Phineas G. Nanson is fed up with studying theory - he wants to do something more concrete. One of his tutors introduces him to the biography of Sir Elmer Bole by Scholes Destry-Scholes - little known, but a masterpiece of its field. So enthused is Phineas by Scholes's passion, and by his obscure life and death, that he decides to embark on a biography of his own. Scholes Destry-Scholes is to be his subject.
Phineas goes to Pontefract to see where Scholes was brought up. A disappointing experience, since he really learns nothing about Scholes the man, and staring at his house all day just makes the woman who lives there think that he's a stalker. But then someone finally replies to Phineas's ad in the TLS, and he has a bit more luck tracking down correspondence between Scholes and his publisher. Three documents are brought to light, and a chest full of Scholes' things (including underwear and marbles), are opened for Phineas's inspection. The three documents are biographical accounts of Linnaeus, Sir Francis Galton, and Henrik Ibsen. Did Scholes's supposed death in the Maelstrom interrupt these projects? On his quest, Phineas meets two very beautiful, but very different women: Fulla, the Bee taxonomist, and Vera, the radiographer. Whilst working in Puck's Girdle, a literary travel agency, Phineas also meets a dragon in the form of Maurice Bossey...
I wasn't sure of The Biographer's Tale at first. I thought that it was a very good account of the life of the researcher, all those coincidences which seem to gather to compose an answer. All those jigsaw pieces which you and you alone can put together. The Biographer's Tale is such a learned piece that it is quite daunting. There are a huge variety of references to names and places which aren't crucial to the plot, they're just part of the vista. For me, this was difficult at first, since I like to look everything up. I had to adapt, to just investigate things that I really didn't know anything about, and to ignore those references that I recognised. In short, you do need a researcher's skill to get something from this novel, to know where to look. Scholes's card index system will be very familiar to most researchers. However, I think that you have to be engrossed by the actual subjects in order to put all the pieces together. Someone else's research is never as stimulating as your own. Having said that, Linnaeus, Galton, and Ibsen are very interesting subjects, so it's worthwhile doing some background reading. There were also aspects of the plot that I was unhappy with. From being almost an asexual man, Phineas has not one, but two lovely ladies thrust upon him - or maybe that's just my jealousy. There's also that dreadful scene where Phineas waves a penknife around in Puck's Girdle with hysterical abandon, although Fulla valiantly rescues him. Or maybe Phineas has been afflicted by 'The Feminization of Nature', that admirable treatise put forward by Deborah Cadbury.
A. S. Byatt's own research is impeccable. There really is a dearth of bee taxonomists in the world, as Fulla states, and the Stag Beetle is very much in danger of extinction. I delighted in reading up on the alkali bees and the pollination of Alfalfa. It's also great to read what abominable snowman lies behind Linnaeus's homo nocturnes idea, and it's true that the great taxonomist thought swallows spent their winter under sea. Galton really did push Nangoro's niece out of his tent in Ovampo, in the fear that she would ruin his white linen garments. The Ibsen fan who wrote 'Brand's Daughters' was Laura Petersen, and she may have been an inspiration for 'A Doll's House'. Phineas seems to think that Galton was not all that well known, but there is a great deal of information out there on the Father of Eugenics. A. S. Byatt seems to have captured the mood of the current times admirably: Galton thought the Australian Aborigines were the lowest form of human life, something which is echoed in the attitudes towards the Tasmanian Aborigines, in Matthew Kneale's admirable 'English Passengers'. Having said that, Galton did believe that Victorian gentlemen were two rungs below the Athenians (but, on the negative side, the Athenians owned slaves). Phineas is much at a loss as to how to compose the story of a man's life, since there are so many ways at looking at man, and at a man. Now the human genome has been mapped, and Galton's genetics is experimented upon in our fields. Fulla believes in the interdepence of life, Vera the radiographer can see cancer weave its web across a patient's body. The Strange Passenger in Ibsen's Peer Gynt asks Peer to donate his body to science; Galton puzzles over what is real and what is imaginary. Given his name, Phineas can't but help be an explorer as well, although not quite in the Jules Verne style of Phileas Fogg. I believe A. S. Byatt chose the rather silly name 'Phineas G. Nanson', because it's very close to 'Phaeogenes nanus', the mite that preys on the beetle that causes Dutch elm disease. Since I haven't found out anything about this small mite, I'm unsure of what relevance it is to Phineas's character. However, just as American hospitals are overwhelmed with people queuing up to have their bodies scanned in 3D, so Phineas finds out a great deal about a person other than Scholes Destry-Scholes.
After the third or fourth reading, and a bit of studying, The Biographer's Tale does emerge as a worthwhile endeavour.