. Our relationship deepened and my appreciation of her courage and resilience grew.
Everything began to change for Frances herself not long afterwards, when a fall and a broken hip began the gradual decline in her health that ended with her death two years later, just before she reached the age of 104. Now I had another problem; I disliked feeling that I was hovering, notebook in hand, observing her suffer the deterioration she had dreaded. At the same time, encouraged by her circle – who felt sure that my visits allowed her still to feel ‘a going concern’ (her phrase for being involved with work) – I decided to carry on as normally as possible. To help me keep my balance I started to keep a diary of my own, some of which I have used at the end of my book. It records a hospital visit when I feared she was dying before my eyes, and one of several conversations we had about her approaching death. Although she could not keep her diary any more, perhaps I was now keeping it for her. I also noted a curious biographer’s dream I had during that time. Frances was dying, in hospital, with many friends and relations around her. Meanwhile, she and I were sitting nearby, observing and commenting quite calmly, even cheerfully, on what was happening to her. It seemed like a reminder that I still had a job to do, and she wanted me to do it.
The year after her death, my husband’s health grew worse and the biography ground to a halt again. Slowly, after he died, I finished it. As I dislike biographies in which the writer plays a prominent part, the substance of the book is written with minimal reference to myself, and I hope with professional detachment; but I decided to come clean in the foreword and the afterword about my relationship with my subject, whom now that the task is done I am free to remember with increasing pleasure not just as a remarkable woman but as an exemplary friend.