John Sutherland

  • Keepers of the Flame: Literary Estates and the Rise of Biography by Ian Hamilton
    Hutchinson, 344 pp, £18.99, October 1992, ISBN 0 09 174263 3
  • Testamentary Acts: Browning, Tennyson, James, Hardy by Michael Millgate
    Oxford, 273 pp, £27.50, June 1992, ISBN 0 19 811276 9
  • The Last Laugh by Michael Holroyd
    Chatto, 131 pp, £10.99, December 1991, ISBN 0 7011 4583 8
  • Trollope by Victoria Glendinning
    Hutchinson, 551 pp, £20.00, September 1992, ISBN 0 09 173896 2

A man of many literary parts, Ian Hamilton came to biography late and triumphantly with his life of the dead but still warm Robert Lowell. Riding high, he went on to attempt an unauthorised life of the aged but very much alive J.D. Salinger and was comprehensively outfoxed by the second most reclusive man in American letters. Hamilton wrote up his experience as a rueful memoir, In Search of J.D. Salinger. Keepers of the Flame is a further cogitation on the woes of biography, this time in a more objectively historical context. Hamilton offers 22 case studies, from John Donne – the first properly biographed English author – to Philip Larkin of last month’s Observer fame.

Hamilton could not, if he tried, write an unreadable book. Keepers of the Flame is that rarest of modern things, lit crit with laughs. Hamilton has an unfailingly good eye for anecdote and a line in sarky parenthesis – on such things as William Davenant’s pox-rotted nose – worthy of a stand-up comedian. Although it will find a home in that dreariest of Dewey Decimal deserts – the public reference section – this book is fun. But it will not help the ambitious undergraduate pass his/her examinations. Hamilton discusses the emergence of the idea of the English poetic career (in his chapter on Marvell, Milton and Dryden) without reference to Lawrence Lipking or Richard Helgerson. The Forster-Dickens chapter makes no mention of the alternative line of Dickens biography that descends through Thomas Wright and Katherine Longley to our contemporaries Peter Ackroyd and Claire Tomalin. In his chapter on James Joyce Hamilton dwells exclusively on the author’s ‘patron saint’, Harriet Weaver. Surprisingly – for a study whose main concern is the suppression or revelation of intimate materials – he does not discuss the Stanislaus Joyce-Richard Ellmann connection which has ‘authoritatively’ warped posterity’s perception of the writer. Nor, even more surprisingly, does Hamilton go into the business of the dirty letters, Brenda Maddox’s use of them in her book on Nora, and the iron curtain which in retaliation Stephen Joyce has dropped around his grandfather’s flame. In Professor A.N. Other’s hands, this would have been a duller and more comprehensively researched book. Probably F.R. Leavis is long enough dead (although the keepers of his gem-like flame remain unsleepingly vigilant) for ‘journalistic’ no longer to be a term of abuse, even at Cambridge.

‘Keepers of the flame’ is, as it turns out, a somewhat over-stuffed metaphor. Primarily, Hamilton targets privacy – that contested territory which authors and their estates want to fence off and where biographers, publishing rascals, love to trespass. Secondly, Hamilton is concerned with estates and literature as property. As a commodity, published literature has unusual aspects. For the life of its originating owner and for fifty years after, it is – if not legally transferred – private property. It then enters the public domain – that is to say, it is nobody’s and everybody’s. Only the open sea, common land and outer space share with time-expired literature this pure communistic character. As eventual heir to the property, the reading public has a legitimate interest both in the texts it will one day inherit and the authors of those texts. It is not entirely prurience that drives one’s curiosity about James Joyce’s fascination with the turd. Arguably even distasteful biographical insight is necessary for our grandchildren’s full comprehension of their literary birthright. Hamilton’s book also reminds us to be wary of keepers of the flame (like the Joyce and Lawrence estates) who cannily reprivatise literature just at that moment when it enters the public domain. Welcome as the so-called ‘unexpurgated’ Sons and Lovers may be, it is objectionable that by going to such lengths to establish a new copyright Cambridge University Press should lock up the text for another 50 years. Ideally Lawrence’s novel and its surviving manuscript materials should be declared unprotected public property and scholars should be allowed to prepare competing editions, as they are free to do with Shakespeare and Dickens.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in