Weinrebe Lecture: Richard Holmes, ‘The Biographer’s Other I’ on 18 February 2014

Nanette here for you with a delayed summary from Richard Holmes’ lecture from Tuesday 18th February. Full disclosure: I was unable to attend this lecture and have written this summary by listening to the unedited podcast of the event which will soon be edited and available on our Wolfson College Podcasts page  with the other Weinrebe lectures. If you missed the event I hope this summary can tide you over until you can listen to the podcast (and you should, because Richard Holmes has a lovely voice!).

Hermione Lee introduced Richard Holmes as ‘at once one of the most influential and distinguished of our biographers and one of the most innovative and pioneering’. And what did one of the most eminent biographers in the world do to begin his lecture? In a simple and humble way, he put our interest in life-writing (and human lives) utterly in perspective. Commencing his lecture with what he called a ‘litany,’ titled ‘Some Average Lifespans,’ he asked us to think of how precious a single human life is and also at once how insignificant it is.  His ‘litany’ of lifespans began by listing the Coriscan pine tree with a lifespan of three hundred years, then cited the Galapagos tortoise at one hundred and ninety years, then European homo sapiens at 70 years (20 years asleep ‘in brackets’), and on down through various species to the mayfly whose lifespan consists of a single day.

With this opening reminder of our place among the many species on our planet, Holmes then took us back through his own past in the first section of his lecture, which he titled, ‘Time and Identity’. He recalled his travels as an aspiring young writer, joking that the occupation of ‘writer’ in his passport was often misread as ‘waiter’. Drawing on the misinterpretation as a metaphor for what the biographer does, Holmes said writing a biography is in a sense ‘always waiting at someone else’s table’.

Moving from this apt comparison to the subject of the title of the lecture, ‘The Biographer’s Other I’, Holmes read from the opening of his early narrative on biography and travel, Footsteps (1985). He noted that even in this early book he was employing two forms of narrative: an immersive past tense narrative that recounted events with a feeling of immediacy, alternated with a kind of reflective present tense that created a distance between the past and the current moment, illustrated in the sentence, ‘I was eighteen’. So, as Holmes explained, the biographer’s other ‘I’ is actually a means for observing one’s subject while immersing oneself in the subject’s life and times. These various viewpoints stress that the bridge to the past is broken, subjective, and that biography needs to cross the bridge by other methods.

Upon reflecting on the ways in which a biographer might access the past, through travelling the paths of his subject, taking photographs of these places and attempting to make these connections across time, Holmes asked himself why does one choose particular biographical subjects? He realised that all of his subjects represented to him the principle of hope. Stevenson, Shelley, Coleridge, and the Age of Wonder all presented moments of overcoming challenges. The individuals were driven to change their lives and the Age of Wonder represented the hope that science has brought to us.

The second part of Holmes talk addressed the ‘subjectivity’ that is present in every biography. Holmes argued subjectivity has always been a great strength in biography, taking Boswell’s Life of Johnson as an example where Boswell’s dialogue and subjectivity are the key devices to opening up Johnson’s biography. Holmes pointed out other instances in which the biographical ‘I’ was a subjective and often sympathetic one. Drawing on an example from Johnson’s own Life of Richard Savage (1744) Holmes argued Johnson uses the rhetorical figure ironic chiasmus, or a reversal of terms, to describe Savage, but in doing so gives himself away. Holmes also mentioned Lytton Strachey’s portrait of Florence Nightingale from Eminent Victorians (1918) in which Strachey’s biographical ‘I’ takes over Nightingale’s voice, putting himself in the room with her, but giving her his own vehement language to describe the horrors of the hospital conditions. I think there is also an argument to be made here about this kind of projection of the biographical ‘I’ into the narrative as part of the modernist project of life-writing that the Bloomsbury group were interested in. If you’d like to read more about that, Laura Marcus delves with insight into Strachey’s biographical style in Auto/biographical Discourses (1994). Holmes’ final example of the biographical ‘I’ working with successful subjectivity was Wolfson’s own Hermione Lee’s biography of Virginia Woolf (1996). Holmes mentioned both the opening and closing passages of the work as emblematic of effective and moving autobiographical interjections. Holmes quoted from the opening of the biography which itself quotes Virginia Woolf, ‘My God, how does one write a biography’ and from the final scene in which Lee allows herself to connect across time with the view Woolf would also have had: ‘My view overlays with, just touches, hers. The view, in fact, seems to have been written by Virginia Woolf. The lighthouse beam strikes round; the waves break on the shore.’

Holmes closed with a final thought on his concept of the ‘vertical footnote’ as an ideal place to put the ‘I’. It provides a way of including personal detail and allows the biographer to reach backwards and forwards within a chronological narrative without interrupting the pace of the main narrative.

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