Stainless Splendour

Stefan Collini

  • Stephen Spender: The Authorised Biography by John Sutherland
    Viking, 627 pp, £25.00, May 2004, ISBN 0 670 88303 4

When Stephen Spender’s son Matthew was ten years old, he caught his hand in a car door. ‘The event,’ John Sutherland writes, ‘recalled other tragedies in the boy’s little life; the running over, for example, of his dog Bobby – a "rather lugubrious looking spaniel” and a present from his godmother, Edith Sitwell. Six-year-old Matthew had been disappointed by the hound’s demise not being reported in the obituary columns of next day’s Times.’

This cute narrative bagatelle turns out to epitomise something both about Spender and about the problems of writing his biography. To begin with, the past tense of ‘recalled’ indicates that it is not Sutherland who is reminded of the earlier incident. The passage, a rather spare endnote informs us, draws on an entry in Spender’s journals: the one accident ‘recalled’ the other to Spender, who took a certain pride in his elder child’s grave precocity. So Sutherland’s version is written in what one might call the biographer’s equivalent of free indirect style; only the description of the dog is given as a quotation (I’m not quite sure why; I suppose there may be spaniels who don’t look lugubrious). However, when I pursued the incident to its source in the published version of Spender’s journals, I found none of the detail of the earlier accident, merely a mention that the car-door incident ‘brought to mind so many past episodes – his dog being run over, his canary being eaten by the cat in front of his eyes’. One has to infer from Sutherland’s general practice that the detail of the earlier accident comes from material in the Spender archive, ‘currently administered by the author’s estate’, perhaps from an unpublished section of the journals, perhaps from correspondence, perhaps from some other reminiscence. But this in turn starts to make one wonder how much the ‘source’ was a writerly composition intended for the public eye in the first place. Was it Spender who added the identification of his son’s famous godparent as donor of the dog, and if so, to whom was the account addressed, implicitly or explicitly?

This passage seems to me (though not, I can only assume, to Sutherland) emblematic of two central characteristics of Spender which are bound to affect the writing of his life. The first, unwittingly reproduced in miniature in this episode, is Spender’s own unspoken certainty that happenings which bulked large in his emotional life were of public interest. The paternal egotism lurking behind such stories of infant precocity here takes a cultural form that was central to Spender’s own habitual confidence or self-importance. And the second is that, as a writer, Spender was, as he sometimes acknowledged, a constant autobiographer. In World within World, his first formal autobiography, published when he was only 42, he contrasted himself with those of his poetical peers whom he saw as responding to the world or to imperatives of their craft: ‘As for me, I was an autobiographer restlessly searching for forms in which to express the stages of my development.’ This passage, like much of Spender, is more egotistical than it knows: that each successive stage of his ‘development’ should interest him is hardly surprising, but there is always this same assurance that the world, too, needed to be kept up to date.

These two characteristics taken together put the biographer in a tricky position. The life has already, in one sense, been written (and rewritten); much of the surviving material has been fashioned for just this purpose. How much should the biographer be challenging this account, pointing to discrepancies with other items in the historical record? And how far is he to take over his subject’s own conviction about his claim on the attentions of the world? At the very least, such a subject may seem to call for a rather sceptical eye, treating the behaviour and the assumptions it expressed as material for analysis, even as symptoms, perhaps requiring a certain amount of historical distancing or sociological ‘placing’, perhaps even a dash of mildly deconstructive literary criticism (Spender, like most autobiographers, tended to betray at least as much as he declared).

Writing as an ‘authorised’ biographer makes the position trickier still. The label inevitably calls up suggestions of a Faustian pact. After all, biographers nose after ‘papers’ with a zeal that makes sniffer-dogs seem like wasters. Whoever controls the literary estate, often a surviving spouse, can offer to gratify this lust in a way nobody else can, and in return for this largesse demands – nothing at all, no restrictions, no unduly favourable account, no finger on the scale. For the eager biographer, such luck must seem almost too good to be true. And there is the added advantage that there is an authoritative source to hand against whose memory the details of far-off events and confused motives can be checked and errors of fact and interpretation corrected.

Sutherland has been fortunate in this way, as he handsomely acknowledges. Natasha Spender, the poet’s second wife, gave him ‘unfettered access to her husband’s literary and personal papers’; she also ‘contributed, often in the spirit of a co-author, to the writing of the work’, as well as pointing out ‘errors of fact, scholarship, interpretation or emphasis which I have gladly corrected’. In addition, several godparents have stood at the font to oversee this biography’s entrance to the world. Apart from help from Spender’s family and friends, we are told that the typescript was read by Frank Kermode, Stuart Hampshire, Richard Wollheim and Karl Miller, a formidable jury who, at the very least, seem likely to have ensured that a satisfactory account of the Encounter imbroglio would be given.

Faced with such difficulties and such good fortune, Sutherland has coped very dexterously. His narrative voice is excellent company; he is relaxed and accessible in his explanations, crisp and no-nonsense in his judgments, and he has a good eye for an enlivening anecdote. He writes with sympathy for his subject: his aim, as he fairly declares, has been ‘to convey the admiration I have come to feel for him, the more I have learned about his remarkable life and his distinguished body of literary work’. Spender has apparently been traduced, or at least unsympathetically treated, in previous, unauthorised biographies, and this full but still pacey account sets out to right the balance. If you are already disposed to find Spender interesting and enjoy the contemporary genre of detailed literary biography (the sort in which you can expect to find the name of the writer’s son’s dead dog), this book can be enthusiastically recommended.

Yet the Case of the Squashed Dog makes me a bit uneasy. Whose voice are we hearing in such passages? The hint of a light ironic coating to the account of the six-year-old’s reaction to ‘the hound’s demise’ may be an expression of paternal fondness, or it may come from the biographer, collusive but also smiling, perhaps more alive than I am allowing to a family style of presuming a claim on public attention. I have deliberately chosen a trivial example with which to illustrate a recurring characteristic of this biography, but the relation of Sutherland’s narrative to its sources and a consequent uncertainty about who is speaking can, as we shall see, complicate our response when weightier matters are at issue.

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[*] This volume has now been superseded by New Collected Poems, edited by Michael Brett (Faber, 416 pp., £30, May, 0 571 22279 x), which restores earlier versions and preserves chronological sequence.