Elusive Subject: A Biographer's Life


260 pages
Contains Photos, Index
ISBN 1-55199-062-X
DDC 920'.007'202




Reviewed by Sarah Robertson

Sarah Robertson is the editor of the Canadian Book Review Annual.


Phyllis Grosskurth, Canada’s most internationally renowned biographer,
has tackled such controversial subjects as John Addington Symonds,
Havelock Ellis, Melanie Klein, Sigmund Freud, and Lord Byron. In
addition to meticulous research and a clear, unpretentious writing
style, her biographies bespeak a refusal to gloss over unpalatable
truths about biographical subjects. Fittingly, there’s no shortage of
self-criticism and self-deprecating humor in this perceptive and
compulsively readable memoir.

Grosskurth’s longstanding interest in the phenomena of exile and
dislocation can be traced to her peripatetic childhood. Born into
relative wealth (her father founded the Empire Life insurance company),
she suffered the first of many reversals of fortune in the Depression
years. Her father’s exposure to the stock market, and subsequent
financial ruin, set the stage for a nomadic family life, although
Toronto (a “grim, provincial city” at that time) would remain home

First university and then marriage to a naval officer offered
Grosskurth escape from her dysfunctional family and, in particular, her
increasingly volatile mother. Following a lengthy stint as “the
perfect Ladies’ Home Journal wife,” she completed her doctoral
thesis on Symonds at the University of London. The thesis was
transformed into a book (“the first frank biography of a
homosexual”) that earned critical acclaim, the Governor’s General
Award for nonfiction, and the disapprobation of Grosskurth’s
homophobic parents.

Back in Toronto in the late 1960s, Grosskurth became involved with, and
eventually married, cultural icon Mavor Moore. (They separated in 1976
and Grosskurth went on to marry an old flame from her undergraduate
days.) She also became a professor of English at the University of
Toronto. Despite her growing international reputation (or perhaps
because of the envy it engendered?), she fell victim to university
politics and various forms of discrimination. Her shoddy treatment at
the hands of U of T had a silver lining: it left her eminently qualified
to understand the psychoanalytic politics that would figure prominently
in future biographies.

As a memoirist, Grosskurth makes no false claims of objectivity. In her
introduction, she observes: “I am fully aware that my imaginative
memory has edited, abridged, and truncated experience out of shape,
omitting longueurs and accenting highlights.” While editorial
reshaping has doubtless enhanced the book’s entertainment value,
there’s no gainsaying the fact that the life it chronicles has been a
remarkably rich one. There are incisive sketches of notables from the
literary, academic, and psychoanalytic worlds (including Northrop Frye,
Marshall McLuhan, Anna Freud, R.D. Laing, and Jeffrey Masson) and fuller
portraits of longtime friends such as Mavis Gallant, Ruth Rendell, and
Elizabeth Longford. One of the book’s most irresistible anecdotes
concerns a prank directed at the Shakespearean scholar A.L Rowse.

Elizabeth Smart makes a brief, startling appearance, but it is
Grosskurth herself who plays a starring role in Elusive Subject’s most
bizarre episodes. In London, shortly after receiving the news that she
has breast cancer, she is berated and harassed by a deranged cab driver.
In Paris, there’s an embarrassing scene at a swingers club. On a
lecture engagement in Los Angeles, Grosskurth becomes the target of
death threats. A thief makes off with the proceeds she earns from
another lecture tour. Grosskurth’s admitted “propensity for
disaster” is no exaggeration. Her thoroughly engaging book will
delight students of biography and general readers alike.


Grosskurth, Phyllis., “Elusive Subject: A Biographer's Life,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 12, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/8080.