A life worth writing

June 16, 1995

Andrew Robinson argues the case for the 'service industry' of literary biography.

Why does one want to know about a man's life?" asked Alfred Tennyson. "The less you know about a man's life the better. He gives you his best in his writings. I thank God day and night that we know nothing about Shakespeare." But Dr Johnson preferred to ask whether there was anyone who did not wish that the author of the Iliad had gratified us with a little knowledge of himself?

Tennyson's view is pretty much the orthodox academic view of literature versus literary biography, work versus life, while Johnson's comes closer to that of today's "common reader" and the literary market-place. Biography in literary academe has always occupied a place subsidiary to that of literary criticism and, in recent decades, literary theory. As the Australian scholar John Harwood observes in his new book Eliot to Derrida: "Editing, biography, bibliography, and historical studies are still generally regarded as service industries. Yet, from literary studies in the 1940s and 1950s, almost nothing survives of the 'central' interpretive and theoretical output, whereas many of the products of the service industries are still in everyday use."

Harwood uses Richard Ellmann's life of James Joyce and his pioneering Yeats: The Man and the Masks as examples. "A few years ago, a distinguished American scholar remarked to me that Ellmann, for all his achievements, remained in the second division of literary studies because he had devoted much of his life to biography rather than criticism. This was said without malice, and without any desire to disparage Ellmann's achievement." And Harwood comments astutely, "there is something very odd about a business which declares its finest product is one which is doomed to immediate obsolescence, while dismissing another, which has sold steadily for 40 years, as a side-line."

Change is in the air, however. After some quarter of a century of T. S. Eliot-like influence, I believe that Jacques Derrida is seen increasingly as the ageing and incomprehensible guru of a personality cult. And Terry Eagleton, Britain's best known literary theorist, has recently shifted his academic focus towards "inserting Irish history into cultural theory" (Heathcliff and the Great Hunger). At the same time, and not coincidentally, biography is being taken more seriously by academics. In 1993 there was a conference at the University of Newcastle on "The Art of Literary Biography", which has yielded an interesting and eponymous book edited by John Batchelor, containing papers by academic and independent biographers such as Richard Holmes, Jon Stallworthy, Lyndall Gordon, Hermione Lee, Ann Thwaite and Humphrey Carpenter.

And earlier this month, I spoke at a more ambitious conference. "Writing the Lives of Writers" took place at the University of London, co-sponsored by the university's Centre for English Studies and the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas. There were plenary lectures, shorter lectures and panel discussions involving several dozen well-known speakers - both academic and non-academic - from Britain, the United States, Australia and elsewhere in the English-speaking world; and the writers discussed ranged from William Tyndale, John Gay and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu to Evelyn Waugh, F. R. Leavis and Bertrand Russell.

Judging from this conference and the book of the Newcastle conference, the central problem of literary biography - what is the relationship between the life and work of a writer? - is endlessly fascinating. How did Eliot's increasingly miserable marriage affect The Waste Land and later poems? How did Pound's attraction to fascism relate to his Cantos? How did Greene's Catholicism fit with his religious themes? When Salman Rushdie's biography comes to be written, surely the single most compelling issue will be the relationship between Rushdie's own exposure to Islam and the Islam he satirised in The Satanic Verses.

In other words, no matter how many claims are made to the contrary, all of us believe that a writer's life can illuminate his or her work, and vice versa. If we are drawn to one of them, we are bound to be interested in the other, though we will each of us give our own particular emphasis to the relationship. To quote Philip Larkin in Required Writing: "A writer's reputation is twofold: what we think of his work, and what we think of him. What's more, we expect the two halves to relate: if they don't, one or other of our opinions alters until they do." In Larkin's case, his posthumously published letters shifted the opinions of many, unwillingly, in a way unfavourable to his poetry.

Aldous Huxley provides a particularly compelling example of the symbiosis of life and work, as shown by Oxford academic David Bradshaw, who is working on a biography of Huxley. Bradshaw, a speaker at both the conferences, analyses the period of writing Brave New World. This famous novel, published in 1932, is generally thought to be a spoof on the Soviet Union and its Five Year Plan - but Bradshaw demonstrates that Huxley was more sympathetic than satirical. During 1931 he drastically rewrote the manuscript: what had started out as a parody of H. G. Wells's Men Like Gods, in Huxley's later words "got out of hand and turned into something quite different".

The reason was his growing conviction that the western world of the Great Depression needed strong leadership to rescue it from calamity. As Huxley wrote in a US newspaper in late 1931, "We may either persist in our present course, which is disastrous, or we must abandon democracy and allow ourselves to be ruled dictatorially by men who will compel us to do and suffer what a rational foresight demands."

By 1934, Huxley was publicly embracing eugenics and even commending the new Nazi legislation for compulsory sterilisation of certified defectives: "If conditions remain what they are now, and if the present tendency continues unchecked, we may look forward in a century or two to a time when a quarter of the population of these islands will consist of half-wits. What a curiously squalid and humiliating conclusion to English history! . . . What is the remedy for the present deplorable state of affairs? It consists, obviously, in encouraging the normal and super-normal members of the population to have larger families and in preventing the sub-normal from having any families at all."

As illuminating, though perhaps more disturbing for British readers in the 1990s, is the life and work of Virginia Woolf. Hermione Lee of the University of York, the latest biographer to tackle the writer, gave a spirited lecture on her ambivalence towards Woolf at the London conference. Writing on "Virginia Woolf and offence", she offers some choice examples of "offence" out of the many in Woolf's diaries and letters.

"One has to be so cheerful with the lower classes, or they think one diseased" (1908). "On the tow path we met & had to pass a long line of imbeciles . . . - It was perfectly horrible. They should certainly be killed" (1915). "I have just travelled Kensington High Street - which almost made me vomit with hatred of the human race. Innumerable women of incredible mediocrity, drab as ditchwater, wash up and down like dirty papers against Barkers and Derry & Toms. One was actually being sick or fainting in the middle of the street" (1926). "Went to the Peace Conference, by way of a joke, yesterday, & saw several baboon faced intellectuals, also some yearning, sad, green dressed negroes & negresses, looking like chimpanzees brought out of their cocoanut groves to try to make sense of our pale white platitudes" (1935).

"Are you offended?" asks Lee. "I am." But she sees such comments as integral to Woolf's work. "In Woolf's lifelong argument with herself and others about the effect of class on her imagination, she excoriates and defends herself better than anyone else . . . I want to praise her for her malice, and to see it as a vital aspect of her energy and style."

The same is true of another daunting, fastidious writer, V. S. Naipaul, who is often said, like Woolf, to lack compassion. "'Compassion' is a political word, isn't it?" Naipaul told me in an interview in 1990. "A word of literary criticism - like 'well-crafted' and 'honed'. Whenever someone talks about something being crafted or honed, and full of compassion, you know you must stay away." Yet at his best Naipaul has created some of the most sharply felt characters in 20th-century English literature. It will be interesting to see how his future biographers deal with this seeming contradiction between life and work.

Contradiction and inconsistency are the very stuff of a biographer's research. But what should be their place in the finished product? Is it the biographer's true purpose to take the subject's work and all the accessible (often patchy) evidence of the life and make a coherent portrait? Or is this a falsification of human complexity?

There is no doubt that the biographical form, with its narrative progression from birth to death, encourages biographers and readers (not to speak of publishers) to look for coherence. "The fact that we want an emergent sense of the inevitable development of the subject suggests the enormously soothing quality which biographies have come to have in our age," writes John Worthen, an editor and biographer of D. H. Lawrence at the University of Nottingham, in "The necessary ignorance of a biographer".

I and my co-author Krishna Dutta faced this problem in an acute form in our new biography of Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel-winning Bengali poet, philosopher and "myriad-minded man". Tagore's life and work were intimately involved with two cultures, Indian and British, and two languages, Bengali and English, and yet many of his western contacts (with Yeats, Pound, Einstein, Bertrand Russell and others) were inadequately documented. Was it best to present the contradictions as clearly as possible and leave readers to make up their own minds, or to make up one's mind speculatively and keep largely silent about the evidence, or to drop the shaky material altogether?

We knew we were running a risk with those sceptical of even-handedness, but we felt that in most cases it was better to be honest about the limitations of the evidence and present a contradictory picture, somewhat in the spirit of E. M. Forster's (contemporaneous) A Passage to India (though avoiding Forster's cultural bias).

Human relationships, even close ones, are, after all, usually full of misapprehensions. A biographer must preserve some of them, suitably contextualised, if he or she is to give a sense of life as the subject lived it. When too much is smoothed out and explained away, especially by ignoring awkward evidence or applying grand theories, such as Freudianism, Marxism or Darwinism, biography loses its distinctive value.

I agree with Richard Holmes, the independent biographer of Shelley, Coleridge and Johnson, who writes in The Art of Literary Biography: "Like Johnson, I believe that it helps us the better to enjoy life or to endure it . . . Being essentially the product of an 18th-century age of enlightenment, it insists that the proper study of mankind is man. In a post-Freudian age we have to face up to the complications of this process, but we cannot possibly shirk them. If I had to define biography in a single phrase, I would call it an art of human understanding, and a celebration of human nature." For the biographer, the life and the work of a great writer must be inextricably linked.

Andrew Robinson has written two biographies, Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye, and (with Krishna Dutta) Rabindranath Tagore: The Myriad-Minded Man.

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