The Afterlife of Lives

By Anne Sebba, The Author, Autumn 2014

The Afterlife of Lives

Researching my biography of Wallis Simpson a few years ago I needed little encouragement to visit China. ‘You have to find the China Dossier,’ friends kept telling me before I’d even started serious work. ‘That’s the one which details all her sexual tricks,’ they’d add with a wink. So I went.

I didn’t think I’d find any documents or papers. But perhaps there were still a few people alive who remembered hearing tales of this dangerously attractive American naval wife in the 1920s as she breezed in and out of Shanghai and Peking? In her 1956 memoir, The Heart has its Reasons, Wallis mentioned a man she’d known in Shanghai called ‘Robbie’. He was someone who smoothed her path, sent her bouquets of fruit and flowers, but she refused to identify him further. Another biography named him as a diplomat, Harold Robinson, but a trawl through diplomatic lists at the National Archives revealed no one of that name.  By a stroke of luck, visiting the 66-acre Shanghai racecourse, I noticed a floor-level plaque recording that the clubhouse was rebuilt in the 1930s by a British architect, H.G.F. Robinson. Could this be Wallis’s ‘Robbie’?  After further research at RIBA in London, I named him as the likely person in my biography.

But this remained a guess. A few months after publication, signing books at Cheltenham Literary festival, I was approached by an elderly lady who asked: ‘Have you mentioned my Uncle Harold Robinson in your biography?’

We started a correspondence about why ‘Uncle Harold’ became such an important friend for Wallis. My Cheltenham informant believed that her well-connected Uncle had introduced Wallis to a society doctor in Shanghai, Dr Hugo Rudolf Friedlander, aka Freddy, a rakish figure whispered about in her childhood as he’d had an affair with her married aunt. Apparently, Freddy ‘became much involved with Wallis, helping her with a medical problem’.  What problem, I wanted to know? ‘Ah well, my mother had ideas on that,’ was all my informant could tell me.

Dr Friedlander died in Auckland, New Zealand and so, when I was recently there on a lecture tour, I picked up the trail, hoping that a local medical society might have acquired his personal papers. No luck.  For me the trail seems to have gone cold. As a biographer, I realised it was time to move on. But for my Cheltenham friend, at least, it has resulted in the discovery of new cousins she thought she would never meet – descendants of Freddy.

Before Wallis, I wrote a biography of Jennie Churchill, Winston’s American mother. For some, Winston is a demi-God and Jennie, a woman who allegedly had two hundred lovers, was not a good enough mother for him. I didn’t see it that way – and as Roy Jenkins commented in his biography of Winston, it’s too round a number. While acknowledging that she clearly enjoyed the attentions of men, I revealed the originator of the rumour as a man who wished to blacken Jennie’s reputation.

Once again, however, intriguing new evidence emerged after the book was written. More than a year after publication, I was sent details of a lurid tale about her third husband, the extremely handsome Montagu Porch, a civil servant in Northern Nigeria 23 years younger than her. This time my informant, a credible witness then working in Nigeria, had unearthed papers detailing how Porch, who had married Jennie in 1918 but returned to Nigeria to complete his assignment, was accused of an ‘attempted’ homosexual rape of his male cook.

Had I known about this story, I would surely not have been able to ignore it. And yet, having investigated it further myself at the National Archives, I can confirm that although Porch was charged, he was never convicted. The allegations came from a man he had recently sacked and previously beaten. Tantalisingly, having found the reference to charges against Porch, dated in a heavy marbled ledger on May 3rd, 1919, the entry has an oval purple stamp set against it stating:  ‘Destroyed under Statute. Yet, had I included this salacious tidbit in my biography of Jennie, what would it have added beyond confirming what I already knew – that Jennie was a highly attractive woman who enjoyed the physical attentions of a much younger man with a voracious sexual appetite? Or would it have skewed the response to a woman who I concluded was an extremely hard working mother trying to do the best for her son without denying herself her own pleasure?

Recognising the biographer’s power to change reputations is spine-tingling. But the tug of self-censorship is ever present. Sometimes libel is the worry. At other times, it is more about the biographer’s sensitivity – and sense of responsibility. When, thirty years ago, I wrote a life of the writer Enid Bagnold, author of National Velvet amongst other gems, I was immensely moved by Enid’s relationship with her troubled third child, Richard, who was born with a learning disorder. Coping with this fell almost entirely on Enid’s shoulders. In her novel The Squire Richard is Boniface – erratic, intense, single minded, ‘red of face asking no help intent upon some inner life which would not swim up into his difficult speech … inarticulate, eccentric living like a mole in his world’: how clearly Enid understood him.

I have no doubt that, today, trying to manage Richard’s troubled life would have provided her with fodder for a painfully honest memoir. The archive was bulging with letters to doctors and educational specialists trying to find a way forward for this beloved child.  Worrying about Richard ate into her brain, her emotions and time. And since he did manage to lead an independent life, even after Enid’s death, it would only be fair to say she succeeded in doing the best she could for him. But the family were adamant that if I referred to Enid’s struggles with Richard, I would destroy the life he had made for himself.  For his sake I compromised, yet I know that as a biographer I was failing her. Now Richard is no longer alive, I feel free to tell.

Perhaps, in a biographer’s dream world, the research would go on forever without a word ever needing to be written. If a book is published online it ought, in theory be possible to update it continually. A biography might be seen as a permanent work in progress. But I’m not sure many biographers would want that. Discovery of some facts may be truly ‘life changing’. But they cannot just be incorporated as a bolt on; a wholly different book is required.  I like the idea of biography being the work of a writer at a particular age and stage of life which reflects that symbiosis. No biography can ever be anything but a child of its creator. Ultimately, should we just recognise that we will never know everything about the life of another?