Plutarch's Parallel Lives made him the most popular author of classical antiquity in the 17th and 18th centuries. As the author of a double biography of the "Cockney Poet" John Keats and his brother George, the "Cockney Pioneer" (younger by a mere 16 months), Denise Gigante ingeniously reaps the benefits of the format. Profiting from the standard biographies of the elder Keats by Walter Jackson Bate, Aileen Ward, Robert Gittings and Andrew Motion, as well as from her own research, she transcends these lives by adding a second focus of interest (somewhat like Jane Campion did in her much underrated movie Bright Star). The result is that we not only learn a lot about George, who invariably and inevitably plays only a minor role in biographies of his brother - but as the lives illuminate each other, new light is shed upon material that we thought we knew already.
Usually George is cast as the villain brother, who took more than his share of the Keats siblings' inheritance, left for America with his teenage wife Georgiana in June 1818 and would not give a penny when friends of his dying brother collected money for John's final journey to Italy. Gigante tells a different story, which takes its cue from John's remark in a letter of August 1818: "My brother George has ever been more than a brother to me, he has been my greatest friend." Her book redresses the balance, relating a story that does justice to both George and John. George emerges from this captivating tale as the brother who strove to provide for himself, for his family and for others, but tragically lost his money in the Panic of 1819. He never was just the "money brother" that others saw him as.
Gigante is a Stanford professor with an exceptionally impressive list of scholarly publications. Why is The Keats Brothers such a terrific read? What is the secret of this stunning achievement, and what makes this book so unputdownable? There are two main reasons, I believe, apart from Gigante's sovereign grasp of the material. The first is that she is a hell of a storyteller. Departing from Plutarch's model, Gigante adroitly alternates between John's life and George's, counterpointing the one with the other, drawing out parallels and contrasts with an ease that can inspire only admiration. Take, for example, this passage from her prologue: "While John delved into the dark ravines of human consciousness, and ultimately the black hole that is death, George made his way past wolves, black bears, wild pigs, and catfish weighing as much as humans. John projected his dreams into the dark, forested vale of Hyperion, and George witnessed scenes of stunning beauty in America." All this is done with a perfect sense of timing and suspense: often an episode will end with a kind of cliffhanger, so that you cannot help but turn the page to see how the story continues. This composition betrays an uncanny awareness of narrative rhythm.
The second reason is that Gigante possesses imagination to an uncommon degree. And what is a biography without imagination, empathy and judgement? The opening pages alone (set in Margate in 1816) and the epilogue (Oscar Wilde visiting Louisville, Kentucky, in 1882) are dazzling gems of inspired life writing - but there are many, many more such passages.
In his life of Alexander, Plutarch writes: "It must be borne in mind that my design is not to write histories, but lives. And the most glorious exploits do not always furnish us with the clearest discoveries of virtue or vice in men; sometimes a matter of less moment, an expression or a jest, informs us better of their characters and inclinations, than the most famous sieges, the greatest armaments, or the bloodiest battles whatsoever." Gigante has that eye for the telling detail that only the born storyteller has - and, pace Plutarch, she gives us both lives and history: her vignettes of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, of New York and Louisville are first-rate history made alive - they open up a new world, and the New World, to Keats scholars.
In a way different from William Wordsworth, John Keats knew how to make poetry out of loss. In Denise Gigante he has found a congenial biographer, writing as she does about what remains, even if there is an ocean between.
The Keats Brothers: The Life of John and George
By Denise Gigante
Belknap Press/Harvard University Press
Published October 2011