Sunday, January 10, 2010

the one with whom we are concerned

Nothing much, but I've been reading the Virginia Woolf biography written by her nephew Quentin Bell and this anecdote seemed worth passing on:

M de l'Etang entered and died in the service of the Nawab of Oudh; he left three daughters. Adeline, the one with whom we are concerned, married a James Pattle who was, we are told, a quite extravagantly wicked man. He was known as the greatest liar in India; he drank himself to death; he was packed off home in a cask of spirits, which cask, exploding, ejected his unbottled corpse before his widow's eyes, drove her out of her wits, set the ship on fire and left it stranded in the Hooghly.

Bell adds,

The story has been told many times. Some parts of it may be true.

Bell's tone, which is simultaneously open, cheerful, sympathetic, and firm, glad to tell an amusing anecdote but also willing to check sources (the reader can see this in the footnotes and in occasional qualifications - as above), gives this biography its charm. Hazel Rowley, Christina Stead's biographer, said that a friend of hers went through her manuscript helping her to cross things out, tighten it, make it shorter, more exciting, but a rapid pace is not the solution, I think, to the problem of making a biography interesting. (I mean, aside from its subject matter. But this is not always enough. I was once bored by a biography of Edward Lear, a thing that should have been impossible. The subject was not boring; the voice was flat.)

Pace helps, but the biographer's voice is even more helpful, and this voice, if it's off, can't be fixed in the way that the length can be fixed, by trimming or reshaping: if it's wrong, it's wrong, and the only thing the biographer can do is get reborn as a different person and try to write the book again. One of the things that tickled me about Graham Robb's biography of Victor Hugo, was his ongoing grumble about the insufficient researches of past Victor Hugo biographers. He was dirty on them. How dare they laze around! This is Victor Hugo (Robb all but thundered). Important Victor Hugo! This was a biographer with character; he was also, obviously, in love with his subject. I liked Robb. I like Bell. I like Peter Ackroyd's biography of Dickens, which, in its manic accumulation of facts, reminds me strangely of the Anatomy of Melancholy. I'm looking forward to the Jenny Uglow biography of Elizabeth Gaskell, discovered at St. Vinnies for a dollar on Thursday, thick enough that when it fell off a shelf two evenings ago there was a thud that echoed through the house. "Long, exhilarating, and written with a recklessness that springs from affection for her subject," claims Fiona McCarthy of the Guardian, quoted on the back cover.

At the opposite extreme you have Sir John Hawkins, who must have thought he was going to go down in history as the first man to publish a substantial biography of Samuel Johnson but who instead became the ogre Boswell complained about in the introduction to his biography of Johnson, which is the one everybody knows.

Sir John Hawkins's ponderous labours, I must acknowledge, exhibit a farrago, of which a considerable portion is not devoid of entertainment to the lovers of literary gossiping; but besides its being swelled out with long unnecessary extracts from various works … what is still worse, there is throughout the whole of it a dark uncharitable cast, by which the most unfavourable construction is put upon almost every circumstance in the character and conduct of my illustrious friend; who, I trust, will, by a true and fair delineation, be vindicated … from the injurious misrepresentations of this authour

When the Hawkins biography was republished recently a review by Henry Power in the Times agreed.

Hawkins’s style is awkward, and the biography often reads as though it is being delivered from the Bench … He is sometimes insanely digressive, always “glad to escape to scenes more congenial to his disposition”, as the Critical Review put it. To give one example, an account of Johnson’s love of tea prompts Hawkins to wonder “what were the viands of a morning meal for people of condition, for which tea with its concomitants is now the substitute”. He is happily able to resolve the matter instantly, by reproducing the menu of a sixteenthcentury breakfast …

Which might not be so bad if not for this:

Hawkins … conveys an air of disapproval.

The kiss of death for a biography.

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