WHEN novelist E.M. Forster was 75 years old, he came to his fellow Bloomsbury comrade Leonard Woolf, asking him what writing project he should undertake next. Woolf answered, ``Write your autobiography. But if you are not ready to write that, do a biography - of anyone.'' Beyond Woolf's perceptive advice was his know- ledge that looking deeply into the events of another person's life could be one of the most engrossing tasks a writer could undertake.
Robert David Thomas, who has written a biography of John Humphrey Noyes, founder of the utopian Oneida Community, knows his way around the social and spiritual movements of 19th- century America. He has now produced, after spending what he says were 10 summers in the archives of The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston, a biography of the discoverer of Christian Science, Mary Baker Eddy.
Thomas's book, ``With Bleeding Footsteps: Mary Baker Eddy's Path to Religious Leadership,'' takes a respectful look at Mrs. Eddy as any fair-minded person, from a prolonged study of her letters and the other correspondence relating to her, would be bound to do. Yet in one major respect he has missed the opportunity his familiarity with the materials about her should have given him. Any biography written after all those who were acquainted with its subject have passed on must rely for its originality either on hitherto unknown material or on those new perspectives that each generation brings.
In Thomas's case, the book is limited by his trying to fit Mrs. Eddy into the confines of a particular psychological model. He often recounts some event as Mrs. Eddy's friendly biographers have portrayed it and then as her detractors have written about it, to be followed by his third, psychological interpretation.
For those people of all religions who believe in basing one's life - finding the ground of one's existence - on his or her relation to God, it is not as essential to delve into one's childhood or every traumatic event in one's relations to one's parents. (The psychologist, in broad terms, seeks those past events in one's life that have caused him alienation. Many Christians would say, on the other hand, that alienation is caused by a separation from God, and can be healed only by finding a deeper sense of man's sonship with Him.) Particularly since Thomas seems to be convinced that Mrs. Eddy's discovery of Christian Science was a genuine and radical turning point in her life, how much more he could have gleaned from the archive material if he had followed her own development over more than four decades as the first person to call herself a Christian Scientist.
Thomas has a real regard for Christian Science and accepts as fact that it has laid down a credible record of spiritual healing. Yet he seems to have more regard for Christian Science than for Mrs. Eddy. Thus in concluding his preface, he writes, ``when it comes to some of her statements and actions, I remain torn in my ambivalence.''
While Thomas treats her as a worthy subject, his psychological approach gives too ready-made an answer to many of the turbulent events that swirled around her until her last years. His summation of the period of her discovery (after being healed of a severe injury), lies behind his interpretation of most of the events later in her life: ``Though the healing event would have a momentous impact upon the direction of Mrs. Eddy's life, her emotional conflicts were never completely subsumed under or sublimated into the spiritual realm.... Paradoxically, then, the healing would lead to growth and progress, but her inner personal self would never be completely healed.''
Besides this categorical assessment of her character, the book is confusing in its makeup. Thomas writes in minute detail about Mrs. Eddy's life as a child, in fact about all the events leading up to her discovery in 1866. From that point on, the book reads as if an editor had told him to cut it short. Thomas says that he does not follow a strict chronology. In fact, he follows almost none at all after 1866; the writing of ``Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,'' her seminal work, and the many revisions given it, is mentioned in one paragraph.
Her own development as a spiritual thinker (including her ability to put into words her vision of reality and its relation to Biblical themes), which evolved in the period from 1862 until the late 1880s, is ignored or not understood. Instead, most of the remainder of the book contains accounts of her relationship with the early workers in the Christian Science movement. This makes for more psychologizing, but adds nothing to the reader's knowledge of the step-by-step progression of Mrs. Eddy's life until her passing in 1910.
One must also note critically the chapter on Phineas Quimby, the magnetic healer who played an acknowledged role in Mrs. Eddy's experience. Although Thomas does not take the line of Mrs. Eddy's detractors that she stole Christian Science from Quimby - in fact, he understands well that this was not the case - he gives no evidence of being aware that the provenance of the Quimby writings as now published is questionable.
Quimby wrote little: Most of what is written down was done by various secretaries. At least some of what he wrote was very probably written after his long periods of consultation with Mrs. Eddy in the years 1862 to '65. The most that one can say is that anyone reading Quimby cannot be certain that it is all original with him.
Thomas has written a serious and scholarly book. He certainly means no unkindness to his subject. He does not, however, add any new information to what is already available about Mrs. Eddy, and his psychological bent severely limits his ability to understand the life of this major religious figure.