Secrets and lies

Biography 2 - Biography, once considered a second-rate genre, has never been so fashionable. Anne Ch

Recently, there was a gathering of biographers over dinner at New College, Oxford. It was at the height of the bizarre fuss over New College's former English don John Bayley, who was stirring the possums of the press by appearing to claim, in his third book about the decline and death of his wife, Iris Murdoch, that he had subsequently bedded two women eager for his favours. Whether or not he was telling the literal truth, and whether or not the women were real people, and whether it mattered, had been the subject of much argument. After dinner, a question prompted by Bayley's book was put to the speaker Jan Morris, who had just concluded a funny, disarming speech in which she indicated that she has always considered herself, as a writer, subject to no rules but her own: was it not one thing for an autobiographer, such as Bayley, to take any liberties he liked when dealing with his own life, but quite another for a biographer to imagine or invent anything about someone else's?

It was my question, and I was surprised by the answer. Morris entirely disagreed: it seemed to her perfectly all right to play around with the truth about another person's life, but unimaginable and not at all right to fail to tell the absolute truth, as far as humanly possible, about one's own. She was so firm that all argument on the point died. Indeed, her firmness was such that it was impossible not to relate her reaction to her own life and the remarkable change of gender she achieved in the middle of it. No doubt Conundrum, the autobiographical book about her sex change she wrote 27 years ago, had told as much of the truth about it all as she wanted to share, then or ever; no wonder she would not want that truth to be investigated or questioned. Indeed, she went on to say that she would not want her own biography written.

It is striking that while biography itself goes in and out of fashion with critics and publishers (not long ago, it was being asserted in publishing circles that the bottom had dropped out of the biography market: popular history was all the rage), the debate over the rules or ethics of writing life stories never dies away. The American critic and essayist Janet Malcolm has made a fine reputation reflecting on the matter, in a somewhat lofty and moralising manner. For all the modish talk about being relative, facts easily manipulated, and all writers essentially writing about themselves, the basic rules of biography are surely very simple. The biographer can, and should, select and arrange the facts about the subject's life; but the facts themselves should be demonstrably true. No words or thoughts, motives or actions should be ascribed to the subject without evidence. The sources of the evidence should be clear and verifiable. Empathy and imagination are vital, but should be used with caution and always indicated to the reader so as to distinguish between what is provable and what is speculative.

This much has always seemed to me basic, indeed obvious, which is why I felt another shock of surprise on reading an essay on biography in a recent issue of the New York Review of Books. There, Hermione Lee reported a remark made by one leader of the biographical pack, Peter Ackroyd, to another, Richard Holmes. "I don't know about you, Richard," said Ackroyd (according to Holmes), "but I'm making it all up." Both writers are known for bringing themselves prominently into their books.

So, once again, the vital question is on the agenda: as Lee puts it, is biography a form of fiction or a form of history? It could be argued that novels and biographies both search for truth, using different methods; sometimes they interact. Much though novelists dislike their fictional characters being tied too tightly to "real people" and used as source material, biographers will continue to do so, and with reason. When working on a biography of Lord Beaverbrook, I found that what I judged, after several years of research, to be the essence of the man was conveyed better in novels by William Gerhardie, Arnold Bennett and Rebecca West (all of whom knew him well) than in all the many memoirs by his political colleagues and journalist employees. But the biographer must lay the cards on the table, so that fictional sources are distinguishable from factual.

Sometimes, the conventional biographical form cannot adequately convey the truth the writer perceives. Ackroyd inserted invented dialogues into his book about Dickens. A more wholehearted and successful experiment, in my view, was Julia Blackburn's extraordinary book Daisy Bates in the Desert, which remains, for me, the milestone marking the outer limit of exploration into biographical territory. Blackburn intended to write a straightforward account of Bates's life and work with aborigines in Australia in the early 20th century. Her research indicated that most of the sources were suspect and that Bates herself was an accomplished liar and fantasist. So Blackburn threw away her notes and instead wrote a poetic, first-person meditation, full of imagination and dreams. In the book she wrote, she became her subject.

Biographers have to deal with lies all the time; few sources, whether written or verbal, do not include doubtful stuff. Autobiographical sources in particular require a sceptical approach, as I found when working on a life of the writer Rumer Godden. Proudly and openly, she called herself a storyteller, and regarded it as her right to make up stories about herself, her family and her friends. It was indeed her right, just as it was my job to question her stories, to look behind them in the search for my own version of events. Lies can be just as revealing as truth. Those of us who choose to write about people recently dead, or still alive, have to tread delicately - even when, as I am now finding as I work on a life of Francis Partridge, we are lucky enough to have a subject who believes passionately in being as truthful as possible and wants to hide nothing. We all know that everyone has something to hide.

Whether the person concerned is alive or dead, the biographer enters a relationship with the subject. As in any relationship, the characters and qualities, preconceptions and aspirations, strengths and weaknesses of the individuals involved are crucial. The subject is the more passive and vulnerable partner - the investigated, not the investigator - and it is on the writer that the main responsibility falls, to try to abide by the rules of honest human interaction. Deception, distortion and betrayal are as fatal to biography as they are to friendship or love. Making things up leads to trouble, muddies the waters, leaves a nasty taste in the mouth.

For me, however, autobiography is quite different: the writer and the subject are one, and truth-telling is more natural and important to some people than to others. The autobiographer's main duty is to himself; the biographer's is to the subject. As for the readers, they know, or they should know, that the full truth about any human life is hard to find, hard to tell, and certainly not to be found between the covers of a book.

Anne Chisholm's most recent biography is Rumer Godden: a storyteller's life (Pan, £7.99)

Short Lives - Six women write their autobiographies in brief

Anita Roddick
I was born to Italian immigrants in an English seaside town, so grew up with an instinctive empathy for the outsider and an appetite for contrariness. I felt I was temperamentally suited to acting, but my mother thought teaching was a safer bet. I listened to her. Still, what with the empathy, the appetite, the temperament and the education, I was well primed to run a business that would have an extremely active public profile. When I finally opened my first shop in 1976, I was motivated by both pragmatism (I needed money) and principles (I hated the way the cosmetics industry did business). Since then, I have proved that it is possible to run an international business that is both ethical and successful - in other words, principled and pragmatic.

Glenys Kinnock
My life, I think, fits into quite neat compartments - growing up in Anglesey, teaching for 30 years, and now an MEP. The threads running through it all have been children (mine and other people's) and being, in every sense of the word, "wed" to the Labour Party. My socialism and internationalism were nurtured by my father, and always confirmed by Neil's ability to live his life by these principles and values. When I was attempting to travel through Sudan on my way to Eritrea in 1987, Lynda Chalker instructed our ambassador in Khartoum to prevent me from travelling to a dangerous war zone. The Daily Mirror correspondent who was accompanying the group (a young man called Alastair Campbell) asked why they were so touchy about my plans. The reply was: "She has no political significance, but she does have diplomatic implications." I have been trying to disprove that ever since.

Carole Stone
I've always been fascinated to find out how people cope with what life throws at them. It helps me live my own life. At 18, I signed up for a Lucie Clayton charm course to boost my self-confidence. It worked - I discovered false eyelashes, the roll-on corset and that, whether debs or secretaries, we were all interested in the same things - relationships and dieting. I joined the BBC as a typist and went on to produce Radio 4's Any Questions?. Now I earn my living as a media consultant - still doing what I love: putting together all sorts of different people to create a good mix. In my late fifties, I at last found a man who wanted to marry me - I'm now Mrs Lindley - and I've just given birth to my first book: on networking.

Janine di Giovanni
I was born in the US, after lunch on a Friday, the seventh child of an Italian American mother and Italian father. It was a loving but utterly chaotic family. I did not realise until I was 13 that I was American. My favourite sibling was my sister Judith, 18 years my senior. I often thought she was my mother. I learnt so much from her. I started writing because I lived so much in my own mind. When I applied to the Iowa writers' workshop, people said I was too young and would never get in. "I'll show you," I thought. It has been the mantra of my life. I became a journalist by default; writing was too lonely. I became a war correspondent because I met a human rights lawyer in Israel in 1987 who convinced me that I had an obligation to report on injustice. I fought against many obstacles to cover the Bosnian war. Looking back, those years are the most important of my life, professionally and personally. I went on to cover conflicts in Rwanda, Zaire, Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone, Vietnam, East Timor, Chechnya and places I think I've blanked out. I love my life. When I was young, I used to tell people I wanted to live, to have a really big life. I think I have what I asked for.

Linda Grant
I grew up in Liverpool, a tough city on the edge of the Atlantic. The war cast its long shadow over everything. Through the eyes of a child, I saw that childhood was a bore. Our house was half-Jewish by birth, half-American in its longings. I grew up torn between glamour and rebellion, chic handbags and feminism, reading Doris Lessing and AnaIs Nin, thinking we could be free women all our lives. I was in love with idealism and thought you had only to will it to change the world. Now the fate of idealists is what absorbs me. And this: you can't have depths without surfaces.

Lindsey Hilsum
As a child, I rambled the Malvern Hills with Ross the dog. I squandered my youth studying - not enough sex'n'drugs. On my 21st birthday, a campesino in the Mexican jungle asked me to marry him. I declined, and kept moving, oscillating between aid work and journalism. Latin America made me a socialist; years in Africa robbed me of all such certainties. Witnessing Rwanda's genocide was the worst. Now I live in a comfortable house with an uncomfortable man in north London. I report the news and keep travelling. No dog. In another life, I married the Mexican.

Edited by Natalie Brierley

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