Help your biographer get it right

Biographers over the years have relied on letters as a source of information on their subject. These can be letters from the subject, letters to the subject, and letters about the subject by third parties. Sometimes both letters and replies exist, potentially even more useful to the biographer. Many of these will be to family members, if circumstances mean that they are separated by distance. Mozart would not have written so many letters to Leopold had they been living in the same place. But some are dashed off by inveterate letter writers.

For example, when Volume 5 of the “Letters of Ernst Hemingway (1932-1934)” was published, we learned that this was the latest instalment of an initiative to locate, fully annotate, and publish the nearly 6,000 surviving letters written by Hemingway, most of them previously unpublished. It is expected that the total number of volumes in the series would total seventeen. We are surely in the presence of an industry here.

But there are always pitfalls for the biographer. The writer may simply misremember details, even including the year an event took place. Or a given letter may be an attempt to cast the writer in a better light than justified by the facts. A writer may even, perish the thought, have an axe to grind.

In the case of a letter, this may be done in the expectation that only the recipient is likely to see it, but memoirs or autobiographies may be a further source of confusion, sometimes deliberate, and these are open to all.

In ‘Looking Back’ Maugham writes of this period, ‘The divorce had not been made absolute, and I could not have married Syrie just then even had I wanted to.’ But in fact it had and he could. (Selina Hastings)

Accepting these caveats, though, letters remain a valuable source of information. A model in this regard, or so it seems to me, is “Sergei Rachmaninoff: A Lifetime in Music”, by Sergei Bertensson. There is hardly a statement in the book where the reader has to take Bertensson’s word for it, so well does he document Rachmaninoff’s life from letters. But he is only able to do this because the letters exist. What of the present age, where so many communicate by email and text? How can the biographer hope to deal with that?

At this point, it is tempting to trot out a phrase like “the art of letter writing” and claim it has died a death. But there will be some who compose an email as artfully as someone from the past might compose a letter. The problem then is how to access these emails. If the writer is still alive, he or she might make it possible. But if the writer has died, or the author is planning an “unauthorised” biography – essentially a hostile act – then the problem could be insurmountable. Password? Two stage authorisation? Facial recognition ID? An authenticator app? Accessing the material may be tricky, to say the least.

Comparing this situation to the past can be instructive. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote some 500 letters. One of the people he corresponded with was Hildegard von Bingen.

A correspondence of nearly 400 letters written in Latin has been preserved, exchanged between Hildegard and four popes, emperors, bishops, secular rulers, monks and nuns. Her correspondents came from all over Europe, including modern-day Germany, England, Netherlands, France, Switzerland, Italy and Greece. (Fiona Maddocks)

Bernard died in 1153, Hildegard in 1179. And quite apart from their prodigious output, we have to marvel at the postal service of their time: covering most of Europe, it was very much better than we might suppose.

So if you want your life to be accurately documented when you pop your clogs, write letters to family, friends, colleagues, literary agents, editors, and publishers. And if you really want to cover the bases, write letters to your husband or wife as well – even though you live in the same house. We like to think your industry will be rewarded.