Whose life is it anyway?

Authorised biographers enjoy better access, but they need to be wary of the added dangers when dealing with their subject's over-protective family. It isn't easy, says Ion Trewin

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Each time a new authorised biography is published, questions are raised. What does the family think? How much did they help? Did they censor the material or, indeed, the finished work?

Last week two very different subjects renewed the debate: William Shawcross's official life of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, authorised by the Queen with, it is said, the Prince of Wales very much involved, and my biography of the politician, diarist, philanderer and military historian, Alan Clark.

I can't speak for Shawcross, but we may speculate. With the Queen Mother's elder daughter still alive, were there issues that had perhaps to be ignored or glossed over, whether consciously or unconsciously? Did having the royal presence looking over one's shoulder, as it were, make it all the more difficult to write? Is the end result the better for being made "official"?

In the case of the Queen Mother, other biographers have gone before him, most notably Hugo Vickers two years ago. Vickers was denied the official entrée, but, as quickly becomes clear, he often gives the impression of being behind the curtain with his notebook. He comes across as an indefatigable detective, as well as a writer with impeccable royal contacts. He was, though, answerable only to himself.

In the case of Alan Clark, there was an attempt at an unauthorised life soon after his death. An author proposed a biography, but he had not taken the precaution of first approaching Jane Clark. She immediately made it clear not only that manners came into it, but also that it was far too early. If he went ahead he would not be allowed near Saltwood; Alan's papers would not be made available and, just as important, she would certainly not talk to him. Even if there had been a publisher prepared to commission a clearly unauthorised work, such restrictions would almost certainly have led to a "scissors and paste" account, based mainly on published sources.

The authorised life has it easier in research, with untrammelled access to letters, to hitherto private papers and to interviews. But there can be a price. Authorisation invariably means that the subject or the subject's family will wish something by return, not least the opportunity to read the finished script. In Shawcross's case, we need to know what conditions were made at the time of the commission. If he had royal peer review, how much was he obliged to note the comments? In the case of the Alan Clark biography, it helped that Jane Clark and I had worked together before. Advised by a literary agent, it was agreed that Jane would read and comment, but the book was mine and the opinions were mine.

Some years after Alan Clark's death, but before Jane asked me if I would consider being his biographer, I had transcribed and edited two volumes of his remarkable and revealing diaries. There were, inevitably, some difficult areas. I remember transcribing one section and, because it included sexual references, before giving it to Jane Clark to read I stuck a Post-It note on the front saying "Health warning". Jane read the pages, blenched I think, but when we discussed it courageously said that whether the passage was included must be my decision, adding later that if she had started to raise objections, to act as a censor, it might just have been the beginning.

How different the experience of the biographers of two other writers, Muriel Spark and Rudyard Kipling. Spark, the author of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, had long attracted biographers, not least because her memoir, Curriculum Vitae, was a thin and unrevealing volume. A dozen years ago she was impressed by Martin Stannard's newly published life of Evelyn Waugh and agreed that he would be the authorised biographer. It was no casual arrangement, but was covered by a legal agreement. Her only form of veto would be to have the right to withdraw the phrase "authorised". But nothing was so simple. It became clear that she wanted control over the portrait Stannard was painting. As he has since related she helped him to revise the first draft.

When Spark died in 2006, the flame was transferred to Penelope Jardine, her long-time companion. Always at the back of Stannard's mind was the possibility that permission to draw on Spark's letters and other writings might not be given. Ultimately, the biography was published in August very much as Stannard had wished and to widespread acclaim. But who knows what might have been the result if Spark had still been alive?

Possibly the most serious case of family interference in a biography occurred over Rudyard Kipling. Towards the end of the Second World War, the second Lord Birkenhead, who had written a well-received life of his father, the former Lord Chancellor, F E Smith, met Kipling's only surviving child, Elsie. Birkenhead was intrigued by Kipling, who had died in 1936. Although a great storyteller, he had kept himself to himself so the chance of putting meat on the bone in a biography seemed irresistible.

Although Elsie (now married to a Cpt Bambridge) agreed, it quickly became clear that it would be on her terms. If Muriel Spark had merely helped Stannard to revise his biography, Elsie was even sterner. It turned out that two previous biography attempts before the Second World War had been abandoned on the grounds, as Birkenhead's son recalled, that her supervision was "too exacting".

The contract drawn up between them would be seen by present-day standards as indefensible. Although all the work was being done by Birkenhead, he was to receive only one-third of the proceeds, the remainder going to Elsie. She also made other demands: if she requested Birkenhead to visit the United States in his research it would have to be at his expense. Certain of Kipling's relations, including a sister, Mrs Fleming, and a cousin, the former prime minister Stanley Baldwin, had to be interviewed at "an early stage". Birkenhead agreed to submit his draft and to omit from the completed work any passages indicated by Elsie. It was also clear that she could ban the book completely as the agreement also gave her the copyright in Birkenhead's work.

Why did Birkenhead agree to such a contract? His son says that he thought his good relations with Elsie and her husband were sufficient protection. Cpt Bambridge also promised him that "he would see that everything was all right". As research and writing proceeded, the Bambridges remained "most cordial and co-operative".

On completion in 1948 Birkenhead submitted the book to Elsie, who had by then been widowed. He had no reason to be apprehensive, thinking that he had delivered a fine work. When Elsie's response came he was devastated. She ordered "an immediate and complete ban on its publication". Birkenhead tried to find out where the problems lay. Might they meet and discuss possible changes? Elsie's response was uncompromising:

"It is very unpleasant for me to have to tell you that I consider it so bad as a book that any attempt at palliative measures such as you describe ... is not feasible." Her long list of the book's failings included that it was "a jerky patchwork" and made no mention of Kipling's "great love of the Bible, English and French literature". She concluded: "The distasteful task of conveying my opinion to you is accentuated by my own personal feeling of disappointment. So much time has been wasted."

Compensation to Birkenhead of first £3,500 and, after pressure had been applied, a further £1,500 was eventually agreed. Elsie, though, did not give up and in 1951 appointed another biographer, Charles Carrington. She found his work satisfactory and the book was published in 1955. Birkenhead's biography languished until Elsie's death in 1976. Eventually published two years later, it was highly praised: "one of the finest biographies written in modern times," said The Sunday Times.

To this day no one knows what caused Elsie's virulent response.

The phrase "authorised biography" is therefore often seen as a mixed blessing. To some, it implies control by the subject or his family, but authorisation properly handled allows the writer material that would otherwise be denied. And that should mean a fuller and better account.

Alan Clark: The Biography by Ion Trewin is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25

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