Writing group biography

Guardian Review, 2005

A critic wrote recently that biographers are always going on about their art, and are, perhaps the only people interested. Maybe but sometimes it feels like the opposite: we are asked so many questions that we are forced, sometimes uncomfortably, to look at what we are doing. It was not until I finished writing The Lunar Men, about the eighteenth-century Lunar Society of Birmingham, that I was faced with queries about ‘group biographies’. Then I began to see them everywhere, and started asking questions myself. Why, at this moment, are we so interested in groups, in cliques, in movements? Can we ever say that a group has a ‘life’, like a single living organism? Why are so many writers turning to this genre?

I don’t want to make a case for the virtues of group biography as opposed to a single life: this feels nonsensical, like saying a bouillabaisse is ‘better’ than a single beautifully cooked sole. They are different exercises, and the subject itself throws up the form. That said, books about groups do offer peculiar challenges and delights, and there is a lot to be said for not looking at an individual's work in isolation.

There are two quite distinct forms of group biography around at present, appealing to different drives, or sets of concerns. I think of them as verb and noun. In the first – the verb – a writer groups lives together under headings: explorers, artists, tap-dancers. These collective works are light years away from a study of a particular group like the Lunar Men, but if you look up ‘group biography’ in a library catalogue, this is what you find. The taxonomic urge is strong; the form is as old as the Western canon. And although sometimes a writer like John Aubrey creates a galaxy of brief lives of brilliant originality, spiced with gossip, all too often, from Plutarch on, collective lives are stacked to push particular programmes. Twenty years ago I embarked on the Macmillan Biographical Dictionary of Women in a fit of pique because all reference books were full of men: it was a mad undertaking, born of a time when feminists wanted heroines and didn’t have Google. But such works have always been concocted at stress points in the long debate about the nature of women: ‘Ladies and gentlemen: in the red corner, the “boke of wykked wives”, as admired by Chaucer’s Wife of Bath; in the blue, Boccacio’s De Claribus Mulieribus, to be followed in the next bout by Christine de Pisan’s Cite des Dames.’ And so on.

The modern variant takes only a few lives – four or five perhaps – to uncover a past we might otherwise miss. Perhaps this is why women stand out both as writers and subjects: Katie Hickman’s Daughters of Britannia and Courtesans, Lucy Moore’s Maharanis, Norma Clarke’s Dr Johnson’s Women, or Patricia Fara’s Pandora’s Breeches, pairing women scientists with better known husbands or brothers. The people may not know each other, or even live at the same time, but their cumulative experience is full enough, as Sebastian Faulks has put it, ‘to take away the sense of “so what” that would cling to a single short life’. And sometimes a collective biography employs an unexpected category that makes us re-read history. Faulks was prompted to write The Fatal Englishman , about three doomed prodigies – Christopher Wood, Richard Hillary and Jeremy Wolfenden - not by the idea of success but of failure: the hint that ‘young or short lives are more sensitive indicators of the pressure of public attitudes than lives lived long and crowned with honours’.

The second kind of group biography – the noun – is a study of the lives of people in a particular set. These used to be thought rather dusty and academic, but now they seem very much of our time. There’s no longer any problem explaining them. We’re already compulsively interested in the tangled lives of small sets of people, the stuff of soap operas: Coronation Street, East Enders, Friends, ER, The West Wing – let alone Big Brother. We latch on effortlessly to the way that groups throw up problems of relationships in stark and intense ways, and see too how people working together develop techniques or ideas or habits that they might not otherwise have. There’s a commercial element too: book-buyers like variety and publishing goes in waves. Short lives have been a huge success, a refreshing relief after footnoted tomes: the best work on groups combines this succinctness with a broader landscape, a pleasureable avenue into periods or difficult ideas. They also, I think, appeal to our longing for community in a mobile world, our yearning for roots and groups, see in the success of Friends Reunited and the vogue for family history.

Indeed the most obvious ‘found’ group is the family. One book among many that have mined this vein is Stella Tillyard’s Aristocrats, in which the doughty Lennox sisters act out their roles on the Georgian stage. Tillyard, who is now writing about George III and his siblings, is drawn to groups because, she says ‘I have always thought that the linear idea of biography is limiting and not 'true to life', and people are defined by many of those who surrounded them - so accounts of siblings, classmates, groups of friends are just as illuminating as the single life.’ Sometimes they can be combined: ‘ Michael Holroyd's Lytton Strachey, published in 1968, is the best early example of this - life as a comedy of manners conducted by a group of friends with tragic consequences.’

Lytton Strachey, of course, had himself reinvented collective biography with Eminent Victorians in 1918, and he glowered in his deckchair among that endlessly discussed cultural coterie, the Bloomsbury group. Some such groups, like the Dadaists and Vorticists, have a distinct manifesto, but more often, as with the Bluestockings or the Lake Poets or Bloomsbury, the label comes later, when people look back on their work. Very often they adopt a shared attitude that affects private lives as well as public achievements and happily for us - though not always for them - the subsequent imbroglios and sexual tensions lend themselves perfectly to the higher gossip. This is true even when the sets are more casual and fluid, like those of Soho in the ‘50s and ‘60s, when artists and writers like Francis Bacon, Dylan Thomas, Brendan Behan and Colin McInnes drifted from the Coach and Horses to the Gargoyle Club, from the French Pub to the Colony Room. This network was born less of ideas than propinquity and drink, whose members all inhabited, as George Melly put it, ‘that dodgy never-never land, that hallucinated enclave, where we waited, consumed by angst, to cure today’s hangover by making certain of tomorrow’s’.

In old age, group members often place a halo of nostalgia on their euphoric mutual creativity. Joseph Priestley dedicated his last work published before he was driven into exile in America in 1794 to his friends of the Lunar Society, declaring that it had 'both encouraged and enlightened me; so that what I did there of a philosophical kind, ought in justice to be attributed almost as much to you as to myself'. ‘We were really like brothers,’ wrote William Rossetti, editing Dante Gabriel’s letters in 1895, ‘continually together and confiding to one another all experience bearing on questions of art and literature and many affecting us as individuals’. Millais, Hunt and Rossetti took the idea of their semi-secret brotherhood from the German artists, the Nazarenes, but, as Jan Marsh has pointed out, they were not always so solemn. They thought of taking a house in Chelsea where outsiders might take the notice ‘P.R.B’ as ‘Please ring the bell’; Rossetti proposed a Mutual Suicide Association, all to be done ‘without weeping and gnashing of teeth’. William again: ‘I , for instance, am to go in and say, ‘I say Hunt, just stop painting that head a minute and cut my throat’, to which he will respond by telling the model to keep the position as he shall be only a moment…’

There is something very poignant about these survivors: ‘ the loss of one’s friends,’ sighed Erasmus Darwin, ‘is one great evil of growing old’. In an obituary of Frances Partridge in 2004, Anne Chisholm describes her sitting surrounded by her past, with Lytton’s armchair by the window, Carrington’s portrait above the desk, her walnut armoire stuffed with letters. Yet when Frances went to the Bloomsbury exhibition at the Tate at the age of 100, she made sure she also had a good look at Tracy Emin’s bed.

One attraction for readers is the sense of being let into a circle, of gaining code. Groups often create their own style of dress and almost without fail, whether they are surfers or Sloanes, scientists or singers, they finds their own language. Here is David Cohen in the Evening Standard, transcribing South London gangsters in 2005: ‘Knives is fuck all. Later my bruvs will be back from their robberies with our skengelengs [guns] and cream [money]. Later there be MAC-10s [sub machine guns] all over the floor, laid wall to wall. And moolah! We count it – 10 grand, 20 grand’. Or Amanda Foreman, evoking the drawl of Devonshire House set ‘ part baby-talk, part refined affectation’, in the 1770s: ‘hope was written and pronounced as ‘whop’; you became ‘oo’. Vowels were compressed and extended so that cucumber became ‘cowcumber’, yellow ‘yaller’, gold ‘goold’ , and spoil rhymed with mile.’ Or Alethea Hayter, in her influential, non-linear, group study, A Sultry Month: Scenes of London Literary Life in 1846: ‘As Carlyle said, it was coterie-sprache of the closest kind, full of nicknames, turns of speech caught up from Mazzini’s erratic English – “thanks God”, “here down”, “a mad” – or some old Scottish acquaintance’s malapropisms; a vivid secret language which must have given intense pleasure to the initiates’.

Such languages look inward, fencing the group off, and sometimes the exclusiveness can be objectionable and elitist. But every network also crosses others, the circles radiating across disciplines, borders, oceans. And across time: thus James Campbell’s Paris Interzone follows the hilarious, fraught descent of small magazines and literary lives in Paris from the Liberation to the ‘60s, from Gertrude Stein sheltering Richard Wright to Alexander Trocchi and Merlin Press; the Paris Review and Samuel Beckett; the Olympia Press and Lolita. Such an account militates against the notion of the Romantic genius, the isolated artist. Louis Menand’s recent group study of American pragmatism, The Metaphysical Club illustrates this vividly. This club was small and shortlived, existing for a few months in 1872 and comprising four friends, Oliver Wendell Holmes, William James, Charles Sanders Pierce and John Dewey. But as Menand traces the hunt for a new philosophy in the aftermath of the Civil War we see how the origins and expression of thought are embedded in lives and history. Ideas themselves are social.

In my own case, I wanted to write about friendship, a rather neglected subject in books, if not in films. Having written on Hogarth I had become fascinated by the eighteenth-century, when informal groups lay at the heart of so much that was vital and innovative. Indeed it would have seemed strange not to belong to a group. ‘Man is a sociable animal’, Addison wrote in the Spectator in 1711, ‘and we take all occasions and pretences of forming ourselves into those little assemblies which are commonly known as clubs.’ The group surrounding Samuel Johnson became known simply as ‘The Club’. Reynolds, Burke and Goldsmith were founders and it swelled over the years to embrace Boswell, Garrick, Gibbon, Sheridan, Adam Smith and Joseph Banks, a daunting cabal, laying down the guide-lines for British taste.

There were lesser clubs everywhere. The Lunar Society, for instance, was a group of friends including Josiah Wedgwood and Erasmus Darwin, Matthew Boulton and James Watt, who developed the steam engine, and Joseph Priestley, radical leader and inspired chemist. Over many years they met regularly around the time of the full moon, when there was light to see you home – hence the name. Sparking off each other, they thought most productively when together, as Darwin acknowledged, when his doctor’s practice made him miss a meeting in 1778:

-Lord! What inventions, what wit, what rhetoric, metaphysical, mechanical and pyrotechnical, will be on the wing, bandy’d like a shuttlecock from one to another of your troop of philosophers! While I, poor I, I by myself I, imprizon’d in a post-chaise, am jogged, and jostled, and bumped, and bruised along the King’s high road, to make war upon a pox or a fever!

The tug between the ‘I, poor I’ and the ‘troop’ is the measure of group dynamics. Similar creative knots have taken appropriate forms in every age since Plato and the Academy in Athens. It isn’t just that patronage draws talent - troubadours flocking to Eleanor of Aquitaine, or artists to Medici-ruled Florence - but that groups, which are collaborative and competitive at once, provide instant recognition, simultaneous endorsement and impetus, friendship and rivalry, arguments, inspiration, the sheer relief of being able to talk about what excites you without being thought a crank.

Today a group can also feed into a virtual universe: geography is no boundary, meetings are electronic not physical. A well publicised example is the McSweeney collective in San Francisco, with its two journals, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern and monthly The Believer, and shared style, ironic, knowing, self-referential. Think of a name and they are a contributor or a fan: Nick Hornby, Javier Marias, Haruki Murakami. This month, we are told, there is ‘subject matter as diverse as boredom, AA, punk rock, cannibalism, wrestling, drowning and squash’. McSweeney’s stands out not only for its celebrity, but for its velocity, to use a Dave Eggers term, and its world-wide, net driven energy: an ‘Ideas Share’ web page even notes concepts for books in the hope that others will take them up.

But we should be wary of the romance of the collective creativity: don’t forget the fights between the poets, the tensions in the lab. Groups can be oppressive. This was the experience of Lucien Carr, who died on 28 January. Wealthy, Rimbaud-obsessed, self-destructive, Carr was a powerful influence on his Columbia fellow students Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac ( who described him as ‘Shakespeare reborn almost’); he introduced William Burroughs to the Beats; Ginsberg and Kerouac helped him get rid of the knife with which he killed David Kammerer. Yet in later life, although still a friend, Carr struggled to be free of their literary ethos, even insisting he be cut from the dedication of Ginsberg’s Howl. There was no escape: his Independent obituary was headed ‘Last original member of the Beats’. A group can steal your life. And when a group becomes a cult, collaboration can be dark and dreadful, hard for outsiders to fathom. Here biography can help by showing how individuals slowly surrender to a cause or a leader. In The Devil’s Disciples, for example, Anthony Read focused on Hitler’s lieutenants, especially Goring, Goebbels and Himmler, tracking the hero-worship and ambition that led them over the brink.

It is hard to stand back and judge a joint biography of a bunch of Nazis as a carefully crafted construct; unnerving to see the Guardian quote on the paperback: ‘ A pacy…elegant book’. But the reminder is salutary. Multiple lives, however horrific or benign their subjects, pose similar problems. For one thing they throw up so much material that it can feel unmanageable. How do you make them bounce off each other, without losing the central drive? How do you overcome imbalances of sources? Some members may have huge archives while others have left sporadic correspondence – or none. In other words, how do you make it ‘elegant’?

In his preface to Bloomsbury: House of Lions (1979), Leon Edel took the model of a necklace: he would string the episodes together: ‘ as one strings beads, and when the story is complete and harmonious, each bead has a relation to other beads on the string’. The allusion to craft strikes home. One might think of a tapestry, whose coloured threads slowly build a picture but whose back reveals all the broken threads and loose ends. Or of novels, whose narrative flows through time, setting individual stories against shared experience, or of opera, where a solo gives way to a duet, or a trio, and on triumphant occasions a chorus, a blend of individual tunes.

It is intriguing, for writers and readers, to play with the idea of a unified ‘life’. The group is young, in love, giddy; it battles for success and settles on a plateau of achievement; it faces crises, suffers blows, fights critics. In old age it crumbles, loses its memory. Finally, inevitably, it dies. (Individual deaths are terribly difficult – how do you have a series of moving last scenes without sounding like a weepy Victorian novel?). Sometimes working on groups calls to mind a shoal of fish, or a flock of starlings – the way the shoal swirls round a rock as if it’s one creature, or the flock swoops like a single wing through the sky, turning and tumbling. But although it seems to have a life of its own, the trembling formation is created by separate fishes and birds moving to get the best position. This is true also of people.

When you look closely, the individuals in any well-known set turn out to be strikingly different. But for cultural critics and ordinary punters there is something comforting about marshalling them together, like putting them in jam-jars with neat labels so that they can glow in tidy ranks on the shelf: ‘ St Ives group’, ‘Cyril Connolly’s Encounter’, ‘Ian Hamilton New Review writer’. Yet you can’t trap life in frames. In her biography, Hermione Lee point to Virginia Woolf’s sinking feeling when confronted by a new life of Christina Rossetti:

Here is the past and all its inhabitants miraculously sealed as if in a magic tank; all we have to do is to listen and to look and to look and to listen and soon all the little figures – for they are rather under life size – will begin to move and speak, and we will arrange them in all sorts of patterns of which they were ignorant, for they thought when they were alive that they could go where they liked; and as they speak we shall read into their sayings all kind of meanings which never struck them, for they believed when they were alive that they said straight off whatever came into their heads. But once you are in a biography all is different.
What biographer can plead ‘Not Guilty’? But, to quote Faulks again, the lives of real people, unlike fictional characters ‘seem to exert a constant outward force away from order’. We can shape lives, without bending truth or fact, into comprehensible patterns, but we must also accept their singularity. And groups, because of their varying dynamic, have a serendipity that defies form; the labels come unstuck. So, thank heavens, do the labels on types of biography.


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