The illusion of biography

Claire Tomalin and Victoria Glendinning

Filed under: Biography

Claire Tomalin and Victoria Glendinning discuss the biographer’s art

Claire Tomalin and Victoria Glendinning are two of Britain’s most distinguished biographers, and both Vice- Presidents of the RSL.Tomalin’s books include ‘Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self ’, ‘Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man’ and ‘The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens’. Glendinning’s subjects range from Jonathan Swift to Anthony Trollope and Vita Sackville-West; she has also written three novels, and is now working on a biography of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, the founder of Singapore. The two authors meet at the Seamus Heaney Library in the Bloomsbury Hotel, just after the publication of Tomalin’s ‘Charles Dickens: A Life.’

q: What attracted you to biography?

Tomalin: I’ve always been passionately interested in history, and biography looked like a way into writing it. You do it through figures: great figures, or forgotten figures, or misrepresented figures. That’s why I really enjoyed writing about Pepys – Pepys is thrilling enough, good heavens, but the background is the most interesting century in the history of England. The other thing that got me going was feminism. I felt that women had not been sufficiently written about: if you look at Trevelyan’s history of the nineteenth century, I think ‘women’ get two index entries. Great iconic figures like Jane Austen tended to get presented in a rather formalised way, and I wanted to know, ‘How does she wash? How does she go to the lavatory? What was life like at home?’ E.P. Thompson said he wanted to rescue the working class from the condescension of history, and I felt I wanted to rescue women from the condescension of history.

Glendinning: I wanted to know the same sort of things as you – what girls did when they had their periods, and so on. But I found I could only do that in fiction, because although from writing about Trollope I could discover a great deal about that kind of thing – both in the text, and between the lines – you had to use your imagination in the end, and in my sort of biography that’s taboo: you’re not allowed to make things up.

But I came to biography like a piece of driftwood. In the bottom of my father’s desk there were all these letters from Great Aunt Winnie, who’d been one of the very first undergraduates to go to Newnham – but she was asthmatic, and she was brought back after her first term because her Quaker family thought it was too much for her, and her books were taken away. She was passionate to read economics with Professor Marshall, and she was very clever, but she died. And from her letters I made a sort of history of the Seebohms, which is my father’s family.

Tomalin: It [A Suppressed Cry: Life and Death of a Quaker Daughter] is a wonderful book.

Glendinning: I didn’t know how to do research, really. I had a degree, but not in anything useful. I sat in the back bedroom of a house in a provincial town and looked things up, and the result was a very thin biography, which I sent off to a publisher, copying the address from a book on our shelves. It was before Jiffy bags, so there was this little parcel that went back and forth, and at about the seventh go somebody said they would be delighted to publish it. That was how it all began. My first grown-up biography was of Elizabeth Bowen, and that was because George Weidenfeld, who – as you know – went around scooping female authors up like a sort of benign shark, as if we were plankton.

Tomalin: He published my first book. And then I left him, and he never forgave me.

Glendinning: I left him too, and he never forgave me either. Cut off from all those parties overnight! Anyway, right at the beginning of this at this happy/unhappy relationship, he asked me to write a biography for him. He invited me to lunch at his house on Chelsea Embankment, and we sat at opposite ends of a mahogany table and I suggested one on Elizabeth Bowen, who’d recently died, and he did some calculations in the back of his hand and said, ‘You’re on.’ Whatever we say about George Weidenfeld, he was heroic. He published books – he published our books.

q: Claire, how did you choose your first subject?

Tomalin: I was working on the New Statesman as assistant literary editor, and I went on maternity leave; but my son Tom was born with so many things the matter with him that I knew I couldn’t go back. So I had a meeting with dear Richard Crossman, the editor, and he said, ‘Well, you can come back any time, but meanwhile you must write some pieces for us.’ I’d been reading Mary Wollstonecraft’s letters, and I was knocked sideways by them, because here was a woman in the late eighteenth century who seemed to be leading an almost identical life to mine: in London and working as a journalist on the Analytical Review, which was a magazine very like the New Statesman; having difficult times with men; having children; passionately interested in all the issues of the day. So I wrote one of those one-page pieces for the back half of the New Statesman, and the next day – in those days the post came quickly– I got several letters from publishers and agents saying, ‘You must write a book about Mary Wollstonecraft.’ That’s how I came to write it. I talked to people like Richard Cobb, who was a wonderful historian and gave me marvellous advice, and I toiled away. I had such an exciting time, and such a difficult time. I went to Paris to look up the archives, because she was there during the French Revolution; then there was a year in her life about which I couldn’t find any information at all, and for two weeks I just sat there until I finally realised that if there were gaps you had to jump over them.

Glendinning: I like the research just as much as the writing – in fact, almost better. It’s such fun making the connections, and every now and then your brain sparks and says, ‘You’d better look at that.’ The trouble is that you get hooked up on detail: you need to know not just which street, but the number in the street, even though it matters to no one else but you, and probably won’t go in the text anyway. But if you didn’t do all that miniscule research, what you did write would be much thinner.

Tomalin: I entirely agree with you. It is important to get things right, even if it does sometimes seem grotesque to other people that you’ve gone on and on and round and round trying to be exact.

Glendinning: At the moment I’m having an impassioned correspondence with Professor Bastin of Beachy Head Road, Eastbourne about the exact date of the conception of the illegitimate child of Stamford Raffles’s first wife – which was years before she met Raffles, and matters to no one else but the Professor and me in the whole world.

Tomalin: It forms a bond, doesn’t it? I mean, you really love the people who share your passion for this abstruse point; your eyes
light up when you meet someone who knows what you’re talking about. I used to go round calling my first book Mary Who?, because nobody had ever heard of Mary Wollstonecraft and that’s what they said.

q: You’ve both written in the main about literary figures. Is it easier dealing with subjects who’ve left so much of themselves?

Glendinning: I think it’s harder and easier. I’ve stopped doing it, partly because I no longer wanted to write about someone whose most exciting moments were spent sitting at a desk. But the upside is that their work is like another ocean you’ve got to swim in. I don’t mean literally finding where every reference in the work corresponds to an event in real life, but ‘Why that then? Why this theme now? Why this recurring theme always?’

Tomalin: It’s very difficult writing about writers. Perhaps my favourite book is not about a writer – it’s a life of Mrs Jordan, the
actress. I thought it was such a good story, and I love writing books that subvert existing stories. This was a picture of the Royal Family seen through the eyes of the actress who bore ten grandchildren to King George iii: she lived for many, many years with William, Duke of Clarence, and they were exactly as though they were married, but the whole Establishment turned against her. I’m really pleased to have written it, because she was a great woman, and a very, very nice one too.

Glendinning: It’s a very sort of funny, awful story: all those royal dukes, the ones that were free-ish, in the race to sire the next Hanoverian heir to the throne after the death of Princess Charlotte – dumping their mistresses and common-law wives right and left, and looking desperately for a German princess. It was squalid, really, wasn’t it?

Tomalin: One of my happiest moments was when I gave a talk about Mrs Jordan at the National Portrait Gallery, and a young
Japanese woman came up to me and said, ‘You have completely changed my whole view of the English Royal family in this book. I mean, I’d no idea that it could be like that.’ And I thought, ‘Good, I’m glad about that.’ Sorry, I’m putting in a little boast about my own work. Writing about writers is terribly difficult. Mary Wollstonecraft was a writer, but she was primarily an Enlightenment thinker, and actually A Vindication of the Rights of Women is not a very well written book. But it still is terribly important, and the shape of her life was so interesting and so sad. When I came to write about Katherine Mansfield, I had a lot of trouble; I handed it to my publisher and said, ‘Do you think I should have written more about her work?’ And he said rather hastily, ‘No, no, no, I think it’s fine as it is!’ He was rather worried.

Glendinning: Publishers want the least possible about the work. They want the sex life and the family life and the dramas.

Tomalin: For Dickens, I said firmly, ‘I’m giving myself a treat: I’m going to write about the books, because I want to.’ But I have done it as briefly as I can. I think the public longs for you to say, ‘Yes, this character is of course that,’ and ‘He’s writing about his love affair here.’ But of course it’s not like that: writers use bits of things, and put things together in different ways, which is fascinating. One of the topics I think is very interesting in biography is the question of who pays the price for great achievement. Sometimes it’s the person, the great achiever, but very often it’s his wife or his girlfriend or his children or some minor figure round about. And I always say you cannot expect any writer to be a wholly admirable person.

Glendinning: There’s no reason why a great artist should be nice at all. One of the questions that you always get at literary festival
is ‘Did you like him or her?’ I always think up different kinds of answers, but the main one that I give is that if you’re working on somebody, it becomes irrelevant. You’re living so closely with that person – and I think of little else other than the person when I am writing about them, even when I’m getting the supper – it’s like saying, ‘Do you like yourself? Do you like your dog? Do you like your garden?’ It’s part of the texture of your own life. I think you can sometimes be shocked by something, and think how you’re going to deal with that – but liking and not liking becomes irrelevant.

Tomalin: It’s like being married to someone

Glendinning: It’s very like being married to someone

Tomalin: I was once talking at a festival, and I said exactly that: ‘There are days when you love them and days when you hate them’– and Michael [Frayn] was sitting at the back of the hall, and I saw people turning round to see how he was reacting to this. But it’s true.

Glendinning: When I was writing about Leonard Woolf, my husband Kevin would say darkly to people – thinking of Princess
Diana – ‘There are three people in this marriage.’

Tomalin: Well, Michael puts up with it, but it is a problem: one is removed from ordinary life, one is living in another world, and it can go on for a very long time. It can be very boring also.

Glendinning: And it’s very hard to break off – to change gearand stop thinking about it. One of the boring things about not being young anymore is that the off switch doesn’t work in my brain so quickly. If I work, say, after ten o’clock at night – a very good time for writing – I carry on editing when I go to bed: rewriting in my head, finding new words, brain racing…It’s rather like jumping into a swimming bath and being unable to get out the other side.’

q: When you get to the end, and the time comes to move on to another subject, does that feel like divorce, or even bereavement?

Tomalin: It feels like bereavement. Dickens himself said that when he came to the end of the novel he was really upset that he was leaving all these characters he’d lived with, and that were so important to him. I felt really, really upset when Pepys died, I have to say. But I don’t think you ever lose them. I haven’t written that many books, but I feel I have this family, and I can hold each one of them by the hand and they stay with me. It’s partly because new information emerges, and partly because people are constantly asking you about them – and partly because they just have become part of you.

Glendinning: Certainly, at the stage you are with Dickens, you’re as much concerned with him as you ever, because you’re going
around talking about him and being interviewed about him.

Tomalin: I quite long to have a break! While I was working on Dickens, I kept reading Trollope as a lovely side treat, which was a
help to me.

Glendinning: A very different kind of chap.

Tomalin: Absolutely different.

Glendinning: You said that you were holding them all by the hands. I have much more the feeling that if I believed in heaven, I’d
get to the pearly gates, St Peter would turn the key, and then Edith Sitwell, Rebecca West, Elizabeth Bowen and Anthony Trollope
would be standing in a line saying, ‘You got it wrong, you got it wrong, you got it wrong!’

q: Moving on to the mechanics of your work – do you do all your research and then start writing, or is there a point where you’re doing both side by side?

Glendinning: I don’t understand how people could research just the childhood then write about it – because how do you know
what’s important about the childhood until you’ve seen what’s happened later? So I tend to do nearly all the research before I start writing; although you have to remember that research is never, ever over. I’m now probably three-quarters of the way through the book I’m writing, but I’m still doing bits of research, because things keep popping up. But with the actual writing you’ve got to say, ‘I’m going to start writing on 2 November’ and do it, because otherwise you could go on researching for ever and become one of those people who say, ‘I’ve been working on Conrad for 30 years.’

Tomalin: I endorse just about everything you’ve said. I keep a file on my computer called ‘General notes’ and I put in thoughts I’ve had and try to trawl through it once a month – and it’s very useful, because you do forget things a lot.

Glendinning: Yes, I’ve two things like that. One is what I call ‘bricks’: every now and then you’ve done a bit of research and –
probably in the middle of the night – it comes to you exactly how to express what it is you felt about that, and if you don’t write it
down now, when you’re hot from the research, you’ll forget it, or you’ll forget the exact specificity of what you thought. The other
thing is ‘train thoughts’. When I was doing Leonard Woolf, I did an awful lot of research in Sussex University, where all his papers are, so I used to go up and down from London Bridge on the train. Taking notes from his letters, I used to write just on one side of the page, and on my way home I read it all through and put in my train thoughts on the back – what occurred to me that day about what I’d read, or just a sentence…and they were terribly useful afterwards, because those are the sort of things that don’t come back twice.

Tomalin: I’m very pleased to hear that. So you were using a pencil and a notebook, not a laptop?

Glendinning: No. Copying out what a person said in your own handwriting is a magic act of translation or transference.

Tomalin: It helps you to memorise it too.

Glendinning: And I love all my spiral Ryman’s notebooks, piled up on the floor with a list of contents on the cover…

Tomalin: Yes, I file on the floor.

Glendinning: It’s the best place. But I do take notes on books I read on the computer, and print those out.

Tomalin: Yes, I transfer things. I do a chronology from the beginning, and I try to put everything in that, and the source.

Glendinning: And, of course, when you start the biography it’s rather large-scale: ‘May: did this.’ But by the time you get to writing it you think, ‘What do you mean “May”? Do you mean 1 May or 29 May?’

q: What about making the transition to your next book? Claire, do you know what you’re going to be writing next?

Tomalin: No, I’m having a rest, rightfully. I’ve written a lot of long books, each taking four, five, six years, and I haven’t really spent as much time as I’d like to with my grandchildren, my children and my husband, my stepchildren. Also, I’ve been writing about famous people, and I quite like the idea of finding an obscure subject again– a rather quiet, modest subject, which I can just do gently.

q: But publishers are quite resistant to that now, aren’t they ?

Glendinning: Oh, absolutely. That’s a very interesting thing that’s happened in biography publishing: it’s now about branding. My former publishers knew that they could sell x thousand copies by me on a literary subject, probably female – it hardly even mattered who it was. So when I started telling them about the East India Company and South-East Asia and all the children dying of cholera and Raffles founding Singapore, my eyes shining, they said to me, ‘Well, Victoria what we’d really like you to do is write about the Brontë sisters’. As if! You know there are shelves of very good books about the Brontës.

Tomalin: Or Mary Queen of Scots perhaps!

Glendinning: Why not? Why not, indeed! They just weren’t interested, you see. Luckily I got a Leverhulme Fellowship, went to
South-East Asia for two months, and came back and wrote a proposal, and I do have a publisher now; but it’s not easy. People want you to go on doing what you did before.

Tomalin: Well, I have to say that my publishers have been absolutely splendid. I’ve had the same ones, apart from George Weidenfeld publishing my first book, ever since the Eighties, and I’ve had the same copy editor, and that’s very important to me. And they’re extremely laid back and let me do anything I like. I suppose they were quite pleased when I chose Dickens.

Glendinning: They were probably delighted with Dickens because of the double centenary.

Tomalin: I’m so dozy that I didn’t think of that. I said, ‘What about going back to Dickens, because of the invisible woman?’, and
their eyes lit up at once!

Glendinning: Absolutely, what a good idea!

Tomalin: I’ve loved working with Dickens, but I do find the bicentenary a bit daunting: I could do without it. That sounds ungrateful, because I realise it will sell books – and, after all, one hopes one’s book will sell. But I feel sort of slightly…

Glendinning: As if you’ve been taken over by a band wagon?

Tomalin: Yes. But one thing I would say: never think you can’t write a biography of somebody because there are a lot of existing
ones. If you feel you can see something there, and you’ve got a good story, then go ahead – because there’s always a reason for not writing a biography. Always.

Glendinning: But I think it’s much harder now, because a publisher is not going to give you a liveable advance for an unknown
person. People talk about the golden age of biography, but what was golden was generosity with money.

Tomalin: Up to a point. One can never live well on writing books; writers are never rich unless you write airport romances.

Glendinning: I don’t know that I’m talking about rich; all I can say is that the advances I got in the Eighties and Nineties put roofs
on houses, bought new duvets, paid off the mortgage…that’s not rich, but it was a living wage. It was completely wonderful to me.

Tomalin: I’ve actually had bigger advances since. I had really pretty small advances at that time.

Glendinning: I think what is happening now is that, because the big publishers – like great creaking forest trees – don’t know which way to look apart from the wives and girlfriends of footballers, they turn down a lot of interesting ideas. But there are so many interesting new imprints. When I see an interesting book about a minor figure, the publisher is usually one I’ve hardly heard of, and they publish extremely well. And now, because of isbn and Amazon, all books can get out into the world: self-publishing is no longer vanity publishing, it’s just ‘I want to publish my book’.

Tomalin: What’s changed is that everyone is now teaching people in the universities. I have mixed feelings about this. I suppose you can teach people how to do research; the sort of lessons I got in research were from lovely Richard Cobb, like ‘Always go over the territory on horseback, if possible, or foot – or maybe on a bicycle; don’t go in a car if you want to experience that person’s world.’

Glendinning: With Dickens you must have gone on a lot of very, very long walks!

Tomalin: I did, yes. But apart from ‘check your notes’, ‘check your quotes’ and that sort of obvious advice, I don’t know how you teach people…I suppose that you recommend some good biographies, and see how they’re done, maybe imitate them – because, after all, that’s how we all learn. One of the first books I bought myself, when I was twelve, was J.E. Neale’s great biography of Queen Elizabeth I, which I suppose formed my taste forever. It was a biography written for the general reader by a really good historian, about a great woman, with a lot of historical context, and I thought it was the most thrilling book I’d ever read.

Glendinning: I’m sure that’s the best way. I have done some biography teaching or workshops, and actually it’s taught me something, because I make them do exercises like ‘Describe somebody– it could be yourself, your best friend, your mother – as someone who loves and admires her sees her, and then describe the same person as somebody who thinks she’s awful.’ There’s a golden legend and a black legend for just about anybody – and making them do that made me think that with every sentence you write you’re choosing golden legend or black legend.

Tomalin: That’s very interesting. I suppose I’m not as theoretical as that…

Glendinning: Do you think that was theoretical?

Tomalin: Well, I think it’s really good, and really interesting. But I think it might worry me if I sat down and thought…

Glendinning: I love to be worried.

Tomalin: Well, there are many things to be worried about! Worry about the pace of the narrative; ‘Is this sentence embarrassing? Strike it out if it is’; ‘What am I getting into this chapter? What am I leaving out?’; ‘How much of this quotation can I put in?’

Glendinning: Starting a new chapter is always terrifying, because you know what’s going to go in it, but it’s all like a sort of great laundry bag…and then gradually it comes into shape, and that is absolutely brilliant.

Tomalin: I suppose I feel I’ve made up my mind pretty well before I start writing whether this is golden or black. But I think getting older is good for biographers, because you’re much less inclined to disapprove or tick off your characters: you’ve experienced so much yourself, and done so many dreadful things that you’re more tolerant of them – and I think that’s quite useful for the tone of the book. The tone is the thing that matters in biography.

Glendinning: That’s the awful thing with Chapter One, finding your voice – the voice you’re going to write this book in.

q: What about autobiography? Have either of you been tempted by that?

Tomalin: Someone said to me the other day, ‘You really should really write your memoirs,’ and I said, ‘No, I don’t think I’ve had a sufficiently interesting life,’ and she said, ‘But you’ve known Julian Barnes!’

Glendinning: There’s nothing worse than the memoirs that are just a string of ‘People I Have Known’.

Tomalin: And, also, what would your friends feel if you wrote about them? I shock Michael because I say, ‘I think I’m going to
burn all my letters before I die,’ and he says, ‘You’re a biographer! What on earth are you thinking of?’

Glendinning: Also, your posterity could sell them to Texas and keep a roof on their houses.

q: Do you feel pessimistic about the future of biography?

Tomalin: No! As long as there are human beings, as long as there are lives, people will want to know about them.

Glendinning: In the very earliest days, imagine the camp fire, and the people sitting round it, and the wolves howling, telling the
stories of the great leaders of the past and the kings of the tribe…

Tomalin: And exemplary lives – people want to hear about them. The Bible is full of biographies. And it’s very noticeable that lots of writers of fiction and plays now are increasingly mining biography for their stories, because people’s lives are so interesting.

Glendinning: And also you can’t really see the present. I remember a wise old lady saying to me that we live our lives as if they’re
a tapestry, but while we can see it from underneath with all the little bits of coloured wool, we can’t see the pattern on the top. The illusion of biography is to show you that: the pattern of somebody’s life.