Friday, 19 September 2014

'Dr Livingstone, I presume?'

Thus - supposedly - Sir Henry Morton Stanley on finding Dr David Livingstone on the shores of Lake Tanganyika on 10 November 1871, and apocryphal or not it is one of the classics of British understatement.

I may, quite possibly, have recently made a minor Livingstonian discovery of my own: I had been commissioned to visit the Hydrographic Office in Taunton, and my efforts to find relevant letters in the in-coming files not producing as much as I'd hoped I thought I'd try looking for retained copies of correspondence sent out from the Office. Buried within one of the entry books was indeed a rich stash of letters of interest to my client, so that was gratifying, but it was while frantically trying to get copies and notes of all of this material that I happened to notice a letter dated 5 November 1859 addressed to one Dr Livingstone - presumably the Dr Livingstone. No time to dwell on these things of course, as I was more concerned with my client's interests, but I couldn't help skimming the letter: the writer (John Washington, the Chief Hydrographer at the time) congratulates Livingstone on certain of his recent discoveries that had been made public, and goes on to list the technical specifications of a proposed steamer that would be built by the shipbuilders Thompson of Blackwall/Rotherhithe and put at Livingstone's disposal. I've no idea whether the steamer was actually built and used by Livingstone, but it would be interesting to find out and doing so might add a little more to the biographical storehouse.

All of this got me thinking about the complexities and challenges of the biographer's art, not so much the writing - difficult though that surely is - as the inevitable incompleteness of research. I dare say that this particular letter - if indeed it is addressed to the right man - has already come under the notice of his biographers (the original is presumably at SOAS, the National Library of Scotland or one of the other repositories which holds Livingstone's scattered papers), but what if it hasn't? What if it does actually contain information of real biographical value that has never been used? And therein lies the problem: if I were anyone's biographer I'd always have that nagging thought that my efforts were incomplete because I'd missed something absolutely vital; mind you, I can hardly make sense of my own life at times, let alone someone else's so it's not a problem I'm ever likely to face!

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