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Some considerations on biography

We are pleased to publish this address given by Tanya Harrod to the meeting on 10 October 2000 at the Conway Hall, London, to launch the book ‘Anthony Froshaug’.

I am not a typographer nor a typographic historian. It is my job tonight to say something about biography – for what we are marking this evening is the publication of a special kind of biography – a life and works of the typographer Anthony Froshaug. What I want to stress is how unusual this book is. Robin Kinross’s treatment of Froshaug’s life and work effectively sets itself against the great torrent of lives / biographies that appear year after year – especially in Britain. I believe that biography is the bestselling non-fiction genre in Britain today. I do not want to dismiss the genre in its conventional form – though I can’t help recalling the devil’s advice in C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape letters: make sure those you wish to corrupt read plenty of biography – it will lessen their belief in people’s worth.

In general, the genre, with its worked-up insights and amateurish use of Freudian psychoanalysis, seems to be lacking in integrity. I’d like to read you the political-economist Bernard Crick’s account of how he, rather unwillingly, set about his life of George Orwell. ‘I began with the naive idea that the main task would be to know the character of Orwell as well as humanly possible, while all the time working away at the facts, so that by knowing him, understanding his inwardness, entering into his mind, I could supply his motivations, perhaps even correcting his own later accounts of them and make sensitive suppositions …’ To prepare himself Crick sat down to read a lot of so-called ‘good biography’ and as a result, he writes, I ‘grew sceptical of the fine writing, balanced appraisal and psychological insight that is the hallmark of the English tradition of biography’. Crick concluded that ‘the biographer is fooling himself by an affable pretence of being able to enter into another person’s mind’.1

Earlier biographies tended not to make these kinds of pretences. One thinks immediately of Boswell’s Life of Johnson which operated in a pre-Freudian climate and which despite its great insights, allows its subject dignity and privacy. Take Boswell’s famous account of Johnson’s hypochondria discussed in Richard Ellmann’s perceptive lecture of 1971 On literary biography. Boswell is brisk – ‘let not little men triumph upon knowing that Johnson was a hypochondriack … though he suffered severely from it, he was not therefore degraded. The powers of his great mind might have been troubled, and their full exercise suspended at times; but the mind was ever entire …’.2 It is not hard to imagine how a modern biographer would handle this disability, taking the opportunity to psychologize and to put Johnson’s malady at the heart of the story of his life. But how right is that kind of unearned intimacy with the biographical subject?

Virginia Woolf, a great admirer of Boswell (and another unwilling biographer), provides us with perhaps the most lucid critique of biography – one particularly relevant to the work we are celebrating tonight. Here she is writing in her notebooks in the mid-1930s: ‘The biographer is doing 2 incompatible things. He is providing us with sterile & fertile. Things that have no bearing upon the life. But he has to provide them. He does not know what is relevant. Nobody has yet decided. A bastard impure art. … Since a life must begin with birth and to continue through the years these facts must be introduced in order. But have they anything to do with him – the subject of the biography – ? That is where doubt begins; the pen trembles; the biography swells into the familiar fungoid growth … facts have their importance. – But that is where the biography comes to grief. The biographer cannot extract the atom. He gives us the husk. Therefore, as things are, the best method would be to separate two kinds of truth. Let the biographer print fully, completely, accurately, the known facts without comment. Then let him write the life as fiction.’3

I do not know the trajectory of the decisions which Robin Kinross made when he decided to give an account of Anthony Froshaug. I know that, like Crick and Woolf, Robin is highly critical of the genre of biography. He seems to have quickly realized that the familiar fungoid growth of the typically ‘empathetic’ and ‘magisterial’ acclaimed account of a life would hardly accurately present such a modern, disaffected, and as he points out, Brechtian, subject as Froshaug.

So Robin has given us a life that works altogether differently. It is more Boswellian, more eighteenth-century in spirit. Literary Freudianism is absent, together with the strongly linked upper-middle-class belief that schooldays are crucial to an understanding of any British male. Instead we get a brief illuminating narrative written by Robin which covers some 47 pages followed by Froshaug’s own writing in the form of texts – lectures, articles, book reviews and of course all the actual work – the typography. In an accompanying volume we get documents – the kind of personal writing and exchanges of letters and other material that vividly follows and illuminates the life. Thus this is a biography which we in part construct for ourselves out of the main texts and documents and images, and out of Robin’s second biographic tool, most elegantly deployed – a wealth of footnotes which carry on another subtler narrative. We enter a very specific world – I say this because women may find that they are being presented with a study of a certain kind of masculinity which now seems remote and indefensible. Remote perhaps but, I believe, though I did not know Froshaug, painfully accurately conveyed. Indeed, uncompromising accuracy and truthfulness characterize the making of this book. And in honour of the work and mind of Anthony Froshaug – ‘lonely modernist scribe’, ‘brilliant self-destructive explorer’ – it is beautifully produced. It is subtly put together, with haunting juxtapositions of words and images. Most importantly, unlike most straight biographies which I have read, I got a vivid sense of the subject. By this I mean all the strengths and pathos and genius and kindness and cruelty of Anthony Froshaug, but delivered with the concision of a poem.

1 Bernard Crick, George Orwell: a life, London: Secker & Warburg 1980, p. xxiii.

2 Richard Ellmann, Literary biography: an inaugural lecture, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971, pp. 16—17.

3 Quoted in Hermione Lee, Virginia Woolf, London: Chatto & Windus, 1996, p.10.