On 4 March it will be ten years since the death of the writer Francis Hope – killed at 34 in the Turkish Airlines DC10 crash outside Paris – and this last week I have been going through a small mountain of his journalism, for a possible collection of his ‘literary essays and reviews’. For about twelve years, Hope wrote regularly for the New Statesman, the Observer, the TLS: he also contributed to several smaller journals – including my own verse periodical, The Review, which he served for a decade as a member of the editorial board (indeed, so far as I can remember, he attended all three annual general meetings). He worked both as a magazine essayist and as a ‘real’ journalist, and even for a time appeared as a reporter for TV’s Panorama. I guess that over the years he must have published more than a quarter of a million words. Enough for a book? That remains to be seen. So far, the message seems to be that five one-thousand-word pieces on five separate novels by Saul Bellow don’t actually add up to a five-thousand-word appraisal. In the meantime, though, I’ve been reminded just how good Francis Hope was as a reviewer: deft, sardonic and wide-ranging, valuably unenchantable throughout the dopey Sixties.
[*] Allison and Busby, 160 pp., £6.95 and £2.95, 20 February, 0 85031 584 0.
Vol. 6 No. 6 · 5 April 1984
SIR: I am interested that Ian Hamilton (LRB, 15 March) barely survived the first act. Even if the play had been less awful than it appears to have been from this and other reviews, it is outrageous that a great writer barely twenty years dead should be impersonated by an actor on the stage. As I.A. Richards wrote in notes he made for a talk on Eliot in the year Eliot died: ‘In talking of a writer we have known – and to those to whom he has mattered – how can we speak without feeling that he himself is by far the most important part of the audience?’ He thought it would be an excellent thing if this ‘sense of presence’ could become ‘a universal rule in criticism’ and would help ‘with the two main occupational diseases of what is too often a belittling trade; I mean our impudence and our vanity.’ But he rebuked himself for referring to that ‘unhappy side of criticism in talking of one who was so much the reverse of petty: generous and forbearing beyond easy belief’. It is one thing to see a play on the subject of Browning’s marriage. Although a spectator might well feel, ‘This isn’t how I imagine Browning,’ playwright and spectator are on the same footing, both have exercised their imaginations to construct an image of Browning based on their reading of his poems and letters and on contemporary records. It is quite another thing to present what must appear a travesty of someone so many still living knew, loved and honoured, based on what seems a very inadequate knowledge of the mass of material freely available.
Ian Hamilton referred to Peter Redgrove’s letter to the TLS (17 February). His second letter to the TLS (9 March), replying to criticisms of his first from Philip Edwards and C.H. Sisson, declared that it is because we respond to a poem’s power that we need to know all that we can find out about the source of its power in the poet’s private life. It is unfortunate for his argument that he uses Shakespeare to justify his ‘right to know’ any and every detail of Eliot’s tragic first marriage. He ignores the fact that Shakespeare lived before the days of ‘investigative journalism’ and inquiries with ‘no holds barred’ dignified by the name of research. Nobody when Shakespeare died took an interest in Shakespeare’s will and called on his widow to ask why he left her his ‘second-best bed’, or interviewed noble lords about the life of ‘the player Shakespeare’, or asked questions about his personal life and habits from fellow actors or persons with whom he had lodged in London. Shakespeare’s ‘sexual distress’ is established, or not established, by reading his works. The facts that are clearly established about his life could be written by a neat writer on two sides of a postcard. Some may feel that to discover the source of Shakespeare’s dramatic power in a ‘chronic sexual dilemma’ tells us more about our age than it does about Shakespeare. And the height of absurdity is reached when Shakespeare is paralleled with Blake, Baudelaire, Rilke and Sylvia Plath.
May I finally protest against the continued attacks on Mrs Valerie Eliot, and the failure of Mr Hastings to make any apology for mis-statements or mistaken assumptions that she has calmly and with dignity refuted. If the author of Tom and Viv, or his ‘research assistant’, had made proper use of the papers in the Berg Collection and the papers Vivien left to the Bodleian, there would have been no difficulty in identifying the poem Mr Hastings was sent and he could have found its date by looking it up in Lyndall Gordon’s Eliot’s Early Years. It was sent to Conrad Aiken in a letter dated ‘Marburg. 25 July 1914’, before Eliot went to Oxford and was introduced to Vivien. An earlier complaint about the difficulty of getting photographs of Vivien showed ignorance of the fact that six different ones can be found in books by Lyndall Gordon, Robert Sencourt and T.S. Matthews, and that enlarged prints of five snapshots of her, not yet reproduced, have been in the Bodleian since 1980 with Vivien’s papers. I know from experience how generous Mrs Eliot has been to scholars, old and young, from all over the world, whose typescripts she has read carefully to correct or supplement information given in them, and how this self-imposed scholarly duty has interfered with her work on her husband’s letters. Within the limits imposed on her by the codicil to her husband’s will and his expressed wish that she should edit his letters, I know of no scholar, who has done his homework, to whom she has not been generous of her time in reading work submitted to her and in granting interviews and answering questions.