‘Writing Lives Forwards: A Case for Strictly Chronological Biography’

MappingLives

2002, 360 p.

As you might know if you’ve been following this blog for any length of time,  I’ve been thinking and grappling recently with the narrative form that biographies can take- chronological, thematic and novelistic- and wondering how much latitude the thesis genre allows in adopting these approaches.  As part of this,  I’ve been reading a book of essays on the writing of biographies called Mapping Lives: The Uses of Biography, edited by Peter France and William St. Clair.

I was particularly taken by an essay in this volume by Mark Kinkead-Weekes called ‘Writing Lives Forwards: a Case for Strictly Chronological Biography’.  Kinkead Weekes was a D. H. Lawrence scholar and the lead author for the Cambridge University Press three-volume biography of Lawrence,  for which he wrote the second volume dealing with the years 1912-1922 of Lawrence’s life. This biography adopted a straight chronological approach, as Kinkead-Weekes notes, “following his life forwards, miming the way it was lived, and banning all hindsight” (p.236).   David Ellis, the author of the final volume, wrote in his obituary of Kinkead-Weekes in 2011 that Kinkead-Weekes’ forte was infinitely painstaking and sympathetic exposition of an author’s processes and intentions” and I think that you can see this in Kinkead-Weekes’ chapter  that praises “strictly chronological biography”.

Kinkead-Weekes

There does seem to me to be something rather workmanlike about a chronological account and so I was interested to read an argument in support of it.   Why did he choose to write Lawrence’s biography this way?

The main reason for adopting a chronological method however was to resist the urge, so powerful in biographers, to structure a life too early and too simply into some overall pattern and explanation. (p.238)

He does qualify his support for chronological method somewhat by upholding its usefulness particularly at first draft stage.

Of course, biographers who have been researching for years do already know the general shape of the story they have to tell and how it will end, before they write the first word; and of a course a life could not be written week by week, let alone day by day, even if enough data were available, without insufferable tedium.  What is possible, however, at the crucial first-draft stage when a general sense of things begins to develop into an organized story, is to work on, and then narrate in, time-spans small enough to allow all the evidence to be freshly commanded at once, with nothing but space ahead.  This approach brings immediate advantages.  Misconceptions show up, puzzles can be clarified, unexpected connections appear, simply through careful attention to the exact sequence and context of events…” (p. 236)

But even beyond the first draft, there are other advantages as well:

Above all, strict chronology allows some miming for a reader of how a life may have felt to live, at the time.  There will be too many spaces, unknowns, opacities, for this to be more than partial, and frustrating, as biographers know only too well; but the strictly chronological method also tends to show up the gaps in the evidence which confident analysis conceals.  It constantly throws the emphasis on the experience of the biographee rather than on the commentary of the biographer.  It is also a way of inviting the reader in on more equal terms, watching the life unfold rather than having its significance anticipated, or being enclosed in the biographer’s analytic structure, or for that matter the subject’s own retrospective imagining.  In try to make change and development more manifest, it also affects the treatment of relationships, aiming at greater complexity and changefulness in other characters too.  Finally- although an avidity for judgement is one of the less admirable reasons for the fascinations of biography and no biographer can be wholly free from presupposition and prejudice- the chronological method does tend to delay verdicts until there has been sufficient exploration of process and development. (p. 251)

However, he was aware that a strictly chronological approach had its drawbacks as well.

The price that has to be paid for strict chronology, however, is also huge.  Every one of its gains will increase the length, slow the pace, and involve a degree of repetition when the eventual bearing of previous developments becomes clearer (p. 251)

The result, he feared, is bagginess, and you’d have to say that the Cambridge biography (which I haven’t read) in three parts at a total length of 2,349 pages might fall into that category!  Makes a thesis look a mere bagatelle!  And, unfortunately, undercuts completely his argument about his usefulness for a strictly chronological approach- at least for the final product- I’m afraid.

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2 responses to “‘Writing Lives Forwards: A Case for Strictly Chronological Biography’

  1. I must admit that as a reader of biography, I prefer the chronological approach. Sometimes thematic ones seem to me to be shoe-horning their subject to fit the biographer’s pet theory, and I just don’t trust novelistic ones, not unless the biographer is upfront about when they’re doing it.
    Though of course there are always exceptions…

  2. I don’t like novelistic approaches to biography either, while truth is a slippery, subjective thing I think that if an author asserts they have written a biography then they have given a commitment to adhering to truth and being very clear to the reader when they have inserted their own theory or supposition. A novelistic biography is historical fiction and should be named as such. This then signals to the reader that the author’s imagination is woven into the story. I have read several ‘novelistic’ biographies which asserted that they were biographies and felt betrayed by the author. I’m also concerned that by writing this way the author is betraying the subject too.

    I am in two minds about biographies written chronologically or thematically. Both have their issues. As Kinkead-Weekes says, chronological biographies run the risk of repetition and being rather pedestrian reads. Thematic biographies have their problems as well. There is no perfect way of writing a biography. I would think that it depends on the author and the material they are working on.

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