...Orwell wondered if we’d feel any differently about Shakespeare if it turned out he was in the habit of assaulting little girls. Well, would we? The answer, it seems, is yes. ...
Read this interesting article published in the < ahref="http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2101-2454013,00.html"target=_blank>Times Online of 19 November 2006.
Just their type
Our appetite for literary gossip is insatiable, but great writers aren’t mere fly-by-night celebs, argues Bryan Appleyard
Jane Austen had a lesbian affair with her older sister, Cassandra. It’s obvious, really. There was “the passionate nature of the sibling bond” so evident in the letters. There were her descriptions of women, betraying “a kind of homophilic fascination”. And, of course, there was her fascination with the “underlying eros of the sister-sister bond”. Case closed, I’d say.
Well, no. All these quotations come from a 1995 article in the London Review of Books by Terry Castle, an American academic. Castle was simply noting certain important preoccupations in her writing. An eager subeditor, however, had other ideas. “Was Jane Austen Gay?” was the headline. The LRB had barely hit the newsstands when Newsnight went on air with an earnest discussion of the sexual proclivities of one of our greatest novelists. Good grief! Was Mr Darcy really a woman, the bulge in his breeches a clumsy prosthetic? We had to know. But why? Literary biography is one of the dominant forms of our time. Almost weekly, big fat books emerge to reveal new truths about our greatest writers. Among the current fatties are Zachary Leader’s The Life of Kingsley Amis and the second volume of John Haffenden’s life of William Empson. The first has drunkenness and promiscuity; the second a bisexual fascination with troilism. And, yes, Austen is in for another doing-over, as a film released next year, Becoming Jane, about “a little-known but true love affair with the brilliant, roguish and attractive young Irishman Tom Lefroy”. One way or another, it seems, we shall just have to accept the awful, the incredible truth: Jane Austen had sex. Gosh.
Such works represent a new, quite recent tradition. They are neither reverent hagiographies, as most biographies used to be, nor feline hatchet jobs, as many became after 1918, when Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, an elegant onslaught on hypocrisy, was published. Rather, these books aspire to a balanced completion; to set down the life warts and all, but with sympathy rather than judgment. In this, the biographers are constantly thwarted by the headlines that spring from their work. All groan at news items that reduce their subjects to just one supposedly sensational characteristic — alcoholism, exotic forms of promiscuity, whatever. Current biographical conventions demand that they go after the man or woman in full. Again, why? Should not the work stand alone, freed of the burden of the life? For some, the answer is an emphatic yes.
“Proposing that Jane Austen was a lesbian or Sophocles a cross-dresser,” writes the literary theorist Terry Eagleton, “is one way for those who have nothing especially stunning to say about irony or tragic fate to muscle in on the literary scene. It is rather like being praised as an eminent geographer for finding your way to the bathroom.” Literature, in other words, is too big, too independent, too important to be caged in the confines of life. Anyway, what, exactly, is so important about life? The poet John Ashbery once told me he had never wanted to write about any of the normal stuff of life because “much the same things happen to everybody”. There is a disconnection between art and life that should warn us against moral or psychological invasions. Orwell wondered if we’d feel any differently about Shakespeare if it turned out he was in the habit of assaulting little girls. Well, would we? The answer, it seems, is yes. The high aesthetic position that the art and the life are utterly different has seldom been observed. In the 16th century, Giorgio Vasari’s “lives” of the Renaissance artists were reverential, certainly, but they also implied there was a link between a great life and great art. At the same time, Benvenuto Cellini’s autobiography, one of the most scandalous and sensational books ever written, took this idea to its logical conclusion. For Cellini, the madness and mayhem of his life were justified precisely because he was an artist of genius for whom all things were possible and allowed. Life and art had become one.
This was continued, though less sensationally, in the 18th century with Boswell’s Life of Johnson. For Boswell, the important thing was to watch and listen to Samuel Johnson, and to set it all down, simply because Johnson was so self- evidently great. The life was a work of art. The Victorians, however, required a more definite moral statement, and so they assumed, following Vasari, that greatness in art entailed moral greatness in the life. This was barely sustain- able once it became clear that Wordsworth, the patron saint of Romanticism, had had an affair, with Annette Vallon.
Then, in the 20th century, Strachey established the tradition of the debunking biography precisely to challenge the pompous Victorian assumption of the seamless consistency of greatness. Furthermore, Sigmund Freud had seemed to establish that no product of our psyche could be separated from the intimate facts of our lives. When Freud considered works of art, most famously Michelangelo’s Moses, he saw them primarily as symptoms. The foundations of the intimate biography had been laid.
There was one last attempt to hold back the tide. In the 1950s, the New Criticism, championed by FR Leavis, IA Richards and, ironically, the troilistically inclined Empson, was the dominant literary ideology. This insisted that the text and only the text mattered; the life was nothing. Subsequently, literary theories such as structuralism went further, claiming there was no such thing as an author; texts were written by the culture, not the individual. But in a world increasingly in thrall to the apparent intimacy of the celebrity cult, people wanted the blood, sweat and tears of the life. And with the advent of the big TV classic series, it became questionable whether they needed the work at all. With a wheelbarrow-load of books and DVDs, they could take in literature without ever bothering with the original.
This all makes the big biographers of our time queasy.
“It can all descend ‘into slightly posh gossip’,” says Kathryn Hughes, author of the, for the moment, definitive George Eliot: The Last Victorian. Eliot, of course, was scandalous in her own lifetime, living in sin with a married man. But, Hughes points out, this in itself justifies her biography. The Mill on the Floss is about “the pernicious power of gossip in a small town”. Similarly, Zachary Leader argues that much of Amis’s work is about people living with and pondering their own bad behaviour. As Leader shows, Amis was also fascinated by his own drunkenness and promiscuity. Indeed, in his last novel, The Biographer’s Moustache, the hero remarks: “These days the public like to think of an artist as a ... as a **** known to behave in ways they would shrink from.” Though by no means factual transcriptions of the life, Amis’s novels repeatedly betray autobiographical themes.
In the case of the great critic and poet Empson, Haffenden draws even closer parallels between the life and the work. Empson was a bisexual drawn to three-in-a-bed adventures. Haffenden points out that this affected his analyses of writers such as Andrew Marvell and James Joyce. Empson sees Ulysses as a disguised troilistic fantasy, with Leopold Bloom’s secret longing identified as a desire to restore his sexuality by sleeping simultaneously with Molly, his wife, and Stephen Dedalus, Joyce’s obviously autobiographical hero. Equally, Claire Tomalin, author of the recent Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man, argues that Hardy can be better understood through biographical detail. The failings of some of his earlier novels become more explicable in the context of his urgent desire to be published at any cost. Throughout his life, she says, he was always freest in his poetry.
But an account of a life can also correct injustices. Brenda Maddox, though no ideological feminist, accepts that her biography of Joyce’s wife, Nora, was partly inspired by a feminist impulse. In Richard Ellman’s biography of the writer, Nora appears as little more than an incomprehensible peasant adjunct to the great man. But in Maddox’s book, her intelligence, patience and shrewdness are celebrated as necessary aids to the production of great works. She has also written a biography entitled Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA. Franklin had at least an equal role, with Watson and Crick, in the unravelling of the DNA molecule, but was in danger of being written out of history. Maddox scoffs at critics of intimate biography: “I don’t see what harm it does.” Is she right? And, more crucially, does it do any good? The first point to be made is that these contemporary biographies are significant works in their own right. Irrespective of what they say about their subjects, they represent important documents of our time, delineating our prejudices and preferences. That, of course, is a danger, in that we may end up seeing the past as just another version of the contemporary. As Hughes says of Eliot’s cohabitation, such behaviour is “just normal for our friends and flatmates today”, but we can only understand Eliot if we accept that it wasn’t normal then. Furthermore, there is a danger we will slip into the deluded romantic view that the lives of great artists are necessarily wilder and stranger than those of ordinary people. In reality, any life examined with such intensity becomes wild and strange. What matters is how this particular chaos feeds into this particular work.
So the answer to Orwell’s question is, yes, we would think differently of a paedophile Shakespeare. But we should not think less of the work. That, as ever, justifies itself. The life, however, can only be justified through the work.