‘Writing Lives: Principia Biographica’ by Leon Edel

1984, 272 p

When I first started on my research on Judge Willis, my intention was to examine his dismissal from Port Phillip in 1843.  I had a bifocal vision: looking at the Port Phillip context and the local trajectory of events that led to his removal, while at the same time evaluating Willis’ own personality and behaviour.  I was often at pains to distance what I was doing from biography.

But now that I’ve upgraded to a Ph D,  I’m looking at his career as a whole, in Upper Canada then in British Guiana, as well as in the interludes ‘back home’ and his eventual retirement as a Worcestershire gentleman.  My emphasis has shifted from a localized event into an analysis of a whole career, and now I find myself more closely drawn into writing a biography.

I don’t know why I find myself squeamish about saying that I’m writing a biography.  After all, I enjoy reading biography , and I have always been attracted to human agency in history whether it be individuals operating within the structure of an institution, or “history from below” that takes the lived experience of humans as its touchstone.  From a methodological point of view, I’ve very much enjoyed reading Richard Holmes’ work here and here, and now I’ve read Leon Edel’s book which Holmes quoted often.   Both Holmes and Edel are literary biographers – i.e. they write biographies about other writers- so they find themselves working both with text and life.  Nonetheless, much of what they say applies to biography more generally.

Edel commences his book with an “Introduction in the form of a manifesto” which over four or five pages encapsulates his principles of biography- a document that will yield up many “Uplifting Quotes for an Uninspired Historian”. He has several biographical heroes, whom he mentions often. There’s Boswell (of course!) who, although denying “melting down” Johnson’s conversations did in fact manipulate his subject by setting up situations where Johnson would display himself.   He quotes Lytton Strachey, Andre Maurois, Van Wych Brooks, and spends a long time on Virginia Woolf, herself the daughter of the Big Daddy of Biographers, Leslie Stephen. In particular he counterpoints her fictional work Orlando, which jibes at biography and mocks chronology, against her ‘straight’ biography of Roger Fry where, like all biographers she bemoaned:

how can one make a life out of six cardboard boxes full of tailor’s bills, love letters and old picture postcards?”

Edel speaks often of the “new biography” (which doesn’t seem so new anymore) which experiments with form, and draws on art and fictional techniques in creating its narrative while remaining true to the sources.  He is open to psychoanalytic techniques and finding “the figure under the carpet”, while acknowledging that of course the biographer and her subject cannot be equated at all to therapist and patient.  Nonetheless, drawing on psychotherapeutical approaches,  he is attuned to the life-myth that drives human action, and the mask that individuals adopt to confound it.

We must consider two kinds of myth: the myth we perceive with our eyes and sense of observation; and the covert myth, which is a part of the hidden dreams of our biographical subjects, and which even they would have difficulty to describe because these are lodged in the unconscious, in the psyche.  The covert myth has to be deduced from the public myth, and from the stray bits of psychological evidence offered us by our subjects, the little hints, the casual remarks, or the poetry or prose set down out of themselves…

….  In an archive, we wade simply and securely through paper and photocopies and related concrete material. But in our quest for the life-myth we tread on dangerous speculative and inferential ground ground that requires all of our attention, all of our accumulated resources.  For we must read certain psychological signs that enable us to understand what people are really saying behind the faces they put on, behind the utterances they allow themselves to make before the world. (p. 161, 162)

Many people have warned me off “psychological history”.  I haven’t read much of it at all- in fact, probably only Judith Brett’s Robert Menzies’ Forgotten People. I’m not particularly comfortable with the language and theory of Freudianism and Lacanism and other “isms” in general- I find them smothering.  But much of what Edel is stretching for in the dilemma of the biographer’s art does ring true in my own research, just in Port Phillip, and I’m excited to see if it is a way of drawing together my story of this colonial servant in three different colonies where there are so many commonalities.  I think that I really do need to swallow hard and admit that, yes, I’m writing a biography.

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4 responses to “‘Writing Lives: Principia Biographica’ by Leon Edel

  1. Reading your musings on biography I was reminded of Colonial Lives Across the British Empire, edited by David Lambert and Alan Lester. This book contains biographical sketches which trace imperial lives like that of Judge Willis. The introduction is my all-time favourite historiographical article. It discusses transnational history, relates it to developments in geography pioneered by Doreen Massey, and then discusses how biography can be used to highlight these historical processes.

    I agree with you about analysing the psychology of the biographical subject. Generally I am wary of anything that smacks of pop psychology. Psychologists spend years in training, I don’t think that someone who has read a handful of books has the expertise to pull it off in a convincing fashion. Judith Brett received mixed reviews.

    Some historians have a problem with biographies but I think this reflects an unfortunate disdain for anything that is popular together with a lack of recognition that history should always explore new genres, as you are doing through this blog. The use of different approaches to convey history will reveal different historical issues, perhaps some that would not have been identified if we restricted ourselves to writing the conventional academic article and book. I really like how biography looks at a whole person, their private and public lives, their lives lived in different places, their personality. History is after all about people – why do some historians have a problem with writing about the whole person?

    Good on you for taking the plunge and writing your history from a biographical perspective and thankyou for taking the time to write this blog. I am enjoying it.

  2. residentjudge

    Why thank you! Yes- I’ve read Lambert and Lester and place myself firmly in that approach- along with Zoe Laidlaw, Kirsten McKenzie, Catherine Hall etc.
    The colonial careers they have traced are sometimes, like my Judge, of ‘dead white males’, but these DWMs have families and friends. The demands and expectations of the people who surrounded them tell us a great deal about their societies and that’s what I want to capture as well.

  3. Good. And I’m going to buy it when it’s published!

  4. Fascinating RJ. The biographer’s art is certainly a challenging one but, for readers, a well-written biography is a great way of “learning” history. As I was reading your post I was thinking about the challenges of trying to describe the psychology of a subject – firstly for the challenges of being both historian AND a psychologist, and secondly because of the dangers inherent anyhow in trying to second-guess a person’s psychological make-up. That said, I reckon there are ways of giving a sense of “who” someone is as well as “what” they did without getting too bogged down into some sort of psychological profile! I hope that one day we get to see the end result.

    I’ve read a couple of Stracheys – but not Stephens. However, it was so long ago I can’t recollect, really, the approach he took. I did enjoy them however. (Queen Victoria, and Eminent Victorians).

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