This month the Write on Sisters review two biographies. Writings about peoples’ lives goes way back. If you are not famous or important, writing about your own life (or your mom’s) may be classed as memoir. For the famous, a biography or autobiography is written based upon documentation. Primary sources are used as much as possible. One caveat for readers is the qualifications of the author to write a book on his/her own or someone else’s life. Additionally, there are concerns about writing an objective and balanced account of someone’s life that does not apply to memoir.
Sharon’ Pick: Beyond the Miracle Worker: The Remarkable Life of Anne Sullivan Macy and Her Extraordinary Friendship with Helen Keller by Kim E. Nielsen
The story of Johanna Mansfield Sullivan Macy is the ultimate rags to riches story. And it was her determination to better herself that led directly to positioning her to become Helen Keller’s teacher. Had she not done so, would another teacher have succeeded with Helen? Might we never have known of Helen Keller were it not for Annie Sullivan in her life and the promotion of Helen that occurred through the Perkins school, Sullivan’s alma mater?
This is the first definitive biography of Annie Sullivan in almost 50 years. Nielsen said she drew upon recently available, privately-held materials giving this biography, according to scholars, a depth and scope never before achieved. However, since Nielsen doesn’t identify what the new insights are, just interweaving them with elements available from other resources, the average reader can’t separate them. And that would be true with other biographers, so this is not a criticism, just a curiosity issue with this reader.
That it is clearly a heavily researched book with citations on most pages to validate quotations or inferences drawn is obvious. The twenty pages of notes cite the resources used. And you will learn more than you ever imagined learning or wanting to learn about this remarkable woman.
The writing style is mostly a linear telling of Annie Sullivan’s very complicated life. A child of extreme poverty, and with a debilitating eye disease that periodically blinded her, she accomplished much more than one in her circumstances should have.
One of Nielsen’s interesting points, made at various places in the biography, was how embarrassed Sullivan was by her eye condition. She did not want people to view her as handicapped and went to great lengths to conceal her trachoma. Similarly, she concealed her past even from Helen until they had been together 40 years.
The relationship of Helen and Annie was an interesting one to watch play out in these pages. Only fourteen years different in age, they were millennia apart in background. Helen, ever the optimist, often put a positive spin on Annie’s erratic behaviors when she wrote to others. She was extremely protective of Annie’s physical and emotional health, as well as her privacy.
Early on, Annie fought to convince others that she had not followed a recipe laid down by someone else for teaching Helen. That she had indeed developed a unique approach that resulted in the astounding skills Helen achieved. It didn’t help her case that she never fully delineated what those strategies were, nor did she replicate the approach with any other student. What little she wrote of methodology was decades after she had taught Helen. Her whole life she wanted to be acknowledged as a professional educator, but given her lack of formal training, not everyone believed she was.
Unfortunately, her physical vision was a problem most of her life. Born in 1866, at age five, she contracted trachoma, an eye disease associated with unsanitary conditions and easily cured by antibiotics today. She had many eye surgeries over the decades in which they would scrape off scar tissue from her eyelids, but nothing was ultimately successful. She died blind after years of pain.
For me, the early years of struggle for Annie Sullivan were the most compelling parts of her story. She should have ended up on the slagheap of humanity like the thousands of other poor, orphaned, and handicapped children of her time. But her determination to have a better life is incredibly inspiring. How did she even know there could be another life? And how brilliant was she to have overcome all those obstacles to become one of the most famous names in the world?
This is the story of a woman’s life unlike any you have likely read. My sole criticism is that there were multiple redundancies that could have benefited from another round of edits. But I cannot fault the passion and the scholarship that resulted in this telling of the story of Anne Mansfield Sullivan Macy.
Kathy’s pick: Agatha Christie, a Biography, by Janet Morgan
Last week on PBS I watched a special program on Agatha Christie guided and narrated by David Suchet, who plays Hercule Poirot, about Agatha Christie’s life and times. I was interested enough to go find a biography and didn’t pick my head up for quite some time.
Hercule Poirot would have had a field day with her brain, much less the mysteries this woman left behind.
Born into a life of privilege, she was much loved and cared for, wanted for nothing and led a life of pleasure and love until her father died when she was eleven. The depth of her mourning was never explored, and, as was done in those days, she put one foot in front of the other and kept going. This set the tone for her books and the rest of her life, according to her biographer.
I learned that during World War I she became a nurse and worked with pharmaceuticals; this is where she learned about poisons, their effects, and their uses. Most of her stories center around chemistry, plant life, and poisons. These were all passions of Agatha’s and her books hold up because of it.
Her expertise in describing characters, coming up with plots and clues, most of them red herrings, led to her successful career as the preeminent mystery novelist. To enhance that, she became a photographer, an artist, and a dancer. As a child she sang opera and thought about becoming a professional artist, then learned to play the piano and thought about become a concert pianist. Although quite talented, she didn’t think she was good enough for either of those pursuits. All these experiences came into play in her books.
She married a very handsome man who was unfaithful to her and admitted it. This, coupled with the very recent death of her mother, brought back the sense of loss she endured as an eleven year old and something quite strange happened to her that to this day has not been explained. She disappeared, involving Scotland Yard and 1500 journalists and the general public. Today it would be on CNN every minute.The biographer goes into this in great detail, covering two chapters, and comes to no real conclusion, but it is said that her Mary Westmacott novels (intended to never be disclosed as original Agatha Christie books) delve into her emotions at that time and partly explain her actions.
When she died, a cache of 73 notebooks was found shoved behind a cabinet. In it were scribbles about her characters, plots and motivations. She had dozens of them going all the time, and she kept them. They have now been published for Christiephiles to peruse. She also wrote an autobiography, which, according to this author, served Agatha’s own needs and did not reveal the most interesting parts of her life.
This biography is exceptional in that it is extremely detailed, yet easy to read. For example, the author gives us some nuggets, little gifts: Christie uses stock characters she describes in her many lists: “twittery companion”, “prim, irritable, respectable gentleman”, even “BBC type”. This was a trick she used often, a red herring of sorts so the reader is so identified with the character their flaws are overlooked, and when the murderer is revealed, all makes sense.
The main focus of this biography, and one that will thrill fans, is that every book is analyzed to some degree, and some trivia is revealed about how the story came about along with the influences on Christie’s life at the time. She was prolific; she said the plots came easily; hundreds of thousands of them in her lifetime, but the writing itself did not. She had to work at it. The biographer estimates that there are ideas, plots, and storylines for at least sixty more books!
As a result, Dame Agatha Christie is in the Guinness Book of World Records as the World’s Bestselling Author. Her books have sold over 2 billion copies in 44 languages. Royalties are about $4 million per year. Agatha Christie is also one of the world’s most prolific writers, or authoress (as she called herself). Agatha Christie’s play The Mousetrap has the longest theatrical run, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, from 1952 to present day.
Agatha Christie died peacefully in her beloved home after having achieved monumental success in various genres, meeting the Queen of England and various heads of state, living all around the world, becoming a Dame of the British Empire, and publishing an astonishing output.
A woman to admire.