This is a copy of the thesis written as the major work for a Doctorate of Creative Arts at the University of Technology, Sydney. The work was completed in 2007.
The thesis examines some of the biographical dilemmas addressed in An Exacting Heart: The Story of Hephzibah Menuhin, published by Penguin Books the following year.
The English writer and literary critic Desmond MacCarthy (18771952) is alleged to have observed that ‘a biographer is an artist under oath’. Whether he used these words or not – and this aphorism is not quoted in his essays or other work – the idea of ‘artistry under oath’ is a very useful one, bringing together the biographer’s responsibilities: to tell an interesting and convincing story, in this case a life story, by drawing on whatever documentary sources are available. These sources may be extraordinarily varied: history, political belief, sociology, literary criticism, psychoanalysis, journalism, ethical studies, philosophy.
The phrase neatly delineates the major preoccupations of biography in the twentieth century: the relationship between art and fact, imagination and truth, fiction and non-fiction. In the words of Virginia Woolf: ‘The biographer’s imagination is always being stimulated to use the novelist’s art of arrangement, suggestion, dramatic effect to expound the private life. Yet if he carries the use of fiction too far, so that he disregards the truth, or can only introduce it with incongruity, he loses both worlds.’1 Biography’s role in conveying the feel of an individual experience, showing the world as a single person saw is, to some extent, what fiction does: bringing a person alive on the page. And, as Virginia Woolf recognised, it is much more difficult for a biographer to truly ‘know’ a person, to give a truthful portrait of a life, than to discharge the responsibility to documentary accuracy.
1 Virginia Woolf, ‘The New Biography’quoted in Catherine N Parke, Biography, Writing Lives, Routledge, London, 2002, page 28,
The biography of Hephzibah Menuhin (1920-1981) presents a fascinating example of some issues raised in the relationship between documentary accuracy and the drama of a life story. Hers was a life largely lived in the public eye, partly because she was the sister of the greatest musical child prodigy of the twentieth century and probably its first authentic classical music celebrity, and partly because of her own musical career, as well as her humanitarian work in later life. Stages in her public life have been extensively documented in the media: newspapers, films, television. And she herself documented her life, in letters (she was an indefatigable letter writer) and diaries. However, there are inaccuracies in media sources, and Hephzibah frequently gave slightly differing accounts of various events, tailoring what she wrote to her correspondents. At the same time, she seldom wrote in any depth about her feelings, anxieties, emotional difficulties. (Much of my information about these has been discovered by accident.)
Tracing the events of her life has not been especially difficult: however, evaluating them has been. As a result, giving due weight to the events that shaped Hephzibah Menuhin’s external life while trying to understand, explain and describe the emotional contours of her inner life has been extremely challenging. The following chapters of this exegesis delineate some of the difficulties and tensions involved in writing this particular biography.
Click here to download thesis previews (pdf):
Summary and Conclusion
Hephzibah Menuhin was a woman of many contradictions, and the process of researching and writing her biography has been challenging in several ways. The contradictions often apply to the sources consulted in the biography. Though there was a very large quantity of primary source material, much of it was difficult to use because of Hephzibah’s habitual reluctance to describe her emotional life in words, and her habit of changing her descriptions of events to suit her audience. Interviewees’ and previous biographers’ accounts of various episodes also differed in important details.
This exegesis has outlined major themes of Hephzibah Menuhin’s life story : celebrity, music, the roles she played during her life and her relationships with members of her family, all of which were important in making her the person she was.
An Exacting Heart, the biography that follows this exegesis, is traditional in structure, giving a chronological account of Hephzibah Menuhin’s life. Inevitably, certain aspects of the biography have been influenced by the work of other biographers, especially concerning attitude to material. Where evidence is lacking I have unhesitatingly speculated about motive or reaction, while making clear that conjecture is simply that.
The title An Exacting Heart has been carefully chosen to highlight two key aspects of Hephzibah Menuhin’s life. The first is the precision she demonstrated in her knowledge of languages, in her piano playing and in her writing. The second depends on the other connotation of the word ‘exacting’ – demanding retribution. Hephzibah Menuhin paid a high price for fulfilling her emotional needs. In the words of her sister Yaltah after Hephzibah’s death in 1981: ‘She was too proud to ask for the unconditional love she so needed. She felt she had to pay for everything in full by sacrifice.’