A Lady’s Vindication: Writing a Woman’s Biography

Today my review of Lady Byron and Her Daughters, by Julia Markus, appeared at the Los Angeles Review of Books.


In it I address what it means to write the biography of a woman overshadowed by a famous man. “Writers of such biographies face the challenge of convincing readers that their subjects deserve biographical treatment for their own sake, not simply because they were the wives, sisters, or perhaps friends of some man we already know.”

In my own biography of Constance Fenimore Woolson, I had to address the fact that she has been overshadowed by her famous friend Henry James. Although she didn’t marry him, she has been known primarily for her relationship with him rather than for her literary career and her own fascinating life. In writing her life story, I had to walk the careful line between acknowledging the relationship (even playing it up occasionally to gain people’s attention, as in the subtitle, Portrait of a Lady Novelist) and showing her existence apart from it.

At least I didn’t have the difficulties that Stacy Schiff had writing her biography of Vera Nabokov. As I explain in the review essay, “Biographies of the wives of famous men often shed more light on the male than on the female half of the pair. Such was the case, for instance, in Stacy Schiff’s biography of Vera Nabokov. The perfect emblem of the self-sacrificial literary wife, Vera seemed to have virtually no separate existence from the man whose career she managed, whose works she typed, and whose very existence seemed to depend on her support. Even the photo on the cover of that book shows Vera looking up at her husband, his profile just visible on the book’s edge.”

In the case of Lady Byron, she was only married to her famous husband for one year, so there was a lot of her life to cover apart from him, although that one tumultuous year seems to have colored the rest of her life. In Woolson’s case, she was friends with James for the last 14 years of her life, the years that we know the most about (even if their friendship remains mysterious). I made sure that he came and went in her story, taking his proper place as an important figure but not the central one. She has been made his satellite for so long that it felt good to make her the center and put him in his proper place, orbiting around her.

And while Markus had to overcome 200 years of negative mythologizing about her subject, I also felt like I was coming up against the myth of Henry James, the all-powerful writer. His major biographer, Leon Edel, had some terrible things to say about Woolson. I kept my commentary about his view of her in the footnotes, but I’d like to write an essay sometime about the damage he did to her reputation. One writer, Victoria Coulson, thinks he might have been jealous of Woolson, who obviously knew his subject much better than he could ever have. Perhaps. But the fact remains that what devotees of Byron or The Master have to say about the women in their lives only creates another hurdle for the biographer to overcome.

You can read the full review, and learn more about Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of Lady Novelist.

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