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Are biographers ultimately responsible to their subject?

15 November 2015

‘It is a mark of the importance that still attaches itself to biography as an art form that practically every example of it that appears in a publisher's catalogue tends to cause offence to someone...

All this raises the associated questions: who is the biographer writing for, and to whom is he or she ultimately responsible? If the answer to the first question hangs tantalisingly out of reach, the second's answer is "the subject". The difficulty here is that life-writers who believe that their sole duty is to the person they happen to be writing about are almost guaranteed to upset the keeper of the flame. Sonia Orwell, for example, went to her grave in 1980 convinced that she had betrayed her husband's memory by allowing Bernard Crick to write his first, pioneering biography Orwell: A Life. Posterity, alternatively, would probably maintain that Crick's view was just as valid as Sonia's, even if Crick lacked the substantial advantage of being married to him.'

D J Taylor in the Independent on Sunday.