A more elusive, non-recorded character is hardly to be found. We know
all about him, but very little of him . . . the man Andrew Marvell
remains undiscovered. He rarely comes to the surface.Augustine Birrell, Andrew Marvell (1905)
I . . . who haue no imployment but idlenesse and who am so oblivious that
I should forget mine own name did I not see it sometimes
in a friends superscription.Marvell to Sir Henry Thompson (January 1674/5)
Authors from the past leave behind their literary works, but biographers need to construct their lives from other pieces of their life history evidence, apart from their poems, plays, novels or other kinds of writing. Works do of course function as life evidence, but without that other evidence, usually called documentary evidence because it is found in various types of historical document (records of birth, baptism, marriage, burial, property transactions, taxation accounts, and so on), the picture of a ‘real life’ would be impoverished. Letters, diaries and personal notebooks have an additional special status, because they are in a sense literary works too, and because they also record how the subject of a biography sees the world, or interacts with it. To have a large cache of letters is a gift for a biographer; it might be said that to engage in writing a life without such a collection is folly.