Wanted: cult of personality

March 10, 2000

Nigel Hamilton thinks it's a national scandal there are no degrees in biography. Universities, he argues, should study why biographies are now about people's private lives

It's nobody's business but ours," President Clinton claimed of fellatio with his intern in the White House. "Even presidents have private lives. It is time to stop the pursuit of personal destruction and the prying into private lives and get on with our national life."

Congress responded by impeaching him:the private had become political.

With the impending publication this spring of Sylvia Plath's unabridged journals, the business of biography becomes ever more "transgressive", as Janet Malcolm wrote in her book about Plath, The Silent Woman. And how well I know it from my own experience. Transgression is unavoidably the badge of courage every modern biographer must wear if he is to be published or broadcast.

I was sued (by Lord Rothermere) for the warts-and-all autobiography I helped my father to write, and sued again for JFK: Reckless Youth, my life of President John F. Kennedy as a young man.

Abandoning the Kennedy project in search of a quieter life I turned my attention to the activities of the first Indian prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru - only to be told by Nehru's official Indian biographer, Sarvepalli Gopal, not to get my hopes up. "India is in a pre-Freudian age," he explained, sagely. In India, the private lives of public figures are still off limits to aspiring biographers.

And so it has proved: the first half of my Nehru biography lies mouldering in a drawer while I struggle in vain to get Sonia Gandhi to open up another drawer - that containing correspondence between Nehru and Edwina Mountbatten. So I returned to my official life of Field-Marshal Montgomery, published in the 1980s, only to realise that, in updating it with a host of fresh material for a new edition in 2001, I would have to address Monty's complicated sexuality - the Full Monty, so to speak.

For the fact is, times have changed, and the sexuality of every major figure in history is of interest to biographers. This year sees the opening of the Bodleian Reserve Collection of T. E. Lawrence papers - but most researchers will be there looking for dynamite in the man, not the guerilla leader. Ronald Hyam, in his Sexuality and Empire, opened the scholarly doors on the intimate behaviour of imperialists, and however much the faithful defenders of Lords Kitchener and Haig protest, it is where current biography is "at". As Robert Skidelsky has noted: "The life is the achievement; what used to be called the achievement is now only one accompaniment to living."

To make biography relevant, a biographer has to dig below the surface, whether with ink or 35mm film. And I am not against transgression. In fact, I am all for it, despite the wounds I bear from my earlier struggles.

But I do think that the study of transgression, overstepping the bounds of respectability, is something universities ought to start taking seriously. The fact that in Britain, the country that invented the modern approach to biography under Samuel Johnson, we do not teach biography either as a discrete or as an interdisciplinary subject at university is a national scandal.

We offer degrees in journalism, gender studies, sports history, management, the fine arts - so why not biography? Johnson claimed that biography was even more important than history. As he put it, "histories of the downfall of kingdoms and revolutions of empires" could not provide the same imaginative insight for the reader as biography, for historians were simply not up to such an education of the senses.

How and why biographical artists have approached the business of life depiction, in different media, through the centuries, from the first matchstick representations in Perigordian caves to the biopics of today, seems to me an area of research of immense historical, artistic, social and philosophical importance. I find it fascinating to teach, and my students find it as fascinating to study.

Part of the reason for the scandalous status of biography in academe is snobbery and envy - as was clear when the outgoing director of the Institute of Historical Research, Patrick O'Brien, took a hefty swipe at remunerative political biography a couple of years ago. Films make money and are often trash, yet we study them as cultural manifestations all the same. Teachers of literature can be equally sniffy, often still mired in poststructuralist distaste for the study of authors' lives rather than texts.

In one sense, of course, they are right. Biography has not been theorised, so how can it be treated as important? But how can it be theorised until we learn to study it, in all its cultural guises, technologies and ages? We do not have a scholarly journal of biography in Britain.

It is true that practising biographers are often the worst enemies of educational study. I remember Harold Nicolson's biographer, James Lees-Milne, refusing to support the notion of a new national centre for biography, in association with Royal Holloway, University of London. "Good God, it might encourage more people to write biographies - and there are far too many already," the venerable diarist complained.

Humphrey Carpenter, whose biographies include Ezra Pound and Benjamin Britten, and John Grigg, chronicler of the life of David Lloyd-George, likewise wanted nothing to do with the proposed institute.

Nor does biography have to be couched in book form - though biographers often insist it does. Recently, I was speaking to Michael Frayn about his biographical play Copenhagen, which explores the confrontational relationship between the fathers of atomic physics, Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, who were once friends, but ended on opposing sides in the second world war. Frayn's wife, Claire Tomalin, heard us and became incensed at the idea that a biography could or should be anything other than a scholarly book. Yet Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes, whether in print or on the big screen, raises the self-same issue as did Robert Graves's Goodbye to All That 70 years ago, or T. E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom for that matter.

Fiction or fact - or faction? As Marjorie Garber remarked: "Biography - and even more, autobiography - is a species of fiction-making. This is a truth so old that only a willed cultural amnesia can make it new." But somehow amnesia still does.

Biography, like women's studies a generation ago, needs its own aegis if it is to overcome the snobbery and ignorance that have for so long made it a mere branch or offshoot of literature, or history, or sociology, or science. Had Tomalin studied biography she might have seen a wider world than that of print; might have learned, as I try to train my students, to use the British Film Institute as well as the British Library, the National Sound Archive as well as the Public Record Office. But where could she have studied biography as an artistic and cultural imperative that goes back thousands of years?

For several years since leaving the United States, I have taught the history of 20th-century biography, in all media, at Royal Holloway and, latterly, De Montfort University. Yet the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service does not list biography as an area of knowledge or higher-education study at undergraduate level. For postgraduate students interested in multimedia biographical arts, the menu in Britain is similarly poor. Have you tried to find biography at the British Council - the United Kingdom's international network for education, culture and development services? The situation is a disgrace to academics who purport to be interested in past as well as modern culture.

Can the British Institute of Biography help here? Funding has been a problem, since BIB's National Lottery grant ran out and Royal Holloway abandoned the scheme for a physical centre for biography at Egham, despite an offer of capital from S. P. Hinduja, who later part-sponsored the Spirit Zone in the Dome at Greenwich. De Montfort University, likewise, has given financial reasons for not being in a position to support a physical centre for biography.

While looking for an alternative partner, BIB is developing its national biographical arts centre - the Biorama - online, rather than on soil: a virtual centre in which the biographical arts can at least be promoted on the internet. The first segment goes online on May 1 as real-lives.com, putting multimedia interactive lives on the net, compiled by students. No British foundation would fund, so the project is having to be financed by Indian entrepreneur Sam Pitroda. BIB's new internet Journal of Biography is next, devoted to research and study in biography in all media, to be refereed by a panel of academics and biographers.

Want to help or contribute? Visit us via biography.org.uk, and who knows, we might even get modern biography researched, taught and theorised as a proper subject in Britain - where it began.

Nigel Hamilton is professor of biography at De Montfort University and director of the British Institute of Biography.

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