When lockdown began in 2020, I was planning a trip to France to resume research on a biography I had been worrying away at for an embarrassing length of time, having won the Hazel Rowley Fellowship.
This was my first attempt in this genre, I had 32,000 words under my belt and I was stuck.
The book had stymied me once, but also would not completely let go of me. I might be doing the washing and suddenly the spectre of my subject, Lucie Dreyfus, would pop into my consciousness. In some sense, she stalked me, daring me to abandon her, or to try and understand her better. I was never sure which.
Lucie was the wife of Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish-French army officer charged with treason in 1894, who was the subject of a military scandal that divided France politically and socially between those who believed him to be innocent and those thinking him guilty, with anti-Semitism rearing its ugly head in the country. A dutiful wife and mother of two young children, Lucie believed in her husband‘s innocence and never wavered, despite enormous pressure. She wrote Alfred hundreds of letters during his four-and-a-half-year exile on Devil’s Island.
When he returned, a husk of a man, the marriage continued, although he was impotent and she still in her prime. I was intrigued by the resilience of their union. Alfred was, by all accounts a dull man thrust into international notoriety, his name becoming a by-word for any victim of calumny.
Lucie’s life chilled me: she was a unique witness to the worst of history not once, but twice. Jewish herself, in the nineteenth century she experienced how anti-Semitism almost brought down the Republic. In the twentieth century she saw state-sanctioned anti-Semitism again ravage France as the nation sent its Jews to the camps at the behest of the Nazis. The personal cost was huge: first her husband, and then her grand-daughter, a resistance fighter, who was murdered in Auschwitz. Too much tragedy for one life but gold for a biographer.
I was naïve, though, in thinking this was the project for a beginner. The density of the military and legal details of the Dreyfus case particularly daunted me. I struggled in archives and found it hard to decide which leads to follow. I had no methodology and was traveling without a map.
The deeper I went, the more the psychological aspects of my project frustrated me too. I felt I was getting no closer to the core of Lucy.
I dabbled with the idea of a novel instead, but found the prospect of imagining her inner life while navigating the complicated legal manoeuvres she was part of daunting. Then I tried a hybrid of fact and fiction, and while that generated a bit of energy and traction, I was afraid of blurring lines I had always believed should be distinct. I set the book aside.
The sense of defeat was painful. When COVID struck, my first thought was that it provided the perfect excuse to fully abandon the project. I simply could not go back to France for research purposes. Still I felt shame. I am not a quitter by nature.
And by then the bug of biography had bitten me – hard. It has always been a genre I have enjoyed for its insights into what drives individuals, especially those who have embarked on a creative or public life: these books have in many instances been my form of self-help, just better written.
Lucky enough to score Jobkeeper, I knew I didn’t want to just live on it. I wanted to make something, have something to show for this strange period when we were all grounded and isolated. I thought of doing something new that would allow me to share my enthusiasm for biography: it was not enjoying attention on existing book shows and podcasts, and was being neglected by most festivals, despite being a popular category in bookshops.
I decided I would interview biographers, tacitly hoping to find some tips for my own practice: I was, I now realise, creating a personally curated course for a beginner biographer. So the Life Sentences podcast was born.
The first series were just eight episodes and all-Australian. I am now planning the fourth series as I write this, and have international biographers in the mix. It was a real joy to reawaken my dormant skills as a broadcaster – like resuming a long-interrupted conversation.
The tips I was hoping for materialised soon. Early on, I learned that many biographers share a fundamental methodology: they begin with a timeline as the spine of their project, mapping out the key events that are the pegs on which to hang their narrative. Pinning the timeline somewhere visible for easy access sounds basic, but it’s the kind of thing that helps you stay on track. Seasoned Australian biographer Jacqueline Kent, for example, says that the timeline helps her identify the periods in the narrative about which she knows the least and will have to do the most research.
All biographers seem to agree on the necessity of visiting all the places associated with their subject, if possible on foot (and in Claire Tomalin’s case, where her subjects travelled on horseback, she uses a bicycle). For British biographers, the influence of Richard Holmes, and his classic biography of the Romantics, Footsteps, has even given rise to the term ‘footstepping’ to describe the business of retracing the subject‘s path. In Australia, Mark Mordue understood a lot about Nick Cave’s childhood from spending time in the bush and at the river near where Nick grew up in Warracknabeal, writing poetically about how those places lingered in Cave’s creative consciousness.
From Robert Wainright I learned that it is essential to love archives, the smell of them, the rabbit hole-ness of them, and be willing to go down many blind alleys and explore lateral leads on the off-chance that something will join the dots or yield a discovery. I must admit I do not share this enthusiasm: the sight of pages of handwriting makes me feel weary at the effort of deciphering it, the scanning of microfiches makes me dizzy; the process of following trails, more or less blindly in the hope that somewhere in the column of an old newspaper or the files of a long deceased relative is a clue that might resolve a mystery, does not make my heart beat faster. I am impatient and used to rapid journalistic skimming. I do not have an academic training in research, and now wish I did. My approach is intuitive and organic. I follow my curiosity, which can be chaotic, patchy and miss things. But my undisciplined method is also a source of unexpected, lateral inquiry that does, occasionally, pay off. I did discover some fascinating things about Lucie that I am keeping to myself for now….
By far the most interesting material that has provided the juiciest content for the series has been the ethical terrain, expressed as the seemingly infinite number of decisions a biographer faces about boundaries between them and their subjects. It is never as clear-cut as ‘authorised’ or ‘unauthorised’ versions of a life. When Mordue says of his understanding with Cave ‘I was neither his servant nor his assassin’, he provides a sense of the delicate and constantly changing balance on the tightrope that he walked during the ten years of his project.
There are nuances to be negotiated in every telling. Co-operation may be offered to a biographer and withdrawn, conditional or partial. Relationships of trust are broken or sour and have to be re-negotiated. Hermione Lee, appointed by Tom Stoppard for the job despite his professed dislike of biographers, found that she earned his trust only gradually. It was some time before he offered her access to the treasure of his weekly correspondence with his mother in which he reveals an unguarded, private self. I learned it is imperative to keep meticulous notes of all exchanges and to have all conversations on tape, clearly dated and transcribed, in anticipation of ‘I never said that’ denial and the very human trait of contradiction.
I learned so much in this last year. But so far, no biographer has yet addressed my most uncomfortable problem: what happens when you decide that you dislike your subject?
I admire Lucie, but don’t much like her, partly because, from the research I have done so far, she shows no evidence whatsoever of a sense of humor, a trait I really value. The ability to laugh in the face of adversity, to see the absurdity and folly in human nature is a vital connective tissue for me in every inter-action. In Lucie I see unbending loyalty, decency, a strong sense of justice, but never, ever, a lighter side.
I am still waiting to speak to a biographer who knows how to surmount this obstacle. Bernadette Brennan admitted that Gillian Mears sometimes exasperated her. But most seem un-judgemental of their subjects’ behaviour and character. This is very evident in Heather Clark’s magnificent re-evaluation of Sylvia Plath in Red Comet. Gently leading us to see the causes for Plath’s often harsh or unkind behaviour, and showing her brittle nature, Clark provides even-handed analysis. She repeats this fairness when she treads on the well-worn minefield of Plath’s marriage to Ted Hughes, and the result is calm, comprehensive, compassionate and utterly plausible. I can only hope to follow Clark’s example, if I am to give Lucie another go.
Caroline Baum moved to Australia in 1984 from London, becoming the host of the country’s first TV bookshow, features editor of Vogue Australia, and founding editor of Good Reading Magazine. Her memoir ONLY, A Singular Memoir, was published in 2017. Her life-writing has appeared in several anthologies including My Mother, My Father: On Losing a Parent and Rebellious Daughters. She is the winner of the 2015 Hazel Rowley Award. Her journalism has appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald, Griffith Review and the Guardian. Life Sentences, her podcast about contemporary biography, is available on all the usual platforms.