||Writing A Life
by Rosemary Sullivan
BOOKS SAY: she did this because. Life says: she did this. Books are where things are explained to you. Life is where they aren`t .... Books make sense of life. The only problem is that the lives they make sense of are other people`s lives, never your own." So says Julian Barnes`s pseudo-biographer in his novel Flaubert`s Parrot. Why are we so fascinated by biography? Is it the illusion of explanation the genre seems to offer? The literary detective follows the clues, solves, not the crime, but the life. Life solutions. Perhaps we long to fill in the silence at the core of real lifestories.
The first problem that crops up in writing biography is that of perspective. It is always assumed that the biographer identifies with her subject; that the impulse to biography is vicarious. But it I take my own case, I don`t know if the impulse begins there. This may have something to do with the difference in writing, as Carolyn Heilbrun called it, a woman`s life. The biography I wrote, By Heart: Elizabeth Smart A Life, was commissioned by Penguin. Though I had known Elizabeth Smart, it would not have occurred to me to write her life. Yet when the project was offered to me, it seemed fascinating. My identification with Smart was not that Elizabeth Smart`s life was like my life, but rather that there was a puzzle there I wanted solved. I began with the myth with which Elizabeth Smart was identified through her novel, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept: the myth of romantic love. At what level is romantic love a cultural artefact, the story of value we tell ourselves? Do we love as we do because we have learned it from literature? And is there, for women, a dangerous self-denial in the myth? Or is it a route to something else? Still, as a biographer, while you may begin with a puzzle, you have to disappear from the narrative, watch from a distance while paring your fingernails. You may begin with a preconception, but you have to be ready to have it sabotaged as you uncover the details of the life.
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of writing a life is to resist the implications of narrative itself, even though you know this is where the energy of biography lies. As soon as any life is turned into story - and there is no other way to tell it the daily ordinariness of the real life is distorted, and the life is inflated into the very myth one wants to resist. This "spotlight effect," as Victoria Glendinning calls it, focusing on one person as central to the scheme of things, inevitably distorts - and one runs the risk of "author-theology." Yet the isolating of a model, a paradigm, is really what biography is all about.
Biography offers not the life (which to be fully understood would of course have to be repeated, to be lived), but what the biographer perceives, or discovers, to be the rhythm of the subject`s life, directed by imperatives laid down by the personality and by the context in which that life was lived. All lives, or at least the lives of authors, turn inevitably into a quest story: the search for the fulfilment of the writer`s gift.
Memory and intention are the two poles of personality: the inevitable prejudices and preconceptions, the writer`s own among them, that prevent one from being, and the drive of will that would break those boundaries. In the end, biographies cannot resist the implication that they are models, not in the banal "author-theology" sense, but in the sense of strategies for survival with the identity intact (or not, as the case may be). Heilbrun is particularly candid about this. We do live by stories, she notes in Writing a Woman`s Life:
What matters is that lives do not serve as models; only stories do that .... We can only retell and live by the stories we have read or heard. We live our lives through texts. They may be read, or chanted, or experienced electronically, or come to us, like the murmurings of our mothers, telling us what conventions demand. Whatever their form or medium, these stories have formed us all; they are what we must use to make new fictions, new narratives.
The impulse to write women`s lives is rooted in the recognition that their stories have been silenced or trivialized, the complexity of the models never fully explored.
The biographer begins, then, by admitting the artifice of her conventions. How to tell the life? My solution was to begin with an incident, one the writer herself used repeatedly to encapsulate her own life, and then to follow the life chronologically. Elizabeth Smart was herself the source of the notoriety that attached to her lifelong relationship with George Barker, a man she fell in love with, had four children by, but lived with only intermittently. She delighted in telling the anecdote of entering Better Books in Charing Cross Road, picking up a book by the brilliant young protege of T. S. Eliot, George Barker, immediately failing in love with the poetry, the voice, checking the biographical blurb to determine if he was the right age, and then beginning what she called her manoeuvres. She let it be known among friends that she wanted to meet Barker since she wanted to marry him and have his babies. And Barker indeed heard that a beautiful Canadian blonde, an heiress, was looking for him with marriage in mind. He could dismiss this as besotted, until he met her. For the biographer this is not a simple anecdote. Not only has one to unravel the imperatives driving the young woman of 23 was she simply a romantic mythomaniac in love with the idea of poetry and the poet? - one has also to determine the attitude of the old woman telling the story. Was there irony in the memory, amusement, nostalgia, a delight in her own youthful capacity for exaggeration, for wilfulness when the world seemed malleable to her own idea? There the story sits, demanding to be put in context. And the context has to be constructed chronologically. "It was November. After November, comes December. Then January, February, March, and April" (as Virginia Woolf, in Orlando, parodied the biographer`s addiction to chronology). One is, inevitably, threading holes together with string.
Judgements have to be made at every stage about how to weigh the sources, and this is where the interpretation of a life comes in. This is where the collusion between subject, biographer, and reader takes effect. A synthesis of the many conflicting aspects of a personality and a life is what is aimed for. Success depends, it seems to me, on the biographer`s refusal to deliver final assertions about her subject or her subject`s motives; neither condescending to, in the sense of explaining or castigating (Glendinning would say "punishing" the subject), nor becoming partisan, buying the subject`s version as if from whole cloth. "Is the story of your life what happens to you, or what you feel happens to you, or what observers see happening to you?" Glendinning asks. I`m sure that the biographer`s responsibility is to attempt some version of all three.
In the National Library in Ottawa there are 85 boxes of material in the Elizabeth Smart Collection: each box contains anywhere from 10 to 50 files. The first question one asks is why is it there? Much of this material was kept in boxes in Smart`s Suffolk cottage, and sold after she died. There are notebooks, letters, photographs, bills, galleys of her journalism, records of her children`s lives (their journals and school records), memorabilia, even junk mail - a haphazard collection of details. It was strange fingering this detritus of a life: one box contained a ring belonging to her dead daughter, Rose; clippings of Roses hair at five days old, of Elizabeth`s in 1940; matches with the name "Elizabeth Smart"; all carefully catalogued by a scrupulous archivist, and all with the sadness of objects detached from the life that gave them meaning - now cryptograms whose resonance eludes. Apart from her early notebooks, saved over the years by her mother, the most heavily documented period of Smart`s life was from 1939 to 1947 when her relationship with George Barker unfolded. There are letters between Smart and Barker, between Barker and his wife, Jessica, between the wife and Smart. Elizabeth saved this material because she believed that anything attached to Barker`s life would be important. In a little book she prepared for her son Christopher after his birth (making miniature books by hand was a lifelong habit), she details his genealogy: "Christopher`s father is a Poet and there is none better alive this day in England or anywhere else" When she crossed the Atlantic in 1943 in a war convoy, pregnant and with her one-and-a-half-year-old daughter, she was careful to leave all manuscripts and letters in New York, in case the boat was sunk. (In fact it was torpedoed, but remained afloat.) She kept a carefully annotated bibliography of Barker`s work, telling herself if she didn`t "husband" his work, who would? After the love relationship ended, there is a gap in archival material - did little seem worth saving now? And then the archives resume. Had she now shifted her focus back to her own life?
And of what value are notebooks? Smart`s are a writer`s workbooks, exercises in craft, revealing her attitudes to her own work, her frustrations, insecurities, blocks, and ecstasies. They are not confessional; particularly in later life, the names of friends or acquaintances seldom surface. There is little of the entertaining, gossipy, or even bitchy glimpses into the lives of others one might expect in diaries. Is this a symptom of generosity, disinterest, or solipsism? Many biographers find they cannot trust the records. Anais Nin edited her diaries for posterity. Lillian Hellman made them up. I concluded that Smart`s could be trusted, but only as a record of the writer`s psyche; the daily littleness of ordinary life with its clashes was rarely to he found there.
And how to weigh the endless information gained in letters and interviews with those who had known her? I found something interesting about Smart: she came to seem to me like an old Proteus, a shape-shifter; it was as if I were wrestling with her on the beach, trying to fix her in one shape so she would speak. Curiously, she was a touchstone; in her way of being she challenged others, seemed to push them to the edge of themselves. This is Aviva Layton speaking of Smart in 1983:
Once when 1 was at her apartment she pulled me onto her lap and made me glug down some brandy straight from the bottle. Since I`m really a light drinker I couldn`t swallow it but Elizabeth kept pouring it down my gullet until it spilt down my chin onto my clothes. Instead of making me feel angry it made me feet inadequate, like a tight little Puritan wowser. That`s one of the reasons it was so difficult to be with Elizabeth - since she was so much larger than life, you felt so much smaller than life.
Often what people told me, with affection or animus, revealed more about themselves than about Smart. The passions she aroused were not easy. Was this a trickster`s way of keeping her own secrets to herself? And yet Elizabeth seemed unable to fake an emotion. She lived by heart, by that tattered, raggedy, and poignant organ.
What the biographer does, then, is to imitate the process of a life, constructing a cryptogram, a puzzle for which no solution is intended - threading the holes together. There is the evidence and then the dilemma, how to weigh its merits. Searching among the archives of Elizabeth`s private school, Elmwood, which she attended from the age of eight to 15, 1 found the annual school magazines. In one article, two friends of Elizabeth`s, whose names crop up among her letters, wrote an article in which they fantasized about the futures of the other students. Each friend, they were confident, would become the world`s leading surgeon, lawyer, fashion designer, novelist. Elizabeth, it was predicted, would be walking her string of babies through Rockcliffe Park. Among Elizabeth`s memorabilia were adolescent scrapbooks in which she had pasted endless baby pictures. There were amusing letters, obviously from school chums, written as if from a baby`s perspective. When I asked Elizabeth`s sister, Jane, about this, she explained that Elizabeth started "collecting" babies from the age of 10. She also invented a club called the B.C. club or Baby Club.
I had already gathered that, in Janes version, Elizabeth "collected" the world, excluding her. Yet it seemed clear that Elizabeth`s baby obsession was a compensation impulse. Childhood, in her autobiographical reminiscences, seemed an agony of rejection and despair. For the child who would later write a story called "Dig a Grave and Let Us Bury Our Mother" (the title is from Blake`s "Tiriel"), the mother seemed a tantalizing figure: with her love, she could "spread sun," but "her storms descended quicker and direr than typhoons." Elizabeth`s recurring nightmare in childhood was of her mother`s neck elongating; it would crack and fall off unless she were loved enough. (Elizabeth`s own daughter remembered her mother`s strange obsession with necks).
"Loved enough!`; the burden of love carried by the child. What is the legacy of the line of over-determined conventional mothers? Of Aurelia Plath? Of Mrs. Louie Smart? The patterns of love we know and pursue are laid down in childhood. Yet was it possible that Elizabeth`s obsession was exaggerated, personal? Janes stories were similar. At the age of 65, after a stroke that almost entirely paralysed her, Jane wrote an autobiographical account of childhood from the ages of two to 10, claiming the narrative was total recall. It was an exorcism to free her at last from childhood`s entanglements.
Still, this same Mrs. Louie Smart was remembered with affection by friends, and by her son. Why did her daughters carry an indelible image of her curled in a hysterical fit on the bathroom floor? Louie Smart was an ambitious Ottawa hostess whose daughters were educated to be "finished" and marry well. She was talented, indeed dramatic. Were her daughters the ones who were the unwitting recipients of her revenge for what Jung would call the unlived life? They were to be squeezed into the moulds that repeated the model she had set down. They were to confirm her life. And yet did they not gather from her something of the flair, the extremism, that made her and them memorable?
Such are the collusions of the family drama. One thing was certain. Louie Smart was capable of an indomitable will and selfrighteousness that would lead her to burn her daughter`s novel when it showed up in an Ottawa dry-goods store in 1945 (she did not approve of what she perceived to be the portrait of herself in the book), and in 1966, to warn Elizabeth not to reissue it, telling her that the New Statesman claimed she and George Barker were has-beens. Yet she supported them in her way. As Elizabeth reported, in appealing letters, the birth of each of her four illegitimate children (as Louie called them), Louie continued to send care packages to her daughter. Louie`s censures never prevented Elizabeth from doing anything she wanted; yet she could never forgive her mother her betrayal. What she faulted her for was, oddly, creating the need in herself for too much love. The outrageous need for love, she felt, sat like a censor in her heart, preventing her from having the courage to be fully herself. Yet who could be more individualized than Elizabeth Smart? You see the structure 1, as biographer, fall into - paradox: the inevitable "yet." It was, I concluded, the only way to speculate about a life.
In its details Elizabeth`s was a heady, messy life of "bashing on regardless," as she used to put it. The life was lived as stories. I began with the biographer`s necessary skepticism. I wondered about the truth of the story that she and Barker had been arrested on the Arizona border in 1940 under the Mann Act, for crossing a state border with fornication in mind. I wrote the FBI to ask if there were any files on Smart and they replied that her name appeared, cross-referenced, in a three-page file that could not be released in the interests of national security. This after 50 years. Appeals were of no avail. Yet Smart was the least political of human beings. I could only speculate that the artist colony at Big Sur, where Elizabeth Smart was living in 1940, must have been under surveillance for spies and fifth columnists.
Many of Elizabeth`s stories were amusing. Her one terror through all her pregnancies was that her mother might find out. She wanted, conventionally, to protect her family from her infamy. She ran to Pender Harbour, telling them she was writing a book. Four and a half months after the birth, she left her daughter, named - inevitably -Georgina, with friends to join Barker in the East, and took a job in Washington. Within six weeks, she arranged to have Georgina put on a plane in Vancouver. Afraid her secret might be discovered if she met her baby at the airport, Elizabeth asked her friend, Grissel Hastings, to do so. Grissel happened to be Lord Lammington`s daughter. A story was concocted about Georgina`s origins - the mother had supposedly died in British Columbia and she was travelling to join her father in England. Reporters showed up in droves. The headline in the Baltimore paper the next day read: Earl`s Daughter Meets Mystery Baby. Elizabeth`s father, Russell, was visiting at the time and discovered the secret, but it was to be another two years before Louie found out. "I am the obsessional type. Which type are you? If you are the butterfly type, you will never forgive my intensity." Obsessive, intense, driven, Elizabeth was determined to live her mother`s unlived life. Unexpectedly, all of her outrageous stories turned out to be corroborated by witnesses, by facts.
Finally, every biographer has to admit that a curious osmosis takes place between the subject and one`s own life. You cannot live intensely in the details of another life for years without this happening. I`ve wondered what it must be like if you end up hating your subject. I did not. My admiration for Smart`s doggedness grew along with my appreciation for the prejudices and preconceptions, her own among them, that fenced her in. My research carried me out of Toronto. I spent a number of months in Ottawa and England and then needed a place to settle during the first interlude of writing. A friend offered me an apartment in Granada for four months. It was isolated. It was cheap. It turned out to be bizarrely appropriate. As I sat on my balcony on those cold January days, overlooking the Alhambra, I found that that remarkable complex of buildings grew as a metaphor in my mind. Its Moorish architecture inverts our values. The most exquisite ornamentation, the most ostentatious display, is reserved for the private apartments, not for public scrutiny. In the tiniest of rooms, the ceilings repeat cosmic motifs - the cosmos is identified with interiority. In the summer garden, the Generalife, there is the inevitable tree where the adulterous lovers met until discovery ended in mutual death. Beneath this mythic idea, of course, was the real city - political intrigues and murders, slave concubines, executed children of abandoned royal wives - all the quotidian mess. My preconception had been that Elizabeth lived in the myth; I discovered that she preferred to keep her feet in the mess. She could be ironic about romantic love, was not tied nostalgically to its agonies and ecstasies. Haunted or hunted, I did have a sense one night of her aggressive spirit confronting me and telling me to get it right.