Matthew Parris in today’s “The Times” shows how adversity can be a precursor to success and has been for many famous people from Abraham Lincoln to Edith Piaf and many others.
One of the pleasures of biography – I’ve written two full length ones, dozens of published biographical sketches as well as read hundreds – is the element of surprise. There are some patterns but cause and effect is unpredictable. Ian Kershaw’s fine biography of Hitler gives no clue that his subject’s rather ordinary childhood would be that of a future monster.
I see three main drivers of a life – privilege (or the lack of it) , intelligence/ability and ambition. Include the very rare phenomenon of genius and you begin to assemble the building blocks. Matthew Parris writes about deprivation (of various sorts) which is arguably the flip side of privilege. Lincoln was deprived from an underprivileged background – but he was smart and ambitious.
Privilege can be given or earned as a consequence of an individual’s conformity to norms and denied because of his or her nonconformity. Sammy Davis Junior succeeded despite (in his own words) of being “the only Black, Puerto Rican, one-eyed, Jewish entertainer in the world.” But the brilliant black, female composer Florence Price struggled solely because of her gender and colour.
Serendipity and chance also plays a part. The grotesquely improbable, contemptible and dishonourable presence of Donald Trump in the White House cannot be explained by any rational biographical study. There was nothing in the first sixty plus years of his life that suggested his suitability for the highest office in the land. He literally ticked none of the boxes shared by previous presidents.
The environment in which an individual grows up and lives can mould or restrict a life. A genius like Alan Turing had his life ultimately destroyed because of the prejudices and the mores and laws of his times. But Noël Coward, no less homosexual than Turing, found a way to overcome this in society that Turing could not. It wasn’t that Coward “got away with it” in a way that Turing couldn’t . Perhaps the establishment protected Noel, who became happily one of them, whilst nobody protected Turing who never became any sort of establishment figure.
The truth about all this is I think that lives sometimes defy definitive explanation. Yes to overcome difficulties can be defining, for some. And chance plays a part. And we do tend to admire those who succeed despite their difficulties rather more than those born with a silver spoon in their mouths. But deep down, as I say, it’s about intelligence, ability and ambition – with a fair sprinkling of luck thrown in.