Posted by: jeannineatkins | July 29, 2007

How Big Should a Biography Be?

I am enjoying Linda Lear’s biography of Beatrix Potter, maybe especially because she shows a less devastating take on her childhood than others have reported. Her father, Lear states, shared her interest in art, and really, Beatrix was quite happy with her motley animal companions, and with the London Natural History museum nearby, did she really need formal schooling? There are
snippets from Potter’s early journals (translated from her secret code). I like knowing that Potter thought she came up with her best ideas in chapel services. It’s cool that she discovered and drew a rare pine cone fungus one day before she wrote her famous letter to her former governess’s child, Noel, the picture letter that became Peter Rabbit. I like knowing that her interest in the natural world pretty much stopped at the galaxy. In her journal she mentioned that aside from enjoying a meteor, she didn’t feel the need to pursue a knowledge of the sky and stars. “It is more than enough that there should be forty thousand named and classified funguses.”

But there are too many full days, and, let’s face it, too many boring ones. Linda Lear doesn’t follow the edict that just because she dredged something out from extensive research, it should be reported, but the bulky bio format doesn’t encourage cutting to the chase. I can take a fat biography on vacation, but… thank goodness research has made me good at skimming. I have no problem sliding over draggy sentences. I can sniff a genealogical flashback coming and think: Do I need to know about Potter’s great grandmother? No, thanks.

It’s good to have some kind of fabric to hold the gems together – other than saying “Isn’t that cool” and getting list-like. But limit that day-to-day reportage I like biographers who select material the way a fiction writer choses details: it should be relevant to a theme. That’s why I often prefer biographies written for children, where I often find relevant, fascinating information, and polished prose all between one set of covers. Hey, life is short.

But it’s all about audience. Yesterday we had a five year old guest, and my friend asked me to read her Anne Hutchinson’s Way, which I knew was too old for her. We started out, me cutting my own words, but it soon moved too me answering her, “Where is the mother?” “Where is the mother now?” In a way that is what the picture book is about. Though I did want to get in a bit about religion and all.

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