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Biographer's Curse: the Tardy Nugget

There's nothing like an expired deadline to bring new gold to light.

June 30, 2003|D.J. Taylor | D.J. Taylor's "Orwell: The Life" will be published in the United States by Henry Holt & Co. in September.

Last month in Britain, I published a centenary life of George Orwell -- he would have celebrated his 100th birthday last week -- on which I had lavished every investigative care for nearly four years.

On the very day after publication, a friend rang up to announce, not at all apologetically, that it was a "pity" the book was in the shops as he had just met a man who had known Orwell when the two of them worked on the left-wing weekly Tribune in the mid-1940s, and I really ought to speak to him.

In fact, this was only the latest entry in an ever-expanding catalog. "Orwell: The Life" was sent to the printer around Christmas 2002. Within weeks, a handful of previously unseen letters of Orwell's to Malcolm Muggeridge came to light in an archive at Wheaton College in Illinois (these were eventually smuggled into the book as an appendix). Then, talking about Orwell at British literary festivals in the spring, this trickle of new information grew to a torrent: a lady who claimed that her grandmother had met Orwell during his time in Burma in the 1920s; a man who produced a copy of a letter that Orwell had sent to a Russian literary magazine in 1937.

Even now the pace of fresh revelations shows no sign of slowing down. Only last week, for instance, the British newspapers were full of the discovery of the latest version of Orwell's "list" of Communist fellow travelers that he secretly shared with the British Foreign Office. From the biographer's point of view, all this is pure gold. At the moment, though -- at least until next year's paperback edition -- it is still at the bottom of the mine shaft, and there is no way of bringing it to the surface.

Most biographers soon become reconciled to what might be defined as the two great unwritten laws of biography: first, that there is always more to be found out; second, that it usually starts appearing after the publisher's deadline has passed.

This is the great curse of the profession. There you are in your file-lined, box-filled study, with your book written -- another tome on Philip Larkin or George Eliot or John F. Kennedy or Benjamin Franklin. Your opinions have been marshaled, views taken and closure supposedly achieved, and bang, along comes something to rend your certainty to dust -- another fragment of the jigsaw whose existence until that moment had been utterly unknown.

Reading the recent round of Kennedy revelations not long back -- the health problems, the amorous intern -- my first thought, curiously, was for his previous biographers, all those study-bound scholars and investigative journalists gnashing their teeth now at the arrival of new intelligence and the awful realization that knowledge is incremental.

One might assume that this phenomenon -- all that untapped material falling from trees on either side of the biographer's path -- was a problem with only the recently departed. Orwell, after all, has been dead for the comparatively small stretch of 53 years. Many of the people who knew him are still alive: It would be odd if one or two of them, by accident or design, hadn't managed to evade the biographer's net. Curiously, though, closure is as difficult to achieve with the behemoths of the Victorian age.

Some years back, for example, I was poring over the proofs of a book I had written about William Makepeace Thackeray when someone put me in the way of an enormous and hitherto unknown scrapbook containing 150 of his art-school drawings. With deadlines looming, all I could do was to spend a desk-bound weekend hastily shoehorning the best of them into the text.

How can the biographer deal with these murmurs from the vault -- and the fatal tendency of that word "definitive" on a book jacket to really mean "not definitive" or even only "provisional"? One or two modern biographers are fond of revised editions: Bernard Crick, for example, has produced several versions of his own, pioneering life of Orwell since its debut in 1980. Michael Holroyd, too, published a recension of his classic biography of Lytton Strachey a quarter of a century after the original volumes appeared.

But excellent as the books are, somehow this kind of thing seems only to compound the earlier oversight -- closure is impossible. And given the complexities of the average 80 years spent on the planet -- along with the sealed compartments that even those closest to the subject know nothing of -- it would be rather dreadful if lives could be closed down in this way, sealed off by the biographer's fencing and put beyond recall.

It seems more honest to acknowledge that any biography is, at bottom, simply a snapshot, necessarily conditioned by the social and historical backdrop of which the biographer is a part. This doesn't render biography worthless. On the contrary, it reinforces its value as a comment on life, although perhaps not the definitive comment.

To go back to Orwell, after four years spent in his highly exhilarating company I'm happy to concede that in many ways he now seems a more remote and elusive presence than he did when I set out. You suspect that Orwell, who in any case wanted no biography of himself written, would rather have approved.

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