Quill and Quire

Charlotte Gray

« Back to
Author Profiles

Understanding genius

With her new Alexander Graham Bell biography, Charlotte Gray could find a whole new audience

Shortly after Alexander Graham Bell’s death in 1922, his wife Mabel expressed a hope that her husband’s biographer would be armed not just with accomplishment but with passion – someone who would work “from his own feeling of fascination.” Her instructions went further; she did not want Bell depicted “as a perfect man … I want people to realize he was a human being and no saint.”

These quotations appear in Charlotte Gray’s new biography, Reluctant Genius: The Passionate Life and Inventive Mind of Alexander Graham Bell, which HarperCollins Canada will release in September (see review, page 53). The book is as much a portrait of the relationship between the extraordinary Mrs. Bell and her husband as it is about the great inventor himself. And while Gray reveals Bell’s visionary and endearing qualities, she also shows that he was a hopeless businessman, passionate to a fault, and frequently absent from family affairs. It’s clear that Mrs. Bell might well have handpicked Gray as her dear Alec’s biographer, given the chance.

In fact, Gray’s original intent was to look into writing a biography of Mrs. Bell, in the same spirit as her first book, about the mother of eccentric Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King. She quickly realized, however, that Mabel’s world revolved around her husband entirely. “He was the electricity, he was the driving force,” Gray says. “All her decisions were made around his needs. Whether it’s the speaking machine in the first chapter, or the telephone, or the photophone, or the graphophone, or the machine to try to save President Garfield’s life, or the iron lung, or the flying machine – these were his obsessions, which dominated his, and therefore their, life. He was the centre of the book.”

Gray pursued the Bells further because of the fascination their relationship wrought in her. While drinking Earl Grey tea in her sunny kitchen in Ottawa’s historic New Edinburgh neighbourhood, Gray describes – with wit, energy, and lively curiosity – her first glimpse into the 180 volumes of correspondence kept in the archives at the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site in Baddeck, Cape Breton. “I went up to Baddeck and opened a volume at random,” she says. “And I realized, oh, this is fantastic, this reads like fiction: this marvellous love affair, this amazing man, this amazing woman. I could really imagine spending four years of my life with them.”

Gray is accustomed to writing biographies of strong women, so she could very well have found Bell’s habit of taking centre stage annoying, but instead she exudes affection for her subject. She lists off the idiosyncrasies of Bell’s unstable personality with a keen empathy. “He went down to 130 pounds at his most neurotic and intense, when he was rushing to invent the telephone. He was obsessive, he had the strangest working habits, he often didn’t go to sleep till four or five in the morning. He hated eating off plates that had any kind of pattern on them. He was abnormally sensitive to light. He had periods of intense depression and periods of euphoria.”

Reluctant Genius is Gray’s sixth book: the first five were bestsellers and earned her numerous accolades, including a Pierre Berton Award from Canada’s National History Society. These previous books, though, all dealt with purely Canadian subjects, such as poet E. Pauline Johnson, pioneer sisters Susanna Moodie and Catharine Parr Traill, and Mackenzie King’s mother; her two most recent projects, The Museum Called Canada and Canada: A Portrait in Letters, were national in scope.

With Bell, Gray has returned to her first love, biography. She’s also published her first book on a historical figure whose import extends beyond Canada. Bell lived and worked in Canada, the U.S., and the U.K, and his best-known invention, of course, changed the world. As revealed in Gray’s text, Bell’s extraordinary time on remote Cape Breton Island, where he bred twin-bearing sheep and tested all manner of contraptions in air and on water, proved no less remarkable than his dramatic years in Washington, D.C., where he once attempted to save the life of a dying president (Garfield) with one of his inventions.

Accordingly, Reluctant Genius is the first of Gray’s books to be sold in the U.S.; it will be released there by Arcade Publishing in August. Her agent, John Pearce of Westwood Creative Artists, is also in discussions with British publishers about U.K. rights. Gray admits that there was some strategy in her decision to look at the Bells – “I wanted to write about somebody who had a reputation that went beyond Canada,” she says – and Pearce notes that the Bell book could also attract a whole new demographic. “A lot of men who probably didn’t rush to buy a book on Pauline Johnson or even Susanna Moodie will be interested in this,” he says. “There will be people who love the history of science, others interested in male biography.”

In any case, Reluctant Genius is one of the few books about Bell that’s not geared to children, at least since a 1977 volume by American academic Robert Bruce. Gray’s book may also be the first attempt at an all-encompassing portrait, looking at all Bell’s scientific endeavours as well as his personal life. As such, the book seems poised to solidify its author’s growing reputation as the top writer of popular history in this country, a mantle that arguably fell to her after the death of Pierre Berton in 2004. “It really establishes her as Canada’s pre-eminent social historian, and certainly 19th-century biographer,” says Pearce. “Parts of this territory were shared with Sandra Gwyn in the past, and Pierre Berton, but they’re both gone.”

Gray is also a bookseller favourite. “I can’t think of anyone else who’s working at the same level of Canadian history and biography as Charlotte Gray,” says Richard Bachmann, owner of A Different Drummer Books in Burlington, Ontario. He awarded Gray his Drummer General Award for Non-fiction in 2002, for the Pauline Johnson bio, Flint & Feather. “She’s sensitive not just to a life story but to the whole social matrix of the time. I think [Bell] is a marvellous topic for her. The marriage of author and subject is equal to the marriage of Alexander and Mabel.”

Gray did the bulk of her research during several weeklong trips to Baddeck, and also visited key sites from the Bells’ lives, talking to locals who remembered them. “In Baddeck itself, the Bell name is still royalty, and many people there still talk about Mabel Bell particularly as though she died yesterday,” she says. She also found some descendants, chief among them Dr. Mabel Grosvenor, 101 years old and the last surviving Bell grandchild. “I’ve met her three or four times. She’s this redoubtable old lady in a retirement home in Washington. She’s a doctor, she’s totally hunched over, she’s blind, she’s a bit deaf, but she’s smart as a whip and she remembers her grandparents vividly.” Grosvenor allowed Gray access to the Bell house in Baddeck, little changed since Mrs. Bell’s death in 1923.

Gray researched chronologically and wrote as she went along, and as she did she came to “know” her subjects deeply. “With the death of the second son, I was able to predict then how each of them would react,” says Gray. “And any setbacks that Alec had in his inventions, I would know that, usually, failure plunged him into gloom, and Mabel, who was very stoic, would know that her job was first of all to cheer him up and then to find a distraction.” She smiles. “But sometimes he surprised me.”

As she has surprised herself. Though Gray holds a degree in history from Oxford University, she came to history writing
circuitously, first pursuing social work, teaching, and finally landing in journalism after coming to Canada in 1979. “Kierkegaard said you can only understand a life backwards, but you can only live it forwards,” she says. “It’s satisfyingly neat that I write history now. But actually it was absolutely unpredictable.” While her husband, George Anderson, pursues his work with an international NGO, Forum of Federations, and her three twentysomething sons attend university, Gray continues to hone her craft.

She does so while juggling an increasingly public persona, and the demands on her time that entails. Gray served as a Giller Prize judge in 2004 (the year Alice Munro’s Runaway won), and her recognition factor shot up further that year when she appeared on the CBC-TV series The Greatest Canadian, pulling for John A. Macdonald. (“Without Sir John A.,” she wrote at the time, “there might not even be a Canada for anybody else to star in.”) Now, invitations to events are more common than ever. At the Ottawa Public Library’s recent 150th anniversary celebrations, Gray read from Sandra Gwyn’s Tapestry of War and spoke about what it’s like for a writer to visit a library: “There’s nothing for a writer like leaving her attic and seeing people who read books. There’s nothing like working in a room filled with so many friends.”

This may be how she feels while writing biographies, and why she is hooked on them: the sense of being with friends. “What I love about biography is understanding someone else’s life. And also, snooping. Reading somebody else’s letters. I love bringing them to life again.”

She won’t elaborate on her next possible project, but does say that she is rethinking the biographic formula. “Although I think there’s always a place for cradle-to-grave biographies, people now get infinite information from websites, where it’s not a linear structure,” she says. “It’s changed people’s expectations of how you integrate knowledge intellectually. So I’m thinking about that. What does it mean? I don’t know.”

Meanwhile, the Bells’ hold on Gray hasn’t let up. Even now, with the writing long finished, the bound galleys for Reluctant Genius sitting on the yellow printed tablecloth before her, and new projects germinating in her mind, Gray speaks of “Mabel” and “Alec” as though they were old friends. “It’s very hard to say goodbye,” she says.