Like all good biographies, this one exposes the problem of the art.
At its heart, there is an assumption there is a knowable subject and certain sources can reveal it. A literary Biography has to be more than a chronology. We want to know the links between life and works, what drove this writer, what made him or her who they were. But what does it mean to recreate a character? What does ‘who they were” mean? Was the Thomas Moore Byron knew, the same as the one known to Powers or Bessy? Was one version any more “authentic” than the other?
How much of a life leaves any kind of public trace? Imagine your life reconstructed from the available evidence? How revealing would that evidence be?
Since a biography is based on the availability of certain types of records and certain assumptions about them, it’s why there are fine biographies of the Romantic poets, many nineteenth century writers, and then up to about the end of the first half of the twentieth century. It will be interesting to see how or if the literary biography will survive the death of print culture. Will future biographers cull face book for information?
Letters, journals, press cuttings, comments by and comments about, gossip in print: the nineteenth writer lived in a torrent of printed words. But where these are missing, even literate subject s fall into a black hole. Kelly ruefully points out that in the early years when Moore is in Ireland, and not writing to his mother and friends who lived there, it’s difficult to know what was going on. We still don’t know why Byron did a runner, though each generation is ready to offer a possible solution. Even so short and so scrutinised a life’s as Keats has blanks in it that raise tantalising questions about the type of person he might have been.
The further back you go, the harder it is to find anyone. The less they are royalty or involved in “the major events of the day” the harder it gets. There are numerous biographies of Shakespeare, but little is known about him. Go beyond that and you’re in the dark ages in more ways than one. The trace that even royalty left in the Anglo-Saxon period is slight; it takes decades of devoted research through charters to find a signature in a witness list to say that (if the charter is genuine) x was in Y on this particular date. With royalty there’s an outside chance that a chronology is possible. But character? Personality? Their thoughts about what was going on? To answer the question: what were these people like? Forget it. Step off the royal podium and chances are they are just a name. Godgifu, wife of Leofric of Mercia. Leofric is almost absent from the chronicles; a few events, a few signatures, some donations, a role in someone else’s miracles. His wife gets her own entry in Domesday Book, is remembered for her generosity to some religious houses and as the woman who rode naked round Coventry.