Brian Matthews reviews 'Dymphna' by Judith Armstrong

In the summer of 1988 I was part of an Adelaide Writers Week symposium on biography, the stars of which were two justly famous and accomplished biographers – Victoria Glendinning and Andrew Motion.  I described that occasion at the time, like this:

I greatly admired Motion’s panache. As we ascended the podium to begin the session in front of a huge crowd of biography buffs, he was heard to enquire of anyone within earshot what it was we were supposed to be talking about! He went on to give a fascinating, eloquent account of biography in general and his project at that time – a biography of Philip Larkin – in particular. Victoria Glendinning too spoke with fluency and conviction. Neither of them seemed to have the slightest doubt about the legitimacy of biography or the reliability of what biographical research turned up. This was not to say that they regarded biography as ‘truth’ or even ‘history’, but they certainly did not think it was fiction; they considered that when you committed biography you produced something describable to some extent as a verifiable life.

The assurance with which they approached the topic and its intricacies powerfully intensified my own sense of unease. As a Writers Week neophyte, I was beginning to doubt whether my intended contribution – to explore and elaborate on some doubts about the legitimacy of biography by deconstructing the biographical voice into several of its possible component parts – was such a good idea after all.

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Published in March 2017, no. 389

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