WHEN SYLVIA PLATH COMMITTED SUICIDE IN 1963, Ted Hughes’ adulterous affair with Assia Wevill was seen by many as the trigger for this tragedy. As Plath’s posthumous fame grew, Hughes found himself at the receiving end of hostility from those who saw Plath as a feminist icon and a victim. A book that had a devastating effect on Hughes was Al Alvarez’s The Savage God: A Study of Suicide, which focused on Plath’s suicide. Friends like Tom Gunn advised Hughes to write his own version of the marriage and Plath’s suicide. Hughes refused, arguing that his poetry spoke for him. The Birthday Letters was Hughes’ continuing dialogue with Plath and his critics.
Again, when John Bayley’s book, A Memoir of Iris Murdoch, was published and made into a film by Richard Eyre, friends and admirers of Murdoch accused Bayley of portraying Murdoch in her decrepitude (she suffered from Alzheimer’s) and that the book overshadowed her achievements as a novelist and writer. A. N. Wilson, a friend of Murdoch, wrote that Bayley’s account of Murdoch was a ‘Pandora’s Box of which he quite clearly lost control.’ Wilson then wrote a biography to set the record straight and bring out the intelligent, witty, fiercely independent and formidable thinker that Murdoch was.
Hardy famously asked his second wife, Florence Dugdale, to burn his papers and yet we have a long line of reputable biographies of Hardy, the latest of which is Claire Tomalin’s study, Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man.
On the other hand, John Cowper Powys (1872-1963) wrote his autobiography and his diaries are clearly intended for the reader and open with: Dear reader.
Do you think the biography influences how we read a particular writer?
Does the biography give us a greater insight into the work of the writer?
Or is the biography a voyeuristic intrusion into the lives of the writers – particularly those like Hardy, who objected to such interest in their lives?
What makes biography such a popular genre?
– Golden Langur