Ardis Butterfield

To articulate what is past does not mean to recognise ‘how it really was’. It means to take control of a memory, as it flashes in a moment of danger.

Walter Benjamin, ‘On the Concept of History’ (1940)

I am finding it very hard to write a Chaucer biography. Commissioned an uncomfortably long time ago, I have delayed and fussed, despaired and dithered, and rewritten the first half several times. Paul Strohm, to whom I went for advice early on, has written and published his own in the interim.[1] But perhaps at last the mist is clearing. How does one write a literary biography of a figure from the long past? My slowness has been fostered by a jumble of prejudices, defensive poses (instinctive for medievalists), as well as some reasonable qualms about biography as a genre. I had come to the view that biography was dead. The Victorian Lives and Letters model could still be made to work, but only for Victorian and post-Victorian authors, or as a form of popular history. There have been some clever and readable tweaks on the model for earlier writers, by whom I essentially mean Shakespeare (a year in the life of, a day in the life of), but even the most brilliant have served up the same formula: sub-novelistic sentences of high drama follow (unsubstantiated) assertions of scholarly authority, with a dash of murder, intrigue, vivid street life and sex. It’s clearly a successful strategy, but it has been hard to shake off the feeling that popular history is not what I’m trained to write, or the best way of writing about medieval literature, or a representation of the past that I want to endorse.

The following two examples, perhaps, are instructive. One deals with the faintest whiff of intellectual shame involved in enjoying the discovery of a piece of information about the sexual life of an author of impeccable pedigree; the other concerns a vivid makeover of a 14th-century acquaintance of Chaucer. I learned about the first from a New York Times review of Hermione Lee’s 1997 biography of Virginia Woolf. In the midst of Daphne Merkin’s somewhat dutiful praise there erupts a moment of real excitement:

Art and Affection: A Life of Virginia Woolf, by Panthea Reid, while not nearly as strong as Ms Lee’s, makes fascinating use of documents that are either unfamiliar or heretofore unpublished. So we fall upon a startlingly sexy note written by Virginia to Leonard a year and a half after their marriage, in which the Mandril [Leonard Woolf’s pet name for Virginia] ‘wishes me to inform you delicately that her flanks and rump are now in finest plumage, and invites you to an exhibition’. Virginia when she sizzles sounds very hot indeed!

How deliciously inappropriate it feels to see this side of Woolf laid bare. It is also enjoyable to see this described as a piece of impeccable scholarship. This is not idle speculation, we are assured: the biographer has found ‘unfamiliar or heretofore unpublished’ documents. (‘Documents’, needless to say, are inherently more serious and scientific than love notes.)

The second example is a murder mystery about John Gower by Bruce Holsinger, which takes a different tack.[2] Chaucer is glimpsed; he is a calculating and casual character, shallowly obsessed with his literary reputation and erotic conquests. The daring comes partly from making Gower – whose literary image has never quite recovered from being called ‘moral Gower’ by Chaucer – a scheming and envious fixer; but the book’s real selling point is its vividly olfactory and offal-spattered version of medieval London, setting the scene for murder, prostitutes, transvestites and more.

So where is the qualm? Perhaps in the case of the Woolf biography I’m just suffering a pang of Gowerian envy: it’s hard to imagine anyone writing with such relish about sex in a biography of Chaucer. We have no personal letters, and hardly any salacious details. There is a much discussed rape case, but it is now agreed to involve an action whose meaning we can no longer be sure of, and in any case can’t be sure Chaucer committed. So my dark suspicions about the genre of biography may be rather self-serving.

Not all literary biography fits the rubric of popular history. Some of it appeals more to the submerged fantasist, hoarder of dangerous titbits, or amateur detective. Merkin enjoys Panthea Reid’s account of Woolf as a guilty secret: she obviously thinks she should prefer Lee’s account. And I think she does; it’s more that she is also admitting to biography’s gossipy underbelly, and perhaps to its important function as a means of demystifying, of undressing our favourite writers. Holsinger’s novel revels in the guilty secret even more boldly. Why pretend that our patchy knowledge about Gower, or Chaucer, can be turned into a satisfying book? Let us write fiction instead, and not only enjoy the ride, but give shadowy authors the afterlife they never had, in terms they never lived.

But the qualm remains. Suppose one wanted to write a literary biography of Chaucer that chose a different path again. The leisurely capaciousness of a Gesamtkunstwerk like Howard Eiland and Michael Jennings’s recent Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life, able to work its way through a mass of letters, reminiscences and anecdotes, is simply impossible without a great weight of material.[3] Fiction is a separate decision. So one has to turn either to a different kind of evidence, or to strategies that are not usually part of the genre. Two questions drive my thoughts: how does one write a biography now? How does one write a biography of a medieval author now?

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[1] The Poet’s Tale: Chaucer and the Year that Made ‘The Canterbury Tales’ (Profile, 304 pp., £15.99, January, 978 1 78125 059 6).

[2] A Burnable Book (Harper, 512 pp., £8.99, August 2014, 978 0 00 749332 6).

[3] Harvard, 768 pp., £25, April 2014, 978 0 674 05186 7.