After-Lives

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.

Keepers of the Flame is an unusually timely book, and will be buoyed by current celebrated causes. The right to authorial privacy is even now being fiercely defended by Stephen Spender against the intrusive Hugh David. There has recently been the quarrel between Nabokov’s biographers – the publishing rascal Andrew Field and friend of the family, Brian Boyd. Should Diane Middlebrook have had access to Anne Sexton’s psychiatric records? Did Lawrence Durrell commit incest with his daughter, and if he did should the public know about it? The reluctance of his estate to authorise a biography of T.S. Eliot is a British cultural scandal as were the impediments put in the way of Peter Ackroyd when he embarked on a life of the poet. The author of another biographical study of Eliot was granted permission to quote only after allowing the estate to review his manuscript. In addition, the American publisher had to be paid a share of the eventual book’s royalties. Scarcely less scandalous is the organ-grinder’s-monkey life of Sylvia Plath that her estate belatedly allowed into print.

Hamilton’s last chapter merges into issues raised by last month’s Sunday papers. The Observer – with huge fanfare and expense – bought serialisation rights to Philip Larkin’s letters. These much-hyped articles were offered to readers with a come-on worthy of the tabloids. ‘The poet Philip Larkin was a very private man who shunned the public gaze. However, he revealed a great deal about himself in his copious letters to an extensive network of friends from 1940, when he was 18, until his death in 1985’. There follows a singularly uninformative series of extracts from his correspondence in which nowhere does the very private man drop for a second his guard or any of his many masks. Small print tells us that these selections are from Larkin’s Selected Letters, edited by Anthony Thwaite – one of the keepers of Larkin’s flame, an executor.

The other executors are Andrew Motion, Larkin’s authorised biographer, and Monica Jones, Larkin’s longtime companion. It was Miss Jones who undertook the destruction of the 25 volumes of Larkin’s diaries (although, tantalisingly, they may have been peeked at before shredding). As Hamilton points out, there was something odd about Larkin – who suffered a lingering but not paralysing final illness – asking someone else to undertake this act of destruction for him. Was it a self-exculpating ploy, a way of saying ‘publish against my wishes’? (This is how W.H. Auden’s executors have construed his destructive last command.) One correspondent is notably absent from those represented in the Observer selection, Miss Jones herself. The long correspondence between her (for most of her career a teacher at Leicester University) and the poet (for most of his career a librarian at Hull) was only made accessible a couple of years ago, according to a tantalisingly elliptical piece by Motion in the latest issue of Granta. It will be interesting to see if more of their contents are released into the biography than the dozen or so given in the hardback version of Selected Letters. The issue is not, of course, whether Larkin and Larkin’s appointed executors have the right to throw a veil of secrecy over areas of Larkin’s life. Of course they do, at least while there are people who could be hurt, embarrassed or even mildly irritated by any revelation. The objection is to the Observer, presumably with the executors’ consent, promising revelations about ‘the very private man’ for 80p and stimulating an appetite in the general public which the keepers of the flame, while pocketing the revenue for the estate, have no intention of satisfying.

Michael Millgate has – quite fortuitously – written a book on exactly the same subject as Ian Hamilton, using the same case-study method. Whereas Hamilton burned his fingers trying to steal Salinger’s flame, Millgate – Hardy’s biographer and the editor of his letters – was foiled by the impenetrability of the pyramid that the sage of Max Gate erected over his remains. By ghost-writing his own life through his secretary wife and burning all the revealingly private materials he could lay his hands on, Hardy effectively put himself beyond the reach of any biographer. He wanted to be remembered, but not known. Rather like Jeremy Bentham, whose mummified corpse presides as his memorial at University College London, Hardy created an elaborate auto-icon. Even after death, he controlled the images that posterity has of him by revised editions of his work prepared in old age and by precise testamentary dispositions as to monuments – where his bodily parts should lie, and what should be raised over them. (Unlike Bentham, his mortal remains are dispersed – his heart in Dorset, his ashes in Westminster.)

Testamentary Acts offers four case studies – Browning, Tennyson, James and Hardy – three of which overlap with Hamilton’s. But Millgate’s procedure is more densely academic. His chapters have an average of a hundred and fifty footnotes, and citation comprises a quarter of the book’s length. Less briskly brilliant than Hamilton, Millgate is more ruminative and in places harder-hitting: he delivers, for instance, a devastating verdict on the fruits of Leon Edel’s monopoly on Henry James’s remains. Heirs, family and friends, in Mill-gate’s analysis, invariably act badly when entrusted to keep the flame: ‘authors eager to ensure permanent and undeviating compliance with their testamentary instructions’, he counsels, ‘would perhaps do well to entrust all responsibilities under their wills to rigidly impersonal institutions’. And in his thoughtful epilogue, Millgate proposes a radical rethinking of biography’s perspective. Romanticism and Freudianism have, between them, sanctified the theory that the child is father to the man. Modern biography looks for the true self of its subject in early life and is typically confounded by the absence of records. Instead, Millgate advises, the biographer should devote more attention to the (usually) well-documented late years, with particular attention to wills and testamentary dispositions.

As if in answer to Millgate’s closing sentences, Michael Holroyd offers in The Last Laugh a short ‘after-life’ to his three-volume life of Shaw. GBS had no children or close family and survived his wife by several years. On his death his estate amounted to a sum which Holroyd computes as equivalent to five million of today’s pounds. Shaw’s will combined the quixotic – a bequest for the reform of the English ‘alfabet’ – with the profoundly philanthropic. Over the years, and until the magic year 2000, the British Museum (subsequently the BL), the National Gallery of Ireland, and Rada have enjoyed a lion’s share of the estate’s wealth. Cannily, the Shaw Estate has linked patronage of ‘rarefied scholarship’ (and less rarefied, with their commissioning of Holroyd as biographer) with ‘rampant commercialism’. My Fair Lady, like Cats for Eliot, has multiplied Shaw’s posthumous worth in ways that it is hard to imagine the author condoning during his lifetime. Shaw’s trustees have marketed the flame very profitably. Holroyd tells the story of the Shavian bequests with sardonic wit and stops just this side of a J’accuse.

Trollope claimed to write his novels in the same way that he took hedges on the hunting field. He closed his eyes and charged like hell without any thought of what might lie on the other side. Victoria Glendinning seems to have approached her biography in the same neck and crop spirit. ‘When I began my research in early 1988,’ she writes, ‘there had been no full-length biography of Anthony Trollope since James Pope-Hennessy’s (1971) and I believed that I was the only person to be embarking on such a project’. It’s an ingenuous confession. I would have thought that in 1988 anyone who knew how many I’s there are in Trollope was aware that there were at least two big biographies underway. Glendinning’s preliminary research must surely have directed her to Trollope: Centenary Essays (edited by John Halperin, 1982) and the biographical essay by N. John Hall, ‘Trollope the Person’, accompanied by the contributor’s note ‘Professor Hall is at present writing a biography of Trollope.’ It was not a secret; nor was the fact that R.S. Super was hot on Hall’s heels (he actually overtook him on the last lap, as did the dark horse Richard Mullen).

Glendinning bravely maintains that even if she had known she would not have cared: ‘if twenty professors had declared themselves to be writing lives of Trollope I would not and could not have given mine up.’ Glendinning is not a professor; she is a professional writer who writes biographies for her daily bread. She made her contract with a wholly commercial publisher at a period when it was bliss to be a professional biographer. Michael Holroyd and Peter Ackroyd had recently secured their record-breaking deals, netting a million pounds between them. British publishers fondly believed that high-quality popular biographics were the safest thing going. They may have been over-optimistic. The sky-high advances of the late Eighties have not been exceeded or matched.

Glendinning, the full-time professional biographer, did her life of Trollope in four years. Apparently she had no more than a well-read layperson’s acquaintance with the author before starting work in 1988. Hall, the academic biographer, took 12 years for his life of Trollope. He was earlier the editor of Trollope’s letters and made his first major contribution to the field with his edition of the rediscovered manuscript of The New Zealander, published as long ago as 1972. Hall’s and Glendinning’s books have come out within a year of each other, and invite direct comparison. Neither has substantially better materials to work on than the other. Who then does the better job – the professional or the professor?

It depends, of course, on the readership you have in mind. No graduate student, or 19th-century scholar, should go to Glendinning first. It’s not that her scholarship is shoddy – she has used sources scrupulously and accurately. But she does not always go beyond the sources that are conveniently to hand, nor is she inclined to question the veracity of those sources. One page (259), taken at random, will illustrate her shortcomings. The chronicle has reached 1859: one of the major thresholds of Trollope’s life. He has been invited by Thackeray and the publisher George Smith to contribute the lead serial to the great new magazine, Cornhill. Trollope made a special trip from Ireland where he was working for the Post Office. He asked Smith whether he would be interested in an Irish tale he had half-written (the serial was needed at desperately short notice). Smith said no; he wanted something Barchesterian. ‘On the journey back to Ireland,’ Glendinning tells us, ‘Anthony was already getting down on paper the beginnings of what was to be Framley Parsonage.’ This sequence of events is in line with what Trollope himself recorded in An Autobiography. But in his account, Professor Hall – who has looked carefully at Trollope’s work calendar for the novel – points out that the origins of Framley Parsonage were less neat than Trollope alleges. In fact, Trollope wrote the first seven pages of Framley Parsonage before he met Smith. The account in the Autobiography which Glendinning echoes is either a fib or a misrecollection. Later on page 259, Glendinning goes on to repeat the legendary fact that Cornhill ‘was an immediate success, selling 120,000 copies of this first issue’. In fact, as Professor Super points out (citing an obscure article by Professor Sutherland in Victorian Periodicals Review, 1986), the first issue of Cornhill sold some 109,000. Still huge, but less smoothly-edged.

If Glendinning submitted this book as a PhD thesis she would, I think, have a hot time at the viva. But she is not writing a dissertation. Her imagination is unfettered by the tedious need to satisfy examiners. Moreover, Glendinning conceives that she has a gender advantage over the professors who have beaten her to it: ‘Women critics have written about Trollope’s work, but no woman has written his biography.’ What superior qualities does a woman bring to biography by virtue of her sex? Intuition, in a word. Glendinning can know Trollope where there is no concrete foundation of written or eye-witness evidence. She can penetrate, by womanly insight, into those previously closed off areas of his life, such as his marriage. ‘Above all,’ she writes, ‘I was curious about Anthony’s wife Rose.’ Others, too, have been curious, but none has found anything worthwhile to say. Yet Rose is solidly reconstructed by Glendinning’s womanly biographical skills, and features for the first time as a major presence. By judicious use of clues in the fiction, intelligent guesswork, and a careful sifting of the extant evidence, Glendinning plausibly fills in many of the dark areas in Trollope’s life. She might not get a doctorate, but a biography prize could be in order.

Glendinning’s achievement is summed up by the monster on the dust-jacket of her book. It portrays a man who never was – namely, the young Trollope as imagined by a modern artist, Tom Phillips RA. Incredibly, there exists no photograph or any other form of image (sketch, painting, group picture, bust, silhouette) of Trollope before the age of 42. By this time, the crown of his head was entirely bald, he wore spectacles, and the greater part of his face was covered by a massive growth of beard bursting out of his face like the original explosion in a pubic hair factory. It is not clear when Trollope first began to sport this face fungus; Super guesses that it was shortly before the period of this first surviving picture. There are many subsequent photographs of Trollope, or rather of Trollope’s beard, baggy suit and specs. Only one picture of Rose survives, showing the rather inscrutable features of a woman in middle age. There are no surviving pictures of Trollope with his wife, or with his children. There is, apparently, no surviving picture of Trollope’s ward, Florence Bland, whom he loved and to whom he dictated novels like An Old Man’s Love (the story of an old man’s poignant love for his very young ward). It is one of the most impressive disappearing tricks in literature, the Victorian equivalent of Salinger and Pynchon. This erasure must surely have been the work of Trollope himself. He kept his manuscripts, his contracts and his working calendars for posterity with a clerk’s scrupulousness. He offered, in the Autobiography, a very full pen picture of his childhood – and according to his brother Tom and R.H. Super, it is a very distorted picture. He evidently destroyed his personal diaries and the letters to and from his young American friend Kate Field, who some have supposed to be his lover. It may be, of course, that pictures of the young Trollope and the Anthony Trollope family were accidentally lost, but it seems unlikely. Trollope’s mother, the redoubtable Frances Milton, lived until old age with her other son Tom. She must surely have kept mementoes of young Anthony. Trollope was survived for decades by a loyal wife, and by a very dutiful son, Henry Merivale Trollope. No other major Victorian novelist – not even the Brontës – has been obliterated from the pictorial record as effectively as Trollope. It’s odds on that he did it, either himself or by instruction to his family.