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Whose Life Is It Anyway? : How a biographer lost herself in her subject : A PASSAGE TO EGYPT: The Life of Lucie Duff Gordon, By Katherine Frank (Houghton Mifflin: $24.95; 378 pp.)

October 23, 1994|Antonia Fraser | Antonia Fraser's recent books are "The Wives of Henry VIII," a finalist for the 1993 Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and "The Warrior Queens" (both Alfred A. Knopf)

In 1988 Katherine Frank and her husband set out for Egypt to find the grave of Lucie Duff Gordon, her latest biographical subject. As the author of distinguished works on Emily Bronte and the 19th-Century explorer Mary Kingsley, Frank felt the need to pay her respects at the last resting place of the English adventuress.

Then something appalling happened. Instead of looking for the grave of Lady Duff Gordon, she found herself having to arrange the burial of her own husband, who died suddenly in Cairo four days after their arrival.

All this is related quite simply, even baldly, at the beginning of Frank's biography of Lady Duff Gordon, "A Passage to Egypt":

"The day after his death he was buried in the Mugattam hills. I could not face continuing our journey alone. I left Egypt and returned to England. A long, dark, London winter followed. I spent most of it reading and taking notes with a kind of feverish intensity in the round, domed Reading Room of the British Library. I found refuge there as others might in a church. When I walked through the heavy swing doors of the Reading Room, it felt as if I had checked my personal identity and grief, as did the tourists their coats and umbrellas and cameras in the large entrance lobby of the British Museum."

Given that the life of Lucie Duff Gordon is also one of female suffering, there is no doubt that Frank's story gains a peculiar urgency from the cruel personal circumstances in which she found herself. Furthermore, at the end of the book, when Frank has tried again--and failed--to find Duff Gordon's grave, she ties her Prologue to her Epilogue, and gives us what is in effect her biographer's credo.

Frank now accepts that it is better not to have found Lucie's grave: "For, if I did, it would signal some sort of completion--a death, in fact--and the end of my remembering. I understood now that however much we yearn to possess the past, it is not of our creation. Our rememberings are partial--versions crafted of collected fragments--and this means the pursuit is never finished. Yet the past is real and true, however fragmentarily we recover it. Above all it is not over. It is down there in the pool of time, and we sit on the shore and cast our lines . . . sometimes glimpsing in the shadowy depths, the faint but iridescent light of resurrection."

It will be clear from this that Frank's approach is not the theoretically objective one of the run of biographers. Many of us probably have personal experiences during the long, arduous years of research that may disturb us like uneasy phantoms when we read certain passages of our own text. In my own case, without having endured an experience anything as traumatic as that of Katherine Frank, I still feel an unease come over me when reading certain passages of my 1984 book "The Weaker Vessel," a somewhat autobiographical tale of female suffering.

Frank, however, boldly grasps the mantle of the biographer's objectivity and throws it aside. She intends to share with us not only the ordeals of her heroine but also her own, in an attempt to come to terms with her own past. To be honest, I might not have warmed toward such a method in advance, had it been described to me. What about scholarly impartiality? Yet the fact is that I feel, in Frank's case, it succeeds triumphantly. I found the various strands in "A Passage to Egypt" woven together skillfully and poignantly.

Lucie Duff Gordon is not a major figure in our imaginations today (less famous than Mary Kingsley, a great deal less famous than Emily Bronte) yet she led a colorful, as well as a tragic life that has interesting things to tell us about the female lot in the 19th Century. She was born Lucie Austin in 1821 to a depressed hypochondriacal father and a spirited mother, Sarah, who had waited five years for her marriage, in the course of which she was put through an educational program to make her worthy of her future spouse. The Austin household remained an intellectual one, and John Austin's private tuition of a 15-year-old called John Stuart Mill was to have important consequences for his daughter. In the meantime it was thanks to the Austins that John Stuart Mill came in time to develop his passion for the young married woman Harriet Taylor who lived next door to them.

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