On the relationship between Christian biographer and subject

Bernard Crick, in his biography of George Orwell, thought that the task of the biographer required ‘a prolonged and strange mixture of love and critical distance, of commitment and restraint.’ (George Orwell. A life, p.xxx ) In the last couple of years I’ve published one book about a leading catholic member (and indeed archbishop) of the Church of England in the post-war period, and am deep into the writing of another one. Michael Ramsey retired as archbishop of Canterbury in 1974; Walter Hussey retired as dean of Chichester in 1977. And I recently fell to reflecting on the differences between the two projects, and what one might call my relationship with my two subjects.

The quality of the biographer’s relationship with his subject is different to that of the author writing on a theme or an event. The engagement is somehow more personal, and I think that applies even if the book is more concerned with a career than with a whole life, as mine are. At base one is concerned to assess the doings of a single human being, and so it is difficult (if not indeed impossible) to avoid making judgements on the subject’s success or failure. And even once one allows for their imperfect information, their being a creature of their environment,, there is still a space for judgement of their inherent capabilities, strengths, faults and weaknesses. And it is here that a degree of personal affinity (or lack of it) begins to enter the equation.

After having lived with Ramsey for a period of years, and having tried to assess his work in its totality, I came to admire the man. Why ? It is in part because there is a consistency of motive and aim that can be discerned across his actions, and (quite importantly) that motive appeals to me as a Christian. Ramsey was to his core a worshipper of Christ, and a witness for the Gospel, and that informed everything from his patronage of the Royal School of Church Music to his interventions about immigration or capital punishment.

Things are different with Walter Hussey, however. Hussey was a key figure in Anglican patronage of the arts, with a remarkable series of commissions to his name and who emboldened many others to do the same. By and large I am much in sympathy with that aim. However, I don’t think it a central concern of the churches at all times and all places; or at least, I cannot give the religious arts the kind of central place that Hussey evidently did. And, as I shall argue in the book, there is considerable evidence that, as a result, Hussey neglected other and arguably more important parts of his role as dean of Chichester. To be frank, there is also a queasiness induced in me by the rather fawning attention Hussey seems to paid to all “top people”, not just artists and musicians. There have been times where I been frustrated, irritated or bored by him, in a way that I never found with Michael Ramsey.

Most readers will be familiar with more than one example of life writing where the love and commitment to one’s subject to which Crick referred spills over into something more closely approaching hagiography. Less common is the spectacular falling out of love that is evident in one biography of the novelist Anthony Burgess: a project that began as an exercise in literary fandom but became (for one reviewer) a “poison-pen letter” marked by a “kind of petulant, triumphal vindictiveness.” What would it mean if biographers were to think of their task in terms of a sense of relationship with their subject: a relationship that involved a commitment, that incurred responsibilities? As historian of religion John Fea noted recently on Twitter, “people in the past are defenceless. They are at the mercy of the historian. We must be careful about how we use such power.”

At this point there are some resources in the Christian tradition. Rowan Williams, in his splendid little book Why study the past? makes the point that both the Christian historian and those Christians whom (s)he studies are caught in a ‘network of relations, organised around the pivotal relation with Jesus and his relation with God, into which Christians are inducted’ (p.29): in other words, we are both members of the Body of Christ. As such, the Christian historian has just the same relationship with a Christian in sixteenth century Germany as with one in present-day Africa or London. This would suggest that the historian has the same responsibility to Christians of previous ages as we would more easily recognise as existing with Christians living. And, if I am frustrated or irritated by my subject, then I must work at that relationship, as it were, just as much as with a living person.

If this seems abstruse (and it may), there are further resources with which to think about the issue, that more readily help with historical writing by and about those who are not Christians. We might fruitfully think of the historian’s duty in terms of what is often referred to as the Golden Rule: do as you would be done to. Were the roles to be reversed, and I found myself the subject of a biography, I should be prepared to accept the prospect of my own faults and failings being laid bare, but not that I should be treated unfairly overall. I would want to think that, once I laid aside any defensiveness about my own life and any concern about protecting a reputation, I would be able to accept how my life had been written as a just assessment. This would suggest that we should write history as if our subject was able to read what we write.