John Sutherland

  • The Secret Life of Wilkie Collins by William Clarke
    Allison and Busby, 239 pp, £14.95, August 1988, ISBN 0 85031 960 9
  • Wilkie Collins: Women, Property and Propriety by Philip O’Neill
    Macmillan, 238 pp, £27.50, September 1988, ISBN 0 333 42199 X

According to Gordon Ray, writing in 1956, all that posterity could reasonably expect to know about the elusive Wilkie Collins was his name and dates of birth and death. This has proved to be an exaggeration. Thanks to Kenneth Robinson (whose revised Wilkie Collins, A Biography came out in 1974) and now, preeminently, to William Clarke, we now know much more – especially about Collins’s family affairs, or scandals, as they would have seemed to his contemporaries. As its title suggests, The Secret Life of Wilkie Collins is sensational stuff, both in the Victorian and modern senses of ‘sensation’. But what kind of insight does a ‘secret life’ give us, and why do we want this kind of book so urgently? More urgently than we want the bulk of Collins’s thirty or so novels, most of which are out of print and destined to stay so. Why does public demand commission ‘unauthorised’ biographies, designed to crash the barriers which authors erect around their private lives?

Writers will go to great lengths to preserve their secrets. They will fight impertinent biographers through the courts (like J.D. Salinger). They will (like T.S. Eliot or Jack London) set up vigilant estates to stand like pyramids over the author’s reputation and defy any tomb-robbing researcher. They will themselves incinerate mountains of correspondence (as did Dickens) or enjoin survivors to do it for them (like Auden). They will dictate to puppet biographers the ‘true’ story of their lives (like Hardy or Nabokov). The most determined will arrange to disappear from the face of the earth, like Thomas Pynchon, a major force in modern fiction who is, to all biographical intents and purposes, a cipher. The morbid secretiveness of authors as a class compared, say, to film-stars, sportsmen or pop-musicians is mysterious. Are they ashamed of their lives? Do they feel that attention to themselves will distract from their all-important works? Or do they think that their private lives are none of the public’s or posterity’s damn business?

The most sensitively indiscreet life of a Victorian novelist remains Gordon Ray’s two-volume Thackeray, which justifies its intrusions by the ‘buried life’ hypothesis. According to Ray, Thackeray’s fiction is a close allegory of the novelist’s experiences and acquaintanceships. In the interest of exegesis, Ray thus regards himself as licensed to exhume what Thackeray wished to keep for ever buried – namely, the affair with his best friend’s wife, Jane Brookfield. ‘No biography’ was Thackeray’s stern instruction to his daughters, which they dutifully observed. But a biography had to be written so that we, unlike the benighted Victorian, can thoroughly understand Henry Esmond. This mission to unlock the text is what sanctions – ostensibly – the vast expenditure of 20th-century biographical energy and treasure on such issues as Dickens and Ellen Ternan, Hardy and Tryphena Sparks, Trollope and Kate Field, James and his obscure hurt.

So when Monica Jones follows Philip Larkin’ s request by burning his diaries do we feel resentment because the destruction will set an eternal gap between reader and poem? Or is it something lower – frustration at not having served up on some not too distant Sunday the ‘secret life’ of Philip Larkin, conveniently excerpted in the Observer? And would the readers of that now impossible article be principally interested in forming a better reading of ‘Dockery and Son’, or in getting the dirt on how the poet’s mum and dad fucked him up, or whether he really didn’t have sexual intercourse till 1963? My own appetite for writers’ secrets is an impure thing in which a prurient interest in Jeffrey Archer’s spotty back and T.S. Eliot’s rupture truss (to which Stephen Spender enigmatically refers) mingles with a pious desire to be as well-informed as possible. On the whole, I’m not entirely sorry to be led from temptation by Jones’s obedient vandalism or Valerie Eliot’s stonewall around her husband’s life. At the same time, decently cooled by 99 years, I’m grateful for William Clarke’s disclosures about the murky doings of his great-grandfather by marriage.

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