Good biography, bad biography – two brief book reviews

This year’s winner of the Pulitzer Prize for biography was Caroline Fraser, for Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

If, like me, you read the Little House on the Prairie books as a child, then you already know all about Laura Ingalls Wilder. She grew up in the 1800s on the American frontier, with Ma, Pa, blind sister Grace and little sister Carrie.  Ma was endlessly patient and good, and jovial Pa was wise and strong and brave. There were blizzards and locusts, danger and drama, all tempered by the family’s love for one another. I loved those books, but I’ve not been tempted to reread them, for fear that I’ll be disappointed.

So I was keen to read this biography, apparently the first ever written about Laura Ingalls Wilder. I’m surprised at that – did other biographers assume that Ingalls Wilder had written so thoroughly about her own childhood and early married life that there was nothing more to say? In fact there was plenty more to say – and biographer Fraser says it all, in excruciating detail. Readers, I couldn’t finish this book.

It should have been fabulous, because the real story of Ingalls Wilder is fascinating. Her childhood was much grittier, and even more difficult than described in her famous novels. Pa may well have been a loving father, but he was also also a restless drifter who constantly uprooted his family in search of better land, better conditions, more money. The result was often poorer land, worse conditions and far, far less cash. Ingalls Wilder, after marrying a Farm Boy of her own, didn’t write her novels until she was in her sixties, by which time her grown-up daughter Rose was available to guide and edit the works.

But Fraser has succumbed to the biographer’s sin of wanting to share ALL of her research. And she’s clearly done a lot.

I swear there were at least six pages, for example,  discussing conscription during the US Civil War. The government’s approach to conscription, the public reaction to conscription, the legislative challenges of conscription, and the means by which eligible men avoided conscription. All this to illuminate Fraser’s mere speculation that Pa, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s father, may have chosen to travel out west in order to avoid being conscripted. Fraser then took the same approach to locusts, and while she may have been fascinated to read about their breeding habits, and the way they differ from grasshoppers, the impact of a swarm, and the government’s response to the agricultural havoc they wreaked, I didn’t need page after endless page of it. I’m glad a biography of a woman, written by a woman, has won such a prestigious prize. But I also think Ingalls Wilder is an important American writer who deserved a better treatment.

In stark contrast is the excellent Victorians Undone: Tales of the flesh in the age of decorum by Kathryn Hughes. In five sharp and compelling chapters, Hughes explores the physical attributes of five well-known historical figures. We read about Charles Darwin’s beard, George Eliot’s right hand, the belly of one of Queen Victoria’s ladies in waiting, the mouth of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s lover Fanny Cornforth, and sweet Fanny Adams’ mangled corpse.

Hughes cleverly uses these physical attributes as a way of exploring much wider issues. As she notes in her introduction, “We can follow a thickened index finger or a deep baritone voice into the realms of social history, medical discourse, aesthetic practice and religious observance. In the process, a whole nexus of cultural power is laid bare.”

That Hughes is an intelligent and well-read scholar of Victorian England is never in doubt – her research is deep and her sources broad. But her prose is also lively and engaging, as she takes her readers on a wild ride through the vital signs of life. “Biographies typically,” writers Hughes “contain visual likenesses, to be sure, but those quarter-age black-and-white images don’t show the body in motion, can’t give you much idea of its habitual off-duty slouch, let alone its sound or smell.”

Hughes provides genuine insights not only into the physical lives of her subjects, but into the way subsequent historians and biographers have variously treated, avoided, or fudged the issue. Eliot’s right hand, for example, was believed by many to have been substantially larger than her left. This was said to have been the result of a childhood spent churning butter. But despite her family (and some later biographers) denying the very notion of Eliot ever being required to work in such an ungenteel manner, the matter of Eliot’s hand has been a constant subject of historical speculation. Hughes, in her witty and intelligent way, takes us on a delightful stroll through the sources of the story, its implications, and its many variations. Right at the end of the chapter, she even provides a surprising resolution.

In Victorians Undone Hughes takes a lively and original approach to biography, exploring the vagaries of her subjects alongside the intricacies of how best to write about them. Highly recommended.

2018-04-27T12:00:42+00:00 April 27th, 2018|Book Review|9 Comments

9 Comments

  1. McLarenJen April 27, 2018 at 1:24 pm - Reply

    Thanks for the reviews. I’m genuinely surprised there hasn’t been a biography of LA Wilder before now. I remember hearing that a collection of her letters to her daughter later in life has been published, which is something I’ve thought would be interesting to read. Post-PhD I’ve had trouble focusing on fiction so have re-read the first 2 books in the Prairie series, as my daughter has been reading them. I wince at the way Wilder writes about native Americans, and the supposed ’emptiness’ of the lands they travel across and to. The books are very much of their genre, and were written years after the event (as you noted), but they inspired me as a child to love historical fiction and memoir.

    • Michelle Scott Tucker April 27, 2018 at 1:55 pm - Reply

      Thanks Jen, I really did love the Little House books when I was young – I hope your daughter enjoys them. Your comment about supposed emptiness is telling, I think. Australian narratives are full of that supposed ’emptiness’ too. Once I started noticing it, I saw it everywhere.

  2. whisperinggums April 27, 2018 at 6:04 pm - Reply

    Thanks for these. My daughter adored The little house books too. I think if she were to go on Hard Quiz or some such, that could be her topic! I haven’t read any of the books, so I would have been very interested in a biography of her, but from what you say, no. The only book I have not finished in the last 5 years was a biography – this one of George Sand who’s a fascinating character – for the same reason (plus the fact that the writing was very poor too).

    The Hughes book sounds astonishing, but interesting.

    • Michelle Scott Tucker April 27, 2018 at 8:06 pm - Reply

      You must be a more diligent reader than me. I regularly fail to finish books that don’t capture me – life is too short! And yes, the Hughes book really is fantastic.

      • whisperinggums April 27, 2018 at 9:15 pm - Reply

        I agree life is too short but I try hard not to start books I won’t get some value out of, which is not to say that sometimes I wonder whether I’d rather be reading something else. However, as long as I feel it’s got something, as long as I feel that the author is genuine and is trying something interesting, not cliched or formulaic I’ll continue. This relates mostly to review copies I’ve accepted. This might sound wussy, but I don’t accept review copies holus bolus. When I choose my own books I’m good at matching my preferences.

  3. wadholloway April 27, 2018 at 11:30 pm - Reply

    In one brief moment in the kids’ teenage years when we were all in the same house again after various troubles, they thought we were “little house on the prarie”. Now I’m not so sure that was a good thing. I only ever saw the tv show when I wasn’t quick enough to look away – weren’t they all preternaturally happy (and god-bothering)?

    • Michelle Scott Tucker April 30, 2018 at 8:26 am - Reply

      The show was pretty saccharine, the books less so (from memory).

  4. Nathan Hobby May 3, 2018 at 12:33 pm - Reply

    I was interested in the WIlder biography, especially after it won the Pulitzer and reading about her fascinating legacy to conservative politics – guarded by a daughter, I think. I wonder what the judges liked about it? It’s also in contention for the Biographers’ International Organization award. I think comprehensive biographies often win acclaim, indeed I can think of three prominent Australian examples which I enjoyed less than the consensus. Kathryn Hughes is such a great reviewer of biographies for the Guardian – was thinking this was worth a read, and you confirm my hunch.

    • Michelle Scott Tucker May 3, 2018 at 12:40 pm - Reply

      The judges said this: A deeply researched and elegantly written portrait of Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the Little House on the Prairie series, that describes how Wilder transformed her family’s story of poverty, failure and struggle into an uplifting tale of self-reliance, familial love and perseverance.
      I’d agree with deeply researched, but not with elegantly written. The writing is actually fine – for me it the problems were all about the surfeit of extraneous detail.

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