BIOGRAPHY is arguably the most challenging of literary forms. Apart from the usual demands of good writing, it requires the ability to do justice to both subject and truth with high potential to upset some, or many, people. A good biography of a worthy subject is perhaps the most satisfying of reading. But how feasible will they be in future?

I recently finished a remarkably well-researched and written biography by Clare Mulley of Christine Granville, the Polish-born, British secret agent Krystyna Skarbek.[1] Apart from her four official surnames, the index to this book lists seven codenames symbolic of an unusually complex and elusive character who did indeed lead the many lives suggested by the book’s somewhat banal title. Granville was the name on the British passport used to escape from Budapest from where she had helped exfiltrate personnel and information from Poland over the Tatra mountains, smuggling in propaganda and deadly equipment. She continued her role as agent in Cairo, but in 1944 was parachuted into southern France where she played several heroic roles in the resistance in the Vercors region. In spite of serving six years as the first British female secret agent, she, like many Poles, was poorly treated by London at the end of the war and ended up as a stewardess on ocean-going liners. Her complicated and promiscuous relationship with men caught up with her in 1952 when, at the age of 44 (37 by her account) she was murdered in Earls Court by a jealous ex-lover.

Almost everything about Granville and the details of her life posed a challenge to her biographer, from her date of birth onwards. Probably it is impossible to be absolutely certain about every detail of the life of someone involved in war-time espionage and Granville was known to embroider her personal stories. Mulley is careful to record variant versions and point to inconsistencies, but whether she has pinpointed the exact truth in every case can never be known.

A writer’s sources and notes are often regarded as a dry addendum, but they can speak volumes and in the case of this and similar books pose intriguing questions. Mulley’s main sources fall into three categories: official records in various archives, national and private; books written by people who knew Granville; and letters. Amongst Granville’s many dislikes was letter writing, in part dictated by her line of work, and only a dozen of hers seem to have survived. Her biographer has thus leaned heavily on the letters and unpublished memoirs of a cast of intriguing and more prolific characters.

From time to time biographers come up with cautionary words about their craft. Patrick French, who wrote about the life of Francis Younghusband notorious for invading Tibet, comments on his research in the Indian archives in Delhi where the overhead fan turned to fragments and dust some of the papers on which he was working ‒ making him their final reader. Charles van Onselen concludes his book on the social bandit Jack McLoughlin with a sober warning about sources: ‘Mine will be the last generation of South African historians who can meaningfully offset the archival record (itself in serious disarray) against the everyday experiences of the majority of the population as recorded in the newspapers’.

How serious is this threat? As Younghusband’s biographer has shown, the paper archive has a limited shelf life and many would argue that the antidote is the storage capacity of the Internet. Yet vast quantities of information can be deleted at the press of a button and its ownership and stewardship is highly precarious. This debate is unresolved. More important, perhaps, is the issue of how records are created in the first place as well as the likelihood of their being preserved.  In a talk about Granville and her biography, Clare Mulley made some astute comments about the historical value of letters: whatever their content they contain ‘the fossils of emotion’ and provide indicators of character of great value to biographers.

But who writes letters these days? What was once commonplace, even amongst relatively poorly educated people, has been wiped out within one generation. It is hard to see what value historians might find in the chaotic and often mindless world of Facebook or Twitter. Of course, the letter has in some instances been replicated by email, but these are rarely printed and have a presumably short life in cyberspace penetrable only by the world’s intelligence agencies.

‘Born digital’ is the term for information, including the photographic, that has never existed in any physical form and may no longer be readable because of technological advance. A Google executive warned ten years ago that this situation could create a forgotten generation, or even a forgotten century. ‘Digital rot’ is the process by which Internet links cited in academic papers rapidly disappear, in some investigated cases by up to 70%. While web crawlers, metadata and preservation programs may assist in capturing for researchers key official records (somewhat exotically labelled ‘digital vellum’), what about the personal emails of observers who have something valuable to offer future historians?

The world of publishing is in crisis, faced by the increasing control of bean counters working for large conglomerates on the one hand, the instability and frustrations of the Internet on the other. So, too, is that of the writer of history and biography. Received wisdom maintains that recording and communicating has never been easier in this digital age, but its effect on our behaviour and resultant practicalities suggest that reality is very different. Van Onselen’s warning about the archival world in its broadest sense could unhappily prove to be correct.

Sharp Thoughts from the Thornveld 43, 4 May 2016

[1] Clare Mulley, The Spy Who Loved: The Secrets and Lives of One of Britain’s Bravest Wartime Heroines (London: Pan Macmillan, 2013).