You might, frustratingly, have a complete run from the period when your subject was writing politely to a maiden aunt with cheery details about his vegetable garden, and absolutely none from that decade when he was involved in stormy love affairs with three women at once.

‘ Have Yo u Go t Th e i r L e t t e r s ? ’

IMAGINE YOU’RE A biographer and you’re attending one of those literary parties that, even in these straitened times, speckle December like a light falling of snow. You find yourself in conver s a t i on with a noveli s t / a poet/someone who simply turned up with a fr iend and is wondering how soon they can leave without looking rude. Your interlocutor asks you politely, ‘Who are you working on?’ and you tell them. They may have heard of your putative subject, or they may not have a clue whom you are talking about. But their next question will always be the same: ‘Have you got their letters?’

Letters are considered to be the purest source material that a biographer can access. With your subject’s letters, so the thinking goes, you’ve got a shortcut to their very essence. For what are letters but bulletins from the frontline of the psyche? Forget the novels that your subject may have written, the bridges he may have built, the works of art that he dashed off in late-night bursts of creativity. These are secondary sources, impure forms that mix self and society in such a muddle that it is impossible to say where one ends and the other begins. Only letters can be guaranteed to deliver up the soul, naked and unadorned. Now back to the party. Your conversationalist is waiting for an answer, features composed in what he hopes is an attentive half-smile of enquiry. There are probably three things you can say by way of response. The first is: ‘Oh yes, all the letters are printed and easily available.’ This is certainly true of, say, George Eliot, whose recovered correspondence extends to nine thick volumes, published between 1954 and 1978. At this point your enquirer’s features droop in disappointment. If the letters are public, there can be nothing left to truffle. Where is the fun in that?

Your second answer might be: ‘Oh, I’m afraid all the letters were burned in the last year of my subject’s life. She built a huge bonfire in her garden and leapt around it gleefully – or as gleefully as her arthritis allowed – throwing her papers onto the fire, delighted at having outwitted what she always referred to, copying James Joyce, as “The Biografiends”.’ Your interlocutor is not quite sure what response would be the right one here. It’s disappointing, of course, to hear that there are no letters left. But how exciting to think of all the secrets that were contained within them! Secret love affairs, long-running feuds, brushes with madness or the law! This is exactly what letters are supposed to be about.

The third answer you might give is also the most likely one. The f act is that biographers frequently find themselves confronted with a partial set of letters. There will be clumps of letters, densely packed in time, but also long gaps where no correspondence has survived.

And it’s not, of course, your subject alone who gets to decide what is con-

signed to oblivion and what remains. The letters he wrote will be scattered around a hundred correspondents, each of whom will have made their own decision about what to do with the yellowing pile of papers in their bureau drawer. The solicitor will doubtless have hung on to a carbon copy which now resides in the county records office. A devoted mother or daughter may well have carefully kept the precious sheets under lock and key. A sibling or ex-lover who has ‘issues’ with your subject may have stuffed the letters through the shredder with guilty pleasure. Discretion, shame, revenge, guilt, carelessness and despair lie behind the hundreds of small, separate acts which determine whether a person’s letters survive long enough to be accessed by a biographer writing fifty, 100 or 200 years after their death.

Imagine, though, that you’ve got lucky. You’ve been able to access letters from every year since your subject first scrawled one home from school. This should mean, shouldn’t it, that you’ve got a clear pane of glass through which to observe the workings of his or her mind throughout his or her life? Well no, actually. Far from being artless expressions of innermost feelings, letters are contrivances, as distorting as those funhouse mirrors which you used to find at the end of the pier. Love and money in particular tend to trip people up, skewing the way posterity sees them. George Eliot’s wheedling love letters to the celibate philosopher Herbert Spencer, for instance, suggest a needy masochist rather than one of our wisest guides to human nature. John Constable’s courtship letters to Maria showcase a financially strapped and frustrated swain rather than a consummate artist producing work that would change the way we see our landscape. Samuel Beeton’s scrawled notes to his colleagues suggest a man constantly scrounging for a loan rather than one who was revolutionising print culture by producing the first mass-market women’s magazine. One could go on. Far from providing unique access to the ‘real’ character of the person you are writing about, letters can often be confusing. Readers of biography expect you to present them with a portrait so solid that it could almost be carved in stone. They want consistency and wholeness rather than fragment and whim. So letters, with their tendency to disperse personality over a large and bumpy terrain, often turn out to be not so much the biographer’s prime source, but more a kind of Rubik’s Cube, the pattern of which will never quite align. ❑