Phantom Jacks

John Bayley

  • Jack: C.S. Lewis and His Times by George Sayer
    Macmillan, 278 pp, £14.95, November 1988, ISBN 0 333 43362 9
  • J.B. Priestley by Vincent Brome
    Hamish Hamilton, 512 pp, £16.95, October 1988, ISBN 0 241 12560 X
  • Eddy: The Life of Edward Sackville-West by Michael De-la-Noy
    Bodley Head, 341 pp, £16.00, October 1988, ISBN 0 370 31164 7

As novelists often intimate, personalities only really get their chance in novels. There they can be built up, intensified, put properly on display. In real life, they fade into uncertainty like all other individuals, lose at moments their robust colouring, become not quite sure who they are. This is a problem for biographers, who have to overcome it by a cruder version of the novelist’s tactic: emphasising and re-emphasising their model’s trademark on every page.

And writers make, remodel, and sometimes lose, their own personalities, either in the art they make or the life they lead. Larkin’s astonishing poetry, so much in the news lately, depended on a balancing act between personality and a tranced verbal completion. Too much of one and the poem became over-vulnerable: of the other, and it froze into finality. The rejects in the new Collected Poems show his unerring eye for weeding out both sorts. Then there is the diffident genius like Hardy, who could invent strong, distinctive characters like Sergeant Troy and Tess of the D’Urbervilles and the Mayor of Casterbridge, but was probably happier with the indeterminate sort, who flit uneasily in and out of the novel and transparently embody its impressions.

So writing the artist’s life should take into account all kinds of adjustment and dissolution. But it rarely does. Biographers have to choose the safe convincing way, showing ‘how father beat him, how he ran away’, and how this made him either the man he seemed or the man that few saw or suspected, the ‘complex’ inner man now making his bow in the biographer’s prose. Such falsifications are unavoidable, and they reflect, besides, the presentations we make in life, of ourselves to ourselves and to others. Everyone knows that jolly Jack Lewis and jolly Jack Priestley were not jolly at all inside, but there is a perennial pleasure in finding out what they did, what they liked and felt, and thus, in some degree, who they are.

I doubt they would have got on together. Their loudnesses were not compatible. And both were markedly unintimate. They disliked and distrusted the inner ring, the cosy clique, the people who know who to ask and how to reciprocate. They were loners who made a great show of common manhood, but who were much happier with women than with men. They did all this in different ways, however, and each would have abhorred the way the other did it. An unexpected common factor can probably be found in their attitudes to class, or at least to the ways in which individual members of the English intelligentsia (itself a barely analysable concept) adjusted to the peculiar pressure and response of the English class system. Lewis, who came from Ulster, his father a Bushmills-addicted Belfast solicitor, was inclined before he became well-known to look down on ‘ordinary people’ in a normal class-conditioned way, regarding Oxford as the upper-class haven to which he rightfully belonged, and his success in becoming part of it as a confirmation of social status. His brother Warren, an officer in the RASC, took the same view of the Army. They remained inseparable all their lives, Lewis both accepting and to some extent controlling his brother’s heavy drinking. When he got religion Lewis found himself in an anomalous position, an outsider to the Oxford Establishment (so far as any existed) and compelled to be leading man in an incongruous inner ring of like-minded persons, including Tolkien, a Catholic convert, and Charles Williams, a Cockney original with a decidedly creepy inner life, and an extraordinary talent for updating the mystico-religious poetic attitudes of the Fin-de-Siècle.

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