Hermione Lee 2020 Keynote

Here is the address 2020 BIO Award Winner Dame Hermione Lee hoped to give at BIO’s annual conference on May 16, introduced by BIO Award Committee chair Justin Spring.

Over the past year it was my great pleasure to chair the Biographers International Organization’s Award Committee, which is charged with giving the organization’s highest honor to an individual who has done extraordinary, lifelong work in advancing the art and craft of biography. The talk given by the honoree upon receipt of the prize is usually the centerpiece of our organization’s yearly BIO conference. So we were all tremendously excited when, having bestowed our highest honor upon her, Professor Dame Hermione Lee wrote early this spring to accept our invitation to come speak at the conference this May.

Having heard her give the Leon Levy Biography Lecture at the CUNY Graduate Center in 2016, I knew in advance that we were in for a wonderfully thoughtful, entertaining, and provocative discussion from this most charming and erudite of literary biographers.

Unfortunately, the event was not to be. But after the COVID-19 epidemic forced our cancellation of the 2020 Biographers International Conference, Hermione Lee was kind enough the present us with a copy of her talk so that we might share it with our members via the BIO website.

I think you will find Hermione Lee’s warmth, generosity, perception, and brilliance even more clearly evident here, on the page, as they might have been in person. Here she discusses the challenges specific to writing the biography of a living subject—in this case, playwright Tom Stoppard. We look forward to the day, hopefully not too long from now, when we might have the pleasure of meeting and honoring Hermione Lee in person, and thank her again for so graciously sending us her talk.

Hermione Lee also shared with BIO a short video message offering her thanks for receiving the BIO Award. 

A Living Subject

By Hermione Lee

For the last few years I’ve been working on a biography of Tom Stoppard, which is due (with any luck) to come out with Faber on 1 October 2020 and with Knopf next spring. Recently, he asked me if I had a next project in mind, after I’d finished with him. I told him I was still too involved in the publication process of this book to think ahead, and had only a faint gleam in my eye about what might come next. He said: “I have only one question for you. Dead or alive?” Dead, I answered. “That must be a Relief”, he responded, with that characteristic Stoppardian roll on the “r”.

Up till now, my biographical experiences have all involved safely dead subjects. But since my books have been about writers of the late 19th and 20th centuries, these figures still seemed within reach. Many of their homes were visitable, and some of the people who had known them were still alive. I felt them as both far away and close in time, just on the edge of being “living subjects”.

There are spots of time associated with every book I’ve written—visits to places, single encounters – which bring the far-off subject into the present. I vividly recall meeting Elizabeth Bowen’s Canadian lover Charles Ritchie (introduced to me by her biographer, my friend Victoria Glendinning), wonderfully charming in old age, and very happy to talk about her. I have strong memories of being taken to the little immigrant graveyards on the prairie land around Red Cloud, Nebraska, by Mildred Bennett, founder of the Willa Cather Museum, and of visiting the Mesa Verde at night, in my pursuit of Willa Cather in the 1980s. I cherish my brief encounter with the novelist Sybille Bedford, who told me Edith Wharton stories from the South of France in the 1930s, for instance of Aldous Huxley patting Wharton on her behind (which she didn’t seem to take amiss). I told Bedford that hearing stories about Wharton from her was like the Browning poem—“And did you once see Shelley plain?” “Well, in this case, my dear”, she replied wickedly, “fat and plain”.

Irreverence and malice in witnesses are useful to a biographer—more useful, often, than adulation and reverence. I found plenty of wickedness when I went in search of Virginia Woolf in the early 1990s. Some of that last generation of Bloomsbury were still alive. I went to see venerable elderly people who had known Virginia or Leonard, or who had met them in their own childhood. Some would say to me helpfully, gazing at me with pale blue English eyes: “She killed herself, I wonder if you know that?” I learned then never to use the words “Yes, I know” in conversation with a biographical witness. I talked to many people whose lives had just overlapped with, or been touched by, hers: Stephen Spender, Frances Partridge, Igor Anrep, Barbara Bagenal, T.S. Eliot’s widow Valerie, Isaiah Berlin, Trekkie Parsons, Angelica Garnett, Nigel Nicolson, Dadie Rylands – all since dead. I would go around and have my cup of tea (or, in Valerie Eliot’s case, a gigantic whiskey), and they would tell me the same things about Virginia Woolf which they had been recounting, and often committing to print, for the last fifty years. The minute I had left the house, I could almost hear the phones being lifted up. They were ringing each other up and saying, “There’s another one who’s just come round. She doesn’t seem too bad.”

I knew their stories, though I didn’t say so. The point was not to gain new information – the point was to experience the manner and the tone of voice and the look in their eye when they talked about her. My visit to Igor Anrep, son of the mosaicist Boris Anrep and of Helen Anrep, mistress of Roger Fry, was a disconcerting one. He met me at the door, unsmiling, with his face crusted in blood. It turned out he had just taken a fall, but had gamely not cancelled our meeting. The unsmiling reception may have been partly the result of the accident, but it was also (I learned later) the Bloomsbury manner of greeting: no small talk, no effusive welcome, and a habit of brusquely finishing meetings, whether in person or on the ‘phone.

I spent a lot of time with Quentin and Olivier Bell, who received me in a spirit of wary fortitude. They had, of course, been approached many times before by Woolf scholars of all stripes. I had to prove my credentials and convince them that I was (a) professional and (b) not insane. I went several times to lunch at their house at Firle, deep in the Sussex countryside, sitting at the big wooden table being given soup, and being walked round the garden, full of Quentin’s statues. These meetings were an intriguing mixture of gossip, story-telling, remembering, teasing and testing. Quentin, son of Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf’s nephew and biographer, art-historian and retired teacher, then in his eighties, was gracious and rueful with me. He did once say, humorously, “I feel you’re putting me in my grave”. The redoubtable Olivier (right hand to Quentin while he was writing his aunt’s biography, and editor of Woolf’s diaries) was a much tougher proposition. She wanted to work out what I did and didn’t know, and what my approach would be, and then to decide whether I was worth helping. There was a moment when, having slowly realised that in the huge, complicated, scattered archive of Woolf’s life and work, I couldn’t find any trace of her brother Thoby. I asked, on my third or fourth lunch, “Where are Thoby’s letters?” Olivier replied, with a level look, “They’re in the attic”. She had been waiting for me to spot the gap before offering the information. But once they had agreed between themselves that I might be the least worst option for Quentin’s successor as Woolf’s biographer, then help came benignly pouring out.

I felt I came close to Woolf through such conversations, as well as through saturating myself in her work, spending weeks in her archives, and going to the places she lived in. I have just co-edited a collection on houses and the part they play in memories and life-stories, published in March 2020 by Princeton University Press. In this book, Lives of Houses, I wrote about Woolf’s homes. Here’s the passage:

Virginia Woolf’s places, in London, Cornwall and Sussex, are mostly still there, and when I was researching her life, fifty years after her death, she still felt within touching distance. Monk’s House in Sussex is carefully maintained by the National Trust. There are blue plaques on her childhood Kensington home, 22 Hyde Park Gate (though in the 1990s the plaque only celebrated her father, Leslie Stephen), and on her Bloomsbury home in Fitzroy Square. The flat she and Leonard lived in for many years in Tavistock Square was bombed in the war and replaced, after the war, by an ugly hotel, but a bust of Virginia Woolf now stands in Tavistock Square gardens. Hogarth House in Richmond, where she and Leonard lived from 1915 to 1924 on an annual rent of £150, and founded the Hogarth Press, has a blue plaque to them both. When I was questing after Woolf it was an architect’s office, but, renamed Leonard House and knocked together with the house next door, it recently went on the market as a much-refurbished four-bedroom Georgian town house, for well over three million pounds.

Talland House in St Ives still stands, but has not always had owners who recognised its significance. Legend has it that one of its inhabitants put up a sign reading: “Home of Virginia Woolf, wife of the famous novelist”. When I went on my pilgrimage there twenty-five years ago, the exasperated owner shooed me away. He said that when he had bought the house he had “never heard of the bloody woman”, but he soon realised his mistake: “Every time you turn round, there’s Americans in the living room! Australians in the bathroom!” Later owners became more welcoming to Woolf pilgrims.

But the house of Virginia Woolf’s which haunts me most is the elegant little Sussex house called Asheham, the first country home she lived in with Leonard. Built in 1820 under the shadow of the Downs, it was a remote, damp, rather mysterious house, supposed to be haunted. Leonard Woolf described it as “romantic, gentle, melancholy, lovely”. They lived there, on and off, from 1911 to 1919, years of war and illness, and, though these were difficult times, she became very fond of it. They left it for Monk’s House, but Asheham survived, hidden inside a spindly wood and up a muddy track, for many years afterwards. In the 1930s it became the property of a company called Blue Circle Cement Works and Waste Management. In 1993, I made my way into the closed-off and boarded-up house, past the No Trespassing signs, and snuffed up the atmosphere of silence, decay, and forlorn beauty. The following year it was demolished. In a tiny story published in 1921, “A Haunted House”, Woolf imagines a ghostly couple returning to a house like Asheham, looking for something, revisiting their past lives, sensed by the couple who are living there: “not that one could ever see them”. ‘Wandering through the house, opening the windows, whispering not to wake us, the ghostly couple seek their joy.’ ”1

I was born seven years after Virginia Woolf died, and I spent my childhood crossing and re-crossing her London routes. I was just in time, when I started work on her biography in the early 1990s, to meet the last surviving family members and friends. I found many of her homes still standing. During my life-time, her reputation and her posthumous publication history have changed dramatically. So, at the time I wrote my book, which came out in 1996, she seemed to me poised, ambivalently, between being a child of late-Victorian England, born over a hundred years before I began my work, and a twentieth-century modernist and feminist, still present in some living memories, whose life and work profoundly affects all her readers to this day. She felt both far and close: a literary monument, and a living subject.

It was a very different experience to write about Penelope Fitzgerald. This was the first time I had written about someone I knew slightly, someone recently dead, and someone whose biography had not yet been written. This would be a Life of a writer whose reputation was still shifting and who was not hugely famous, though she was and is intensely admired by a small devoted band of readers. To write a biography of Woolf or Wharton is to enter into a field of fierce and partisan debate, legend, competing versions and historical influence. To write about a novelist like Fitzgerald (but there is no other novelist like Fitzgerald) is to try to de-code a somewhat mysterious personality, and to play a part in forging her posthumous existence and her future readership. I came to it partly with a “missionary” compulsion, a desire to bring her extraordinary books to more readers, but also with a less elevated detective’s appetite for finding out as much as I could, as the first-comer, about this remarkable person whose life had just touched mine. I felt it as a great responsibility, and I was extremely grateful to her son-in-law and elder daughter, her executors, for trusting me with it.

Penelope Fitzgerald was a writer of genius from a brilliant, eccentric English family, who made a dazzling start in life, but plunged into poverty and thwartedness through a sad combination of circumstances, and spent many years teaching and bringing up three children under difficulties. She started publishing at sixty and became well-known, with The Blue Flower, at eighty. So in some ways it’s a hopeful story, as well as a poignant and painful one. After she started publishing, she became very active in public literary life in England, joining PEN and the Royal Society of Literature, judging prizes and appearing on literary panels. In these roles she was often wilful, stubborn and apparently distracted, playing the role of an absent-minded granny which masked a will of steel and a penetratingly sharp intelligence. I talked to many of her literary colleagues, to ex-students and friends and publishers, as well as to her family, and I gained a forceful sense of a person of high integrity, sharp humour and deep wiliness. Asking one literary friend (Penelope Lively) what it was like to be on a panel with Fitzgerald, she replied: “Mayhem”. I was told that, when asked by interviewers how long she had spent in Russia in order to write her beautiful novel The Beginning of Spring, set in Moscow before the Revolution, she would sometimes reply, “Oh, months and months”, and sometimes “I’ve never been there in my life”, depending on how the mood took her. My own experience of interviewing her was to encounter a mild-seeming, courtly array of defence mechanisms, deviations, silences, half-truths, and profound wisdom and humour.

This personality was vividly alive to me all the time I was working on her, not least because I knew she would have hated having her biography written, though she might have appreciated the increase in book-sales that arose from it. When I knew her, I didn’t know I would become her biographer. I would sometimes fantasise that, if I had known, I would have been able to elicit from her some of the secrets and obscurities in her life. But this was a delusion. She was, like her books, cryptic and evasive. She liked biography, and wrote three herself (including a superb life of her father and her uncles, The Knox Brothers, and a moving short book about Charlotte Mew). But, in her view, biography is inevitably inconclusive. She noted to herself: “As a biographer you’re never satisfied. There can’t be any last word on another person’s life, except rest in peace.” 2

To write a biography of a subject, like Woolf or Fitzgerald, who is well aware of biography’s limitations, is a challenge. All the more so if the subject is, happily, alive, and has frequently, in plays and in person and in my hearing, expressed deep skepticism about the genre. Some of Tom Stoppard’s least appetising characters are biographers, like the dishonest, reckless, exhibitionist Bernard in Arcadia, or the nit-picking, literal-minded editor and would-be biographer of the poet Flora Crewe, Mr Pike, in Indian Ink. Pike’s view of his trade is that “the reason God made poets and novelists” is “so the rest of us can get published”. But Flora’s sister, old Mrs Swann, tells him: “Biography is the worst possible excuse for getting people wrong”.3

In the imaginary exchange between A.E. Housman and Oscar Wilde (who in fact never met) in The Invention of Love, Wilde has many Wildean things to say about the unsatisfactoriness of biography, which he describes as “the mesh through which our real life escapes”. Fact is one thing, he says: “Truth is quite another thing and is the work of the imagination.4 Though Housman, not Wilde, is the sad hero of that play, Wilde’s arguments sound like Stoppard’s. He has often observed, when he gives talks on writing about real people in his plays (as in The Invention of Love or The Coast of Utopia) that fiction, or fictional drama, can get closer to the essential truth about a historical figure than biography with all its footnotes and factual checks. There are advantages in dramatic licence. When he makes up something about a real person in a play, it may be, essentially, “the truth about him”. He likes biography when it most resembles fiction, when it calls on powers of imagination and speculation, when it deals with “what isn’t known”. And he’s often expressed irritation with the pedantry of biographical fact-checking, as when Goethe writes in his letters in old age: “And then at the age of 17 I fell in love for the first time”—and his editor notes: “Here Goethe was mistaken”.5

Sitting with me for an interview at the 92nd St. Y, Stoppard turned to the audience before I’d got my first question out, and said genially: “You know the writer who says, Biography adds a new terror to death? Well, here she is.” In fact, the work has progressed without undue terror, on either side—at least I think so. Stoppard was not like Beckett, who told his first biographer, “I will neither help nor hinder”. Having asked me to write the book, he made clear that I was “on my own”, but that he would help me as much as he could with conversations, contacts and materials, and this he did generously. He was intrigued by the whole process, and said to me at one point that it must be like making an ordnance survey map, and a plan of the house, and a map of the world.

When I began, Stoppard promised to provide me with the materials I would need, and so he did: I have had the good fortune to see and make use of manuscripts and letters and journals and photographs which are not yet part of his huge, impeccably catalogued archive in the Harry Ransom Center at Austin, Texas. But access to the materials of a living subject whose life spans the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is a complicated matter. This is partly because he is poised between the paper and the digital world. There are innumerable emails and personal texts from Tom Stoppard which will or have vanished into virtual space. There are also vast numbers of hand-written or typed letters, most of these, obviously, in other hands than his. People who are in the middle of living their lives may well prefer not to show their private correspondence to a biographer. In time, later biographers may find such letters in archives; but they won’t have had the advantage of talking to the subject and his friends and family. And that access to those who know him has to be treated circumspectly, too. This is a famous person in the world of theatre and film with a great many contacts, of whom, remarkably, almost no-one speaks ill. But you are also well aware that everyone who talks to you about your living subject knows that he will be reading what they say about him.

When Stoppard talks about his work, he frequently describes himself as an empiricist, a practical man of the theatre—as he sometimes puts it, “a brazen pragmatist”. He insists that a play is not set in stone, but is changed by what happens to it in rehearsal and performance. In a phrase he has often used, “theatre is an event not a text”. Or: “You wrote a play and the theatre was what happened to it”.6 A big and essential part of his working life is seeing a new play, or a revival, through rehearsals into production, alongside the director and the designer. Many actors and directors I’ve spoken to talk about Stoppard’s willingness to make changes so that the text will become the best kind of event. They also make clear that it is he who wants to be in control of those changes. He doesn’t want other people altering his texts, though he is interested when a director does something quite unexpected with one of his plays. His archive, and the successive editions of his plays, show up a paradox in his work: that he writes many, many drafts of all his plays, working minutely towards the exact right phrase, the funniest joke, the most telling dialogue, but that, once the play is in production, he will freely cut and change and add, according to how things are working. That pragmatism and flexibility are at the heart of his temperament; so is a fierce commitment to the best possible choice of words.

One exciting and revealing form of access to my living subject was the chance to watch him in rehearsal with the cast, twice with new productions (The Hard Problem in 2015 and Leopoldstadt in 2020), twice with revivals (Travesties in 2016 and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead in 2017). David Leveaux’s revival of Rosencrantz at the Old Vic, in Stoppard’s eightieth year, marked the fiftieth anniversary of the play’s production there in 1967. Leveaux, who understands Stoppard’s work well and brings to it a romantic intelligence and stagecraft forged through working with Beckett and Pinter, thinks of Rosencrantz as a play of wit and youthful comedy but, at the same time, of fear, anguish and mortality. “Death stalks the play”, he told the cast. He saw Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as bewildered and afraid, and he talked a lot in rehearsal about power and helplessness. Clearly Stoppard loved Leveaux’s way of working and his ideas, and he liked the casting, too, of Daniel Radcliffe and Josh McGuire, and of David Haig as the Player. He had told Leveaux that he wanted to find a Player who was not the expected grand, actorly Henry Irving sort. Haig played him as an East End mountebank, aggressive, demotic and sinister, but with sadness too. His most famous line was a harrowing cry of despair: “We’re actors, we’re the opposite of people”.

Most of the cast of this revival were probably not even born when Rosencrantz was first produced. Yet here was the legendary, distinguished playwright, fifty years on, sitting every day in the rehearsal room responding to queries from the young actors and – rather to their amazement—willingly making small changes. He had already done some re-writes before rehearsals started, in the interest of tightening things up. There is no such thing for him as a sacrosanct “classic” text. Most of these changes were made too late to be printed in the new 2017 edition. (This is a frequent challenge for his publishers: the first edition of his new plays will rapidly be followed by a second edition, incorporating changes made in production). In rehearsal, a few more bits of Shakespeare were dropped in, to ease the transitions between the Hamlet scenes. Only now did it strike him that Gertrude needed more to say. The cast stopped to consult their Hamlets and agreed to put in her lines from Act IV, Scene 1, “Ah mine own Lord what have I seen tonight”, announcing the death of Polonius. Stoppard thought it would it be nice to hear, off-stage, “a rat, a rat i’the arras”, as well. None of this got into the printed text. Other changes came and went. He had cut into one long speech of Guildenstern’s, and told the cast that he had been saying to himself: “Get on with it, Tom”. But they decided to put it back in rehearsal. Leveaux teased him: “Tom has been over-editing himself”.

In rehearsal, he would speak when called on by Leveaux or by the actors, but otherwise watched quietly and took notes. These veered between the metaphysical and the practical – the timing of an exit, the position of the barrels, the placing of the interval. He gave funny, intriguing hints to the actors. Rosencrantz’s trousers falling down, he told Daniel Radcliffe, was like “a Buster Keaton moment without Buster Keaton’s genius”. Why were Rosencrantz and Guildenstern so aggressive with the Player, Josh McGuire (Guildenstern) and Radcliffe wanted to know. They suspect they are his playthings, Stoppard told them, it’s a sense of insecurity about how solid the ground is under their feet. They run out of a store of moral courage quite quickly. How much does the Player know, David Haig asked him? I don’t think there’s much you don’t know, Stoppard replied, but you’re presupposing foreknowledge on the play’s part and you can’t assume that. You may not know specifically what is going to happen, but your entire life’s experience on the road with your gang is that everything ends in death—it’s what you mostly do. The virtue, Stoppard told him, lies in being inexact. As soon as you start being exact, why should you be believed? Room for doubt is room for faith. The rehearsal room went quiet, taking that in.7

Rosencrantz rehearsals started in January 2017, coinciding with the inauguration of Donald Trump. (That day in the rehearsal room was filled with gloom and dismay.) Interviewers asked for his views on the political times, and whether they might be a subject for a new play. He told them that ideas didn’t come to him like that. Over the years, people have suggested that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern might be a political allegory for whatever was going on at the time, from the Vietnam War onwards. He has always resisted such hypotheses. If Beckett had explained who Godot was, Waiting for Godot would lose its force.

He was very happy to see his first great success, the play which made his name, back in its original home. One of his favourite lines was the Player’s: “Life is a gamble, at terrible odds—if it was a bet you wouldn’t take it.” But occasionally you do win, as he said. “I’m sitting in a room rehearsing a play which was first on fifty years ago. Who would have taken a gamble on that?”

In the life of this “living subject”, as for all of us, the “gamble” of chance and fate have played a huge part. For me, also, being asked to write this Life was a great stroke of good luck. That sense of luck and chance goes with my feeling that biography is, essentially, an open-ended, inconclusive, unstable genre. You can’t predict a life: each one is full of unresolved possibilities, accidents, strokes of luck. Similarly (in my view) you can’t be conclusive or final in a biography: the Life you have written is bound to be full of secrets, things that have gone missing, silences, conundrums and mysteries. I like the poet Flora Crewe’s remark, to her portrait-painter, in Stoppard’s Indian play: “All portraits should be unfinished. Otherwise it’s like looking at a stopped clock”.8

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  1. From Lives of Houses, edited by Kate Kennedy and Hermione Lee, Princeton University Press, 2020, p.39.
  2. Penelope Fitzgerald, Mss notes for a talk on biography, “Writing about human beings”, [1990], quoted in Hermione Lee, Penelope Fitzgerald, Chatto & Windus, 2013, p.408.
  3. Tom Stoppard, Indian Ink, Faber, 1995, p.5.
  4. Tom Stoppard, The Invention of Love, Faber, 1997, p. 93.
  5. Tom Stoppard, “Living Theatre and Dead People”, talk given at the Chalke Valley History Festival, 30 June 2013; “Reflections on Biographical Fiction”, lecture given for the London Library, 29 October 1997.
  6. Tom Stoppard, Newsweek interview, 16 January 1984. Lecture at the University of Notre Dame, 28 March 1971. Speech for PEN, 23 March 1985.
  7. My notes in R&G rehearsals were taken between January and February 2017.
  8. Tom Stoppard, In The Native State (radio play), Faber, 1991, p.72, adapted for the stage as Indian Ink (1995).