Answer: when it’s a metabiography.
I’ve been thinking about how to write a biography of a woman whose major claim to fame (or, in her case, infamy) is that she was briefly married to a man who has, at my last count, generated fifty-seven different biographies, one autobiography and countless newspaper inches and television documentaries. Typing his name into ebay reveals one thousand and forty-five items currently up for grabs. That’s forty odd pages of talking birthday cards, T shirts, thimbles, mousemats, cuff links and fully poseable action figures (with ‘real-like heads’) – never mind the ubiquitous DVDs, posters and photographs. The man isn’t an actor, he's a manufacturing business like no other!
I wondered about who in Wales might be metabiographical material. Richard Burton and Dylan Thomas, of course, spring to mind, but the ebay test disappointingly throws up only six hundred and eleven items for Burton (some of which are actually for the other Richard Burton – translator of The Kama Sutra) and four hundred and twenty for Thomas. There are no thimbles or mousemats and certainly no fully poseable action figures with ‘real-like heads’ – definitely a gap in the market there. In fact, the items are almost all DVDs (Burton) or books (Thomas). Of course – one was an actor, the other a writer. Yet although entire, industrial-sized, myths have also grown up around these two, this is not reflected in wider popular culture – as in the case of the man who was once married to the woman I’m writing about.
My final, deeply scientific, bit of research was checking out the Brontës on ebay. This is largely because the current trend of metabiographies includes the acclaimed The Brontë Myth by Lucasta Miller (as well as The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe by Sarah Churchwell. Marilyn on ebay – don’t even go there. A whopping five thousand and twenty seven items including ballpoint pens and pillow cases. I myself bought a pair of Marilyn flip-flops from a charity shop in Newmarket last weekend which, come to think of it, I could now sell on ebay thereby upping the count to five thousand and twenty eight.). Back to the Brontës. For all that they are now collectively known as a phenomenon, they could only rise to one hundred and seventy six items. Interestingly, these were largely books about them rather than by them – meat and drink for the metabiographer of course, with multiple representations galore!
So, how am I to write the biography – meta or otherwise? ‘Why?’ is the most useful starting point: the career is small and the books about her add up to one, unreliable, autobiography. Yet the legacy is lasting and notorious – why? Because the fifty-seven biographies and miles of column inches about her erstwhile husband continue to peddle myths and rumours about her as ‘the indisputable truth’. And because it’s a great story.