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.
Thus was born the Inklings, an unexclusive but very characteristic group of like-minded people, who met in pubs, drank draught cider and sometimes read each other their works. It is Lord of the Rings country and yet, interestingly, social nuances appear even in this consciously Christian and nostalgic setting. Tolkien the Catholic could not stand Lewis’s fundamentalist allegory, as exemplified in tales like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and thought them badly and vulgarly written. Lewis, who wrote with astonishing speed, was certainly not a cabinet craftsman like Tolkien, who took years over the elaborate pedigrees and provenance of his self-contained Elfland. But in fact neither had any real feeling for language, and no more had Priestley: which makes one wonder whether popularity may not be associated with taking communication for granted, not making a style of one’s own, but using a common vernacular so widely received as to sound already reassuringly obsolete. Making it new was not their thing, and their sales thrived on not doing so.
After Tolkien began to dislike Lewis’s writings, their old intimacy cooled. Indeed Lewis, as he grew older, became increasingly isolated, a unique sort of half-sage, half-monster, who belonged in no special enclave, and who partly for that reason exercised – and still does – a great fascination over many different kinds of people.
His life is a sort of hapaxlegomenon, a one-off affair which resembles no known intellectual, religious or social pattern. An old friend and former schoolmaster, Mr Sayer seems to intuit the ‘highly unusual boy’ in Lewis, and this makes his biographical memoir both more perceptive and more congenial than the already numerous official and professional studies. Lewis lost his mother very young, always got on badly with his father, though striving to be more or less filial, and acquired a curious mother-substitute or perhaps succubus as a result of active service in the First World War. This was Mrs Moore – her name has a coincidental affiliation with Forster’s heroine in A Passage to India – whose own son was killed, and with whom Lewis took it upon himself, first as a pleasure and then as a duty, to live for the rest of her life. Live with? Sayer is open but undecided as to what this implied. A mutual friend, Owen Barfield, author of an informal and penetrating study of poetic diction, rated the likelihood of their bedding together as about fifty-fifty. But where other biographers have shaken their heads over Mrs Moore as a tiresome and evil-tempered old woman who blighted Lewis’s life, Sayer sees her – more plausibly – as the mother-mistress who was his lifeline to sanity when he was young, and the proper recipient, as he grew older, for habits of masochism and Christian humility.
Mrs Moore was Irish, indeed by marriage rather grand Irish, her daughter coming indirectly into a title, but she was herself kind, feckless, unassuming. Her maternal and perhaps also sexual appeal to young Jack Lewis must have been very strong, and he probably felt, too, that he was coming home to her. Ulster people then felt Irish rather than British, and Lewis to a surprising extent felt an exile in a foreign country. Yorkshire for Priestley was a handy adjunct to his personality, a badge of solid worth in the frivolous metropolis, but his exploitation had about it little sentimental attachment. He was cross when Bradford reciprocated the indifference, and delayed making its famous son a freeman of the city, but he was most masterful and most himself when away from his native dales.
Not so Lewis, for whom the legacy of Protestant Ireland was probably the most significant thing in his imaginative life, more even than Norse mythology and the epic tales of Ariosto or Spenser which he loved so much, wrote about so well, and imitated himself in a number of fairly unreadable long poems. Like Tolkien’s and his own prose stories, these lack style, in the radical sense – lack the native poetic style of their originals. The oddest blind spot in Lewis, otherwise an acute critic and brilliant amateur of comparative letters, was his assumption that the past can always be with us, creatively speaking: that if a talented man loves it and imitates it, new works in the same spirit will flow forth. He failed entirely to see how the past can only be continuous by breaking completely with itself: he worshipped it in the present, both in terms of literature and of religion. Du Bellay, Spenser, Milton were alive to him, present and declaiming beings whom he could make as vividly present to an audience. Eliot, Auden, Betjeman, by contrast, were mere gibbering shades, without substance or form, borne through the limbo of false modernity. Betjeman was for a short time his pupil, at Magdalen College, and they got on predictably badly, Betjeman resenting till his dying day the hopeless incredulity with which Lewis had regarded him. Religion was no help, as it would not have been in the case of Eliot, for both Eliot and Betjeman had, as it were, made their own religion as they made their own poetic style and personalities. Lewis’s was the old-time religion, as his writing was.
In that lay its wide appeal. The Screwtape Letters, a classless book like The Good Companions, appeared at a time of national crisis – the second in the Depression, the first at the beginning of the Second World War. Both made their authors a national name and neither made any appeal to fashion. The Good Companions was not so much an invitation to escapism as a rallying-cry to all who found the flavour of the modern age depressing and demoralising. In that sense, it heralded Priestley’s wartime broadcasts, as The Screwtape Letters heralded the religious revival on the BBC with which Lewis became associated. Perhaps the majority still wanted to believe that devils were active around them, and if devils, why not good angels too? Good angels and good companions were a curious, but as it turned out, quite a powerful antidote to class division and social gloom. Both writers could be seen in their different ways as a kind of third force, between entrenched tradition and the new and exciting appeal of Marxism, to which so many writers were attaching their styles and their ambitions.
In a lengthy but highly readable biography, Vincent Brome has some interesting things to say about Priestley’s own reaction to the attitude towards him taken by the highbrows. Like many deeply religious men, Lewis had a kind of basic and inexpugnable innocence which seems to have left him wholly untroubled about his own status, talent and reputation. Not so Priestley. Every triumph in fiction or on the stage left him more determined for recognition as a writer who really counted. When F.R. Leavis gave his lecture at Nottingham University on ‘Literature in My Time’, Priestley, who was not mentioned in it, took the opportunity to have a go at him and everything he felt he stood for. Leavis in 1956 was certainly disillusioned about Virginia Woolf, Auden, the Bloomsbury set in general, even Eliot. But what irritated Priestley was his rejection of the 18th-century novelists – Fielding, Sterne, Goldsmith, Smollett – whom Priestley most admired, whom he had learnt from, before whom he ‘felt humble’. Leavis, Priestley said, ‘did mischief to the art he was boarded and lodged to serve’ – rather a revealing comment. ‘To be an author was to invite damnation’ at the hands of his critical Calvinism.
The two had in common a secret dissatisfaction: Priestley with the writers and critics who did not take him seriously, Leavis with his own inability to be the kind of writer he passionately and discerningly admired. More complicated than that was the question of standards. Leavis’s talent as a critic came precisely from his rigorous powers of selection. They were reasoned, though they might seem arbitrary, and they had the salutary effect of making the reader ask himself just what it was that was good or bad about a work of art. Priestley did not want to ask that question. For him, as he says in Literature and Western Man, Henry James was a writer who had no substance, no gusto, no power of living, ‘as if a ghost should write better than a man’. The more fully and robustly he lived, the better the author. Look at Hemingway. Priestley’s misapprehension came not only from what he felt about himself but from what he had imbibed from the Georgian literary atmosphere of his youth. A writer was a writer and lived fully in order to be a writer. Yet this seems to explain why it is that there is something decidedly ‘ghostly’ about Priestley’s own writings. Their very robustness dissipates them, deprives them of the inadvertence of personality. Shortly after taking on Leavis, he had a go at Evelyn Waugh, accusing him of pretending to be a country gentleman rather than a writer. But of course his snobbishness, his Catholicism, his cruelty, his lack of decent ‘common man’ principles, were precisely what made Waugh’s novels themselves and not the productions of a ‘writer’.
Nor of an honnête homme. Waugh hit back by mocking Priestley’s war-time novel, Black-Out in Gretley, with its all-pull-together message and its shrewd and well-informed insistence that the Establishment and the upper-class were in many cases less than reliable and well-intentioned. Good novels, it is true, rarely endorse right thinking. But Priestley’s misconception seems to come from something more subtle than that, some stubborn conviction that because Chaucer, Shakespeare and Fielding were on his side (which one can hardly deny), he ought to be considered in the same league, if not the same. Such thoughts did not bother Lewis, who, although his writings have the same curious unreality in robustness as those of the other Jack, is wholly absorbed in his own stories, however second-hand they may be. Yet in both cases the element of eager and obvious intention is too strong.
That mattered less in the theatre, or rather could be cancelled out by Priestley’s sense of occasion and timing. Even Ouspensky, Jung and Gurdjieff could not spoil the good moments in Laburnam Grove or An Inspector Calls. He was never pretentious, any more than Lewis was ‘religiose’, but their almost child-like emphasis on what they thought produced in both writers a sort of boy-scout distinction between ‘seriousness’ and ‘fun’, and a continuously embarrassing relation between the two. On the stage or in a social context, Priestley could be adroit at saving the appearances. At a dinner given when he was full of years and honours, C.P. Snow made a long speech referring to him as ‘a whisper of the conscience of England’. Priestley thanked the speakers in a few words and said he hoped they would now join him in walking upon the water. His sense of himself was romantic and naive but also comic, the two never quite adjusting to each other. After two marriages and many affairs he fell deeply in love with Jacquetta Hawkes, seeing himself as Bottom the Weaver miraculous adored by Titania. Lewis also found intense happiness in a late marriage, with Joy Davidman, a disciple from America. What he wrote about it is as sincere but unpersuasive as Priestley on the same kind of topic, or on time, the Good Society, Jungian survival. The fact is that neither personality is quite convincing, although both are, perhaps for that reason, fascinating to read about.
Edward Sackville-West is, on the other hand, absolutely convincing, wholly there as a personality. A study of the excellent portrait by Graham Sutherland, on the cover of this biography, tells us as much as its contents, well-compiled and elegantly-narrated as these are. The two Jacks are the same physical type, with short thick necks, full cheeks, fleshy lips, squat and sturdy bodies. But this tells us nothing about them, or about the insubstantial landscape within, with its haunted fears and hopes, strange delicacies, and even stranger dishonesties and subterfuges. There is nothing dishonest about the heir to Knole, with his lips fixed in a prim, invisible line, eyes as masterful and accustomed to command as those of any of his ancestors, coat and decorated collar arranged in careful disarray to enhance the portrait. He is on view and revealing all, as a neurotic nobleman should do. He is steely and tough, but gracious, kind, confident in his power to be pleased and to give pleasure. We can forget about the anxieties and the forlorn agonised love affairs, the goings-on in Berlin nightclubs, the sympathetic female friends who were sometimes impulsively begged to marry him but always had the tact to get out of it in the end, and earned an extra bonus of relief and gratitude by so doing. All is rightly on display, and there is neither mystery nor evasion in the brisk, sad, undeviating and rather gallant life. He called his biography of De Quincey – not, it must be said, a very scholarly one – A Flame in Sunlight, and in a sense the quotation fits him too.
The two Jacks could always flee from themselves to incessant toil. Sackville-West could not do that: his thing was to be rather than to achieve, and his own curious kind of self-discipline was not directed towards overcoming a natural indolence. He preferred to be gifted rather than creative, and his novels, not a success at the time, could hardly be read now. Yet I remember long ago reading a short story, called ‘Helmut lies in the sun’, which was extraordinarily vivid and compelling. At the time I looked for but found no others, but this one story still retains all its power and its hallucinatory sense of tone and period. Michael De-la-Noy rightly observes that he should have written more, for the story shows it was in this genre and not in longer fictions that his talent possessed real originality. But it was not like him to follow up his own success, even though he and his friends recognised it.
He wrote the story after he had been in Berlin with Harold Nicolson, and it was reprinted in 1937 by Elizabeth Bowen in the Faber Book of Short Stories. I would unhesitatingly say that it is far better, more unforgettable, than anything by the two Jacks, but it hardly matters who wrote it, and its author will no doubt disappear from public view before they do. There is a certain irony in this, which biographers might note: ‘unforgettable’ characters, as the Reader’s Digest used to call them, often produce work with no substance in futurity and not even much at the time. Yet the Jacks are far more interesting to read about than Eddy Sackville-West, because they present such a weird challenge to our curiosity. They are genuinely phantasmal.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.