Cousins Once Removed

Peter Parker describes the difficulties in writing historical biographies and his effort on writer and editor J.R. Ackerley.

It may be thought that the expectations brought by the reader to a biography are rather different from those brought to a work of history. The writer soon discovers, however, that he must keep his historical wits about him quite as much as the historian. Oddly enough, this is particularly important when the subject of a biography is not in the strictest sense an historical figure but someone of our own time. Men and women of the nineteenth century and earlier may have similar concerns, fears and aspirations as ourselves, but they clearly inhabit an entirely different world from our own. It is not merely a matter of the more obvious sorts of 'period detail' (people in fancy dress being handed into phaetons by deferential figures in livery); go round any exhibition of early photography or portraiture and you will hear someone say: 'That's the sort of face you don't see any more.' Twentieth-century people, however, seem to walk the same streets, breathe the same air, wear the same clothes as we do. Or do they?

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