Miss Simpson stayed to tea

Philippa Tristram

  • William Wordsworth: A Life by Stephen Gill
    Oxford, 525 pp, £17.50, March 1989, ISBN 0 19 812828 2

Most great writers, if only in indirect ways, offer some representation of their own life, but the biographer faces a particular problem where interpretation has already been shaped by his subject in autobiography. Wordsworth was not the only writer of his period to dislike the public appetite for private information, or to seek to forestall the biographer’s ‘abominable use’ of letters and personal anecdote by trying himself to control what should, and should not, be offered to the public. Moreover, in the different versions of The Prelude, and in the notes dictated late in life, he offered different interpretations.

The problem of aligning biography with autobiography is often sidestepped by biographers less equal to their task than Stephen Gill, either by equating the ‘truth’ about a writer’s life with what that writer has specifically chosen not to reveal, or by accepting what he has revealed too literally. The first alternative is adopted by A.N. Wilson in his recent – and celebrated – biography of Tolstoy, where he remarks that ‘ “Emotion recollected in tranquillity” is another phrase for making things up after the event.’ From this standpoint, Tolstoy’s work, whether explicitly autobiographical or not, degenerates into a ‘laundering of the facts’ (a favoured phrase), while Tolstoy himself comes to assume the guise of Wilson’s victim rather than his subject. The opposite course, adopted by Mary Moorman in her now superseded biography of Wordsworth, has an oddly similar effect upon his writing, for in being made a quarry for the ‘facts’, it is obscured by Wordsworth’s figure as her hero. Stephen Gill’s admirable biography takes neither course, as his comment on the 1805 Prelude indicates: ‘The magnitude and grandeur of Wordsworth’s own attempt to shape the understanding of his life will only be recognised for what it is when it is acknowledged that it is not the only way of shaping or understanding it.’

That sentence also serves to indicate the first of Gill’s three aims, for William Wordsworth: A Life (while serving that function) is much more than a conduit for new material. Although, as its author claims, it ‘is biography, not an “intellectual history” exegesis of specific works and phases of thought’, it succeeds, where such biographies so often fail, in transforming the life into the work by actively exploring, not avoiding, the complex problems that Wordsworth’s self-account presents to his biographer. This does not mean that Gill attempts to square Wordsworth’s interpretations of his own life with each other and with the datable facts – an enterprise which would, he admits, lead only to confusion. His achievement is based on a direct engagement with Wordsworth’s own forms of resistance to biography: namely, his attitude to chronology, to the significance of ‘spots of time’, and to his constant rewriting of his poems.

All biographers, however skilled, are committed to chronology, but Gill’s reduction of his chapter titles to bare dates may indicate the fragile significance that Wordsworth himself attached to dates as such. Where Lamb considered that the chronological was the only possible arrangement for a collection of poems, since the order in which they were written constituted the history of the poet’s mind, Wordsworth regarded the ‘order of time’ as ‘the very worst that could be followed’. While he advocated an arrangement under subjects, writers on Wordsworth, as Gill points out, often pattern his life in another way which also recognises the doubtful significance of his poetic chronology. Where the periods of Dickens, say, or Yeats, are referred to books, those of Wordsworth are as likely to be referred to places – ‘Windy Brow’, ‘Racedown’, ‘Alfoxden’, ‘Dove Cottage’, ‘Rydal Mount’.

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