The Utter Failures of Biography

June 23, 2009 at 1:28 pm 4 comments

This post was originally going to be about feminism. I had this great idea wherein I had procured biographies of two highly influential women from the nineteenth century and I was going to write about their incredible achievements (against all odds, of course) and praise the authors of said biographies for finally writing about these women. This was all well and good, but then I actually read the books. So much promise. So little delivery.

The two books in question were Mistress of the Elgin Marbles: A Biography of Mary Nisbet, Countess of Elgin by Susan Nagel and Emily Post: Daughter of the Gilded Age, Mistress of American Manners by Laura Claridge. Both women are undeniably interesting subjects about which relatively little has been written (in Claridge’s case, this is the first and only biography of her subject) and both women are interestingly ahead of their times. Both books offered fantastic opportunity for new scholarship and intelligent connections, but both books fell into a slew of disappointing conceits of biography as a form. I cannot begin to tell you how disappointing this was.

Indeed, there are a few classic and utter failures of biography and these two books illustrated these points brilliantly:

1. “The Helena Syndrome” – As Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream said, “Use me but as your spaniel, spurn me, strike me,/Neglect me, lose me; only give me leave,/Unworthy as I am, to follow you.” Thus do authors feel about their subjects and there could not possibly be a worse way to go into writing about your subject. Some affection makes a good biographer since said biographer is dedicated to finding out all he or she can about the subject, but a love-sick biographer is the worst possible thing for subject, biography and reader. This love can manifest itself in a few ways:

1a.) Defending criticisms of the subject out of the blue. Example: Ms. Claridge spends much of her book defending Emily Post from criticism levied against her by critics throughout the years. The reader, not being in love with Emily Post and probably not knowing that much about her if inspired to read the biography, becomes utterly lost as Ms. Claridge fights the slings and arrows of Post-antagonists gone by. Similarly, Ms. Nagel is also careful to paint Mary Elgin in the best possible light (both throughout her glittering life overseas and throughout her acrimonious divorce) while also being very sure to portray those slurring Mary as villains and thorough knaves.

1b.) Verbose passages glorifying the subject. Ms. Claridge is particularly bad about this. In her book, with every new edition of Emily Post’s etiquette manual, the reader is treated to Ms. Claridge’s own review of the book and how truly excellent and progressive whatever new edition was. (Ms. Claridge also takes this opportunity to swat at those who gave poor reviews to Emily Post’s book when it first came out. See 1a.)

1c.) A lengthy epilogue arguing how the Western world would be bereft and simply not the same without the subject. Happily, Ms. Claridge skips this one in favor of an unpleasantly abrupt final chapter wherein Emily Post dies and the book almost immediately ends with no discussion of the ramifications of Post’s book on the future. Sadly, Ms. Nagel does not. On the bright side, Ms. Nagel’s epilogue argument–that Mary Elgin is one vital reason we have better divorce laws today–is one of the more well articulated and plausible parts of the book, so I forgive her this symptom of love.

2. Failing to recognize why people are reading a book about the subject (oftentimes perhaps because of the Helena Syndrome). When you are write a book called something “Jane Doe: The Woman Who Rewrote the History of the Space/Time Continuum” you damn well better spend a lot of time talking about Jane’s rewriting of the history of the space/time continuum. You should not spend your time focusing other accomplishments of Ms. Doe unless they are directly related to her work on rewriting history. Similarly (and, yes, Ms. Nagel, I’m talking to you), if you are writing a book called “Mistress of the Elgin Marbles: A Biography of Mary Nesbit, Countess of Elgin,” you should definitely spend the bulk of book discussing the Elgin Marbles and Mary Nesbit’s role in being “mistress” of them. Indeed, the subject of a biography may well have done other, equally important and even more important things (in Mary Nesbit’s case, yes her role in the reform of marriage and divorce law is admirable and interesting), but if that is the case, you should title your book to match. Reeling readers in with a snappy title only serves to disappoint when the book veers off into some other of the subject’s accomplishments, probably a personal favorite of the author.

3.) Skipping the juicy bits. Scholarly? No. Interesting? Heck yes! Nothing is more frustrating than having an author skip over the salacious details of his or her subject simply because it will not show them in a good light. Alternately, it is equally annoying when an author skips those parts simply because they are focusing on some broader, oftentimes moralizing, point. Mary Nesbit went through an extremely harrowing and public divorce wherein she was accused of adultery and sexual misconduct. What does Ms. Nagel give us? Mary Nesbit fell in love, but her respect for marriage forbade her from acting on said new-found love. Thanks, Ms. Nagel. I’m glad Mary was such a upstanding citizen and Christian, now what really happened?!

Undoubtedly, there are more failures of biography as a form that I am just leaving off, but, frankly, I am just too wholly disappointed with these two books to really go on. Save yourself the disappointment and Wikipedia these women.


Entry filed under: Biography.

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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. KT  |  June 24, 2009 at 12:02 am

    Wow, awesome review! I especially love that you have discovered and diagnosed the Helena Syndrome :)

  • 2. Corey  |  June 24, 2009 at 1:09 pm

    I thought you might appreciate Helena Syndrome! I was re-reading some of our abridged versions so she was on my mind. :)

  • […] and I appreciated Schwoerer’s determination to paint a fair picture (okay, there was little Helena Syndrome throughout, but she does admit it up top in the introduction). So if you’re looking for a […]

  • 4. An embarrassment of fictions « Literary Transgressions  |  March 29, 2012 at 12:09 pm

    […] and was stunned at the pleasure I received from it. It’s a pretty great book that tackles the complex challenges facing a biographer from the interesting perspective of autobiography. With its marvelous blend of memoir, literary […]


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