[The following message appeared on the discussion list Victoria and has been included in the Victorian Web with the permission of its author.]

I am very interested in the art of biography, and have been paying attention to the various comments on our list about the several new biographies to have come out about Victorian figures in the last couple of years. What has struck me is how we persist in seeing these earlier figures through the prism of our own obsessions: thus one woman poet is now said to have been sexually abused by her father, another woman novelist turns into an incipient incestuous lesbian from what the writer gathers from some letters, a third woman poet is said to be part-Negro with no DNA evidence at all, whether mishandled by policemen or otherwise (I use the old-fashioned word in order not to be misunderstood, people forget some Africans were white or French or Dutch or Arabian).

Sometimes we go the other way though and get a vehement defense of some the paternal member of a literary family, while the one woman novelist of the group who survived the others is said to have destroyed the left-over novel of her sister who predeceased her; one of these (rousing some suspicion in the mind of yours truly about the disinterest of the new biographer) coupled with a fierce attack on the earlier until now mostly respected biographer who knew the subject and interviewed the people left on the ground at the time. And then there are the hatchet jobs (so-called by those who do not like the cynical or marketplace point of view) in which those wielding the hatchet take aim at biographers who are now turned into "hagiographers" conducting a kind of cover-up.

Some time earlier after I finished D. J. Taylor's excellent volume of shorter earlier Thackeray pieces, I came across both his review of Edgar F. Harden's edition of Letters & Private Papers of ....Thackeray in the TLS and then a rebuttal of said review by Michael Clarke ("Letters to the Editor") in which Clarke takes issue with "Taylor's implication that Thackeray was indifferent to his mad wife." Clarke says Taylor's defense of Thackeray from a sheerly modern economic and behavioral point of view (i.e. Thackeray spent money on Isabella and she behaved peacefully) is inadequate, and that Taylor ignores letters which suggest "agonized years of seraching through four countries .... for help." Taylor seems unwilling to take this Victorian's on-the-spot and humanly emotional response to years lived with his wife seriously. Clarke: "Ultimately, the reason that Thackeray stoped visiting Isabella is that she did not wish to see him, perhaps because his visits seriously disturbed the quiet apathy of her life." And again: "Given that Isabella was sometimes capable of murderous rages ... to suicidal melancholy, and 'to nasty pranks' that Thackeray never described, it is no wonder he felt it best not to visit her."

I was wondering if there is a modern consensus on Thackeray's treatment of his wife. If so, what is it? What do people today think of Gordon Ray's two-volume book? The art of biography is of course an interaction between the mind of the biographer and his subject, but I hope others might agree that this interaction should be or include as far as is possible a reinactment of the truth as the subject saw it.

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Last modified 29 November 2004