Three of the best innovative biographies
Most of the time, when people talk about innovation in biography they mean new ways of narrating a life, like running it backwards or introducing fictional elements or messing around with the form, like in Ma'am Darling.
That's all excellent as far as it goes, but very often the best innovation in biography is to remove the biographer and her art altogether. Biography is meant to illuminate the subject, not the events they were part of. 'Show us the man' should be the dictum of biography. There is no reason, therefore, why the biographer has to be part of every good biography.
As Samuel Johnson said, 'more knowledge may be gained of a man's real character, by a short conversation with one of his servants, than from a formal and studied narrative.'
Here are three books that I think of as the best biographical introductions to their subjects, which innovate the form without having any sort of traditional biographer involved.
Her Majesty (US link) A photographic biography of the Queen which focuses on her, not just on the events she was involved with. An hour with this book tells you much more about the Queen than any documentary you could watch (include The Crown in that if you must.) The production values are excellent. There are dozens of famous shots, like the three Queens at the King's funeral, which invoke lost worlds as effectively as gothic arches and Edwardian street lamps. There is much to be speculated on in the way the new Queen Elizabeth looks sideways in that photo, over the shoulder of Queen Mary, symbol of the old order making way for the new. And best of all, the Queen is about as photogenic-without-being-obnoxious as incredibly famous and wealthy people can be.
Darwin, A Life in Poems (US link) Stacked full of quotations from the works and letters, often used as part of the poems, or turned into found verse, such as in the astonishing Remembering Milton in the Night at Sea, the biographer here is the poet and the narrative is segmented into lyrics. No other form can capture the innate shyness, romanticism, gallantry, curiosity and burgeoning sense of adventure that characterises Darwin. There are many other great books about Darwin, but this is the best single book I have read about him as a man. And what better way than poetry to think about the workings of nature and the mind who saw clearly the beauty and terror it takes to make the world.
Larkin's Letters (US link) I used to stay up late reading this book. This heavily selective account of Larkin's letters (it contains none of the thousands of letters he sent, dutifully, to his mother throughout his life), gives a vivid picture of the arc of Larkin's life from vivacious, precocious youth to depressive, vicious age. Letters are the essence of Twentieth Century biography and these are right up there. There is no story more entertaining or gripping about a poet than the virtuosity of the first half of their life contrasted with the sharp demise into unproductive drudgery later on. The early letters are hilarious, especially the ones to Kingsley Amis where the typewriter gets jammed. The late letters are heartbreaking, especially the accounts of his alcoholism at breakfast. The recent James Booth biography is essential to a balanced understanding of Larkin, but no biographer can tell Larkin's story better than he can.