The Biographer’s Craft

May 10, 2013 at 11:00 am (books, diaries, history, jane austen, research) (, , , , , , , , )

Having joined (a few months ago) Biographers International Organization — BIO, for short of course! — I feel (momentarily, at least) among kindred spirits. In today’s email box a new edition of the Society’s Newsletter, The Biographer’s Craft. There are short news articles, a list of biographies just hitting the shelves, a member interview or two.

Until six years ago (almost to the day!), I worked as a staff member at a local college. Oh, how I wanted to rewrite my life! It’s been more like a re-run… Once the economy tanked… Well, I don’t expect I have to say more than that to you. But at the college (university-aged students, for those of you in the UK), I had a few kindreds: people who read books; people who travelled; people who did research, wrote, and published. Not that the professors thought of little ol’ me as far as research went! One prof thought I’d do well writing fiction (rather than history / biography). Another wanted to know, ‘Why is there so much material on these people?’ Luck of the draw, would be my answer to that unanswerable question. Her project? a diary that someone else had transcribed and left voluminous notes about – but she taught me how much can be deduced from so little primary material. I, on the other hand, do have diaries and letters, sketchbooks, printed biographies, &c, &c.

So reading the latest edition of The Biographer’s Craft, my mind was engaged by a couple of bits and pieces:

There’s an upcoming (in NYC) conference – among the roundtables, talks, lectures are two sessions, one entitled Diary of a Biographer: How Authors Lived Their Lives While Writing Someone Else’s and another called Almost Famous: Biographies of Wives, Sisters, Fathers, Lovers of the Famous. The second intrigues me; but I’ll mention the first first.

“Just starting out” means no one cares about my unearthing anything about Mary Gosling and Emma Smith; few know about the project (oh, you lucky few! those reading this post…); people who know me sometimes ask about it with the questioning tone in their voice that says, Are you still working on that?


I think about these families, the Smiths and Goslings, day and night.

I travel with them — right now I’ve just ridden over the Simplon Pass on a mule, enjoyed the beauty of the tremendous mountain scenery, and quaked at the dangerous precipices. This comes from a diary I’m currently transcribing, dated 1827.

I moan over letters I know to be out there, but have remained (some time) unread.

I bemoan pictures and silhouettes and miniatures which may be out there, unattributed; and lament those I, again, know to exist but which haven’t been shared with me.

scenes from lifeWhen I bought my little copy of Scenes from Life at Suttons, a book of “poetry” in which the Smiths go about their daily business of reading, or having breakfast, because I know these people, from their letters, from their diaries, I could hear them speak. For others, however — those with glazing-over eyes who maybe never can share my passion, their lack of enthusiasm sometimes colors my day. So it’s nice to think of writers (some QUITE successful) inhabiting this world. I feel less alone when I read an issue of The Biographer’s Craft.

And I feel invigorated. Take the topic of Almost Famous. Although other materials exist in public archives, the vast majority of materials exist because of Emma’s connection to Jane Austen. I know that. I also know that Austen herself is the interest for the 99%. When I gave a lecture on letters, I asked for a show of hands: How many of my audience had read some of Austen’s Letters. Very few hands went up. More had read a biography of her.

I read biographies of the “almost famous” because of the circle of people they knew, the time period, and of course the connection to England. But we 1% are a GREAT minority in Austen Studies. It’s a small group for me to target — and yet if more Austen readers would find my Emma and Mary, they’d find a story not far removed from Austen’s novels. Will my books ever excite the attention of Jo Baker’s Longbourn… I have a feeling, probably not. Yet: It Should! My Two Teens led fabulous lives, so ordinary in some respects, so unusual in other respects. And the “times” they lived through: the Regency, political strife, war, a changing “welfare” state, the young Victoria ascending the throne. I always think of them as starting in the horse-age and proceeding through the steam-age into the age of trains.

I have long said that I would LOVE to see a volume (probably a set of books would be required) in which ALL the Austen family letters were published — Jane’s among them, all chronological, and of course highly annotated. But if 1% only want to buy such a book, it will never be published.

mozartA favorite book of mine on Mozart is Ruth Halliwell’s The Mozart Family: Four Lives in a Social Context; why can’t there be a book about Jane Austen that treats her entire family circle in such a manner?!? Again, if 99% buy Longbourn, who’s left to care about “lives in a social context”?

And yet, when I see a book on the “used” market which is scarce and hard to come by – quite often, unless I’m quick, another one-percenter snaps it up!


  1. Sabine said,

    I’m so happy to hear you are among kindred spirits, as well as over here on your blog. I think the work of a biographer is very important in many regards. But most important you’re helping to keep history alive.
    For me digging deeper into history and research feels like you’ve grabbed a drowning in the very last minute and no matter what happens there’s this strong feeling of not letting go until everything is safe back in the boat.
    It is so often we look into miniature portrait faces at one of the online auctions, where nothing has remained than the sole painting – no name, no history, no family…
    It’s good to know that there are people out there, who try to give some of them their lives back and cherish their letters and diaries. There’s a reason, they have left these footsteps. Thank you for your work!

    • Janeite Kelly said,

      Danke, Sabine!

      I adore the image behind your thought that “they have left these footsteps”…


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