domingo, 31 de março de 2013
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- Jane Austen : A Life by David Nokes
Fourth Estate, 578 pp, £20.00, September 1997, ISBN 1 85702 419 2
- Jane Austen: A Life by Claire Tomalin
Viking, 341 pp, £20.00, October 1997, ISBN 0 670 86528 1
London Review of Books – Vol.20, No. 5 – 5 March 1998
Do we need another Life of Jane Austen? Biographies of this writer come at regular intervals, confirming a rather dull story of Southern English family life. For the first century at least, the main qualification for the task was to be a relative – Henry Austen, ‘Biographical Notice’ to Northanger Abbey and Persuasion (1818), the Rev. J.E. Austen-Leigh, Memoir of Jane Austen (1870) and W. and R.A. Austen-Leigh, Jane Austen: Her Life and Letters (1913). These pioneers had two main messages to convey: that the author was a very domestic woman, and that outside her family she had no profound attachments or interests. Subsequent biographers rightly complain that this puts a damper on the exercise. But the nine hundred new pages on Austen’s life do not, in the event, significantly change what is still a family record.
How can the Nineties reader, so often resistant to history, gain access to this most secretive and parochial of writers? Claire Tomalin’s publishers credit her with discovering an Austen who is the heroine of a modern story, one of a family of meritocrats struggling to get ahead in a competitive, money-driven society. At it happens, much academic work on the Romantic writers, Austen included, has been obsessed with money for over a decade now. Edward Copeland’s Women Writing about Money (1995) gets more thoroughly into the topic than a biographer can, and David Nokes provides even more insights than Tomalin into (say) Austen and legacy-hunting. In fact Tomalin’s considerable strengths are surely of another kind – to do with her modern, matter-of-fact tone of voice and her narrowed focus on Jane Austen as the story’s heroine. If anything she plays down her family and still more her society, at any rate as direct material for the novels, in favour of an Austen who is essentially solitary. Tomalin tells each well-known incident of the life, and instantly follows up with Austen’s response. Or, rather, with what we might feel in such circumstances, a response couched in the language and shaped by the attitudes of today.
After her mother had breast-fed her for three months, how did the newest Austen take being parted from that breast, to be spoon-fed by a foster mother in the village? At two, did the scream on being taken away from her foster mother and village family? How did she react to being packed off to two fairly unsatisfactory boarding schools, at seven and nine? Or to the news, abruptly delivered to her at the age of 25, that her father was retiring from his country parish and moving with his wife and two daughters to the fashionable resort of Bath?
Tomalin neatly uses these conventional but intensitive parental ‘ejections’ of Jane from childhood on to explain the withdrawn, self-protective manner of the adult woman. They were ‘frightening and unpleasant experiences over which she had no control and which required periods of recovery; they helped to form the “whimsical girl”, almost always well defended when it came so showing emotion.’ Tomalin’s Jane was reticent and unopinionated in company, even in family gatherings. She participated, but protected her privacy, while she joked in her letters, enjoyed acting, invented stories for children, and played children’s games. She had several longstanding women friends who corresponded, and she wrote to all her siblings except George, her mentally retarded older brother. But, Tomalin thinks, the reserve may not have been breached even in the unrecorded conversations and letters, many afterwards destroyed, which passed between Jane and her closest friend, her sister Cassandra.
Nokes virtually omits the novels from his story. Tomalin makes more use of them than most biographers, and indeed relies on them for her boldest innovation, a reconstruction of Austen’s inner life. Here Tomalin makes some risky moves. Arbitrarily chosen characters from the novels – Lady Susan, Marianne Dashwood, Mary Crawford – speak for their author’s repressed desires. Unsupported guesses, strategically placed in the story, take the weight of the biographer’s argument. Of Austen’s first months in Bath, Tomalin remarks: ‘Jane was schooled to keep up appearances, even if she was screaming inside her head.’ Austen stays put or moves without audible protest, as though serving a long term of house-arrest. The world she makes in her novels stands out by contrast at open and animate, indicating its function, Tomalin thinks, in Austen’s fantasy-life:
As a child recovering from the school years, she found the power to entertain her family with her writing. Through her writing, she was developing a world of imagination in which she controlled everything that happened. She went on to create young women somewhat like herself, but whose perceptions and judgments were shown to matter; who were able to influence their own fates significantly, and who could even give their parents good advice. Her delight in this work is obvious.
It’s pity that this Big Idea, the organising principle of Tomalin’s book, nowadays comes almost too readily to hand in writing any artist’s life. A highly stylised genre doesn’t necessarily express a particular writer’s inner life: how can it, when the features of plot and character Tomalin lists are standard in classic comedy, romance and fairy tale? Tomalin’s psychoanalytic use of the novels reduces the effect of the letters, where Austen at least speaks for herself. The comedies take the Life over, by virtue of the idealised spirit of comedy, not the toughness, irony and frequent cynicism that more particularly characterise Austen’s writing. This pleasing, polished book goes some way towards a mixed mode – fictionalised memoir or biographical novel.
Posted by Francisco Augusto Vaz Brasil at 22:56
- The Life of Walter
Scott: A Critical Biography by John Sutherland
Blackwell, 386 pp, £19.99, January 1995, ISBN 1 55786 231 1
London Review of Books – Vol 17, no. 17 – 7 September 1995, p. 10-11
John Sutherland’s pithy, cynical Life of Scott is very much a biography of our time: irreverent, streetwise, set foursquare in a ‘real world’ in which careers achieve money and power and character is at least 51 per cent image. In its worldly wisdom it resembles the first of its kind, John Gibson Lockhart’s pioneering five-volume Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott (1837-8), though the drift of the two Lives is in opposite directions. Sutherland has come to bury Scott, while Lockhart, the great man’s son-in-law, praises him in a public-relations exercise calculated to maintain the family’s prestige and income. Yet Lockhart in the 1830s was quite as committed as Sutherland in the 1990s to a commercially-driven real world, as he proves by his mastery of its classic plot-line, ‘making it’.
Lockhart presents Scott’s rise and rise as an exemplary fable for a commercial age, heavily reliant on its author-hero’s middle-class virtues – hard daily work, bonhomie and of course family values. Each success comes lightened by homely, humorous touches that bring out not Scott’s towering genius but his ordinariness and niceness. Before his years of fame, an Edinburgh neighbour is traumatised by the apparition, which he sees towards dawn from his window, of a disembodied hand travelling tirelessly across the page: no ghost story, but the neat framing of Scott’s life in terms of the homely myth of the Industrious Apprentice. In a series of transformations Lockhart’s Scott becomes both the Wizard of the North and the rich Laird of Abbotsford, graced with titles (baronet and sheriff), broad acres and his own baronial hall.
Success is the central theme of John Sutherland’s book too. But step by step he unwraps Lockhart’s packaging, beginning with the anecdotes. Too many couldn’t have occurred at the date specified: Sutherland refers drily to Lockhart’s ‘usual pragmatism about chronology’. Place can also be a problem: there isn’t a local vantage-point, apparently, from which Scott’s novel-writing hand could have been seen.
As for the great man’s amiability, Sutherland wheels out his own tales of Scott the cold-hearted and neglectful son, brother, husband and father, a paterfamilias with a track-record of absenting himself from key family deathbeds and funerals. In dealing with his betters, from clan chiefs to politicians in power, he was obsequious and manipulative. He stole the materials and labour of writer friends and co-authors. He deceived creditors, and manipulated or where necessary sacrificed his business partners. Sutherland swings the hatchet, for the same reason at least one recent biographer has hacked at Scott’s contemporary Jane Austen, another writer bleached by 19th-century family laundering. And reviewers have taken it personally, as though an old and close friend is being traduced, which indeed is close to the mark.
Sutherland has one good answer to those who hate his book: his subtitle, which is in fact the series-title of a list of new literary biographies under Claude Rawson’s general editorship. If you want an uncritical biography, Sutherland might say, don’t buy this one but stick to Lockhart, or to some other modern academic biography (such as Edgar Johnson’s two volumes, 1970) which essentially accepts Lockhart’s facts and interpretations. At its best this book establishes that received literary history, often based on biography, is too credulous, and that writers and their advocates may have interests in lying. It can’t replace Lockhart or Johnson as a detailed biographical record (it’s a fraction of the length of either), but can and does target the ways in which they and their kind deceive.
Rather like saints’ lives, to which they have a family resemblance, literary biographies exist to exalt a writer and recruit admirers for an oeuvre. The soft focus hasn’t been an absolute requirement (witness Lytton Strachey), but the soft pedal is common to academic and nonacademic authors. It’s not Sutherland’s style to debate what literary biography mostly does or what his will do. He is, however, already the biographer of Mrs Humphry Ward, a personality he found at least as objectionable as he finds Scott. He chooses to work against the grain – by insisting that his subjects are anything but admirable characters, and by adding that their fame exceeded their talent.
Sutherland cuts Scott down to size in his trim discussions of each of the longer poems and novels in their chronological place. Partly because Scott was so prolific, these discussions can be bite-sized, at not much more than a page. Even at the maximum eight pages, they come several to a chapter. It’s conventional in a biography to give priority to hard facts – information about the first idea, if any, then composition, publication and reception. But it seems to me a fault in Sutherland’s method that he takes a consistently narrow view of the first and last of these categories. First ideas tend to be something external that just turned up – a crisis in the Peninsular Wars, a visit to the field of Waterloo, or one or more grandees Scott wanted to compliment. Reception is less likely to include a book’s reviews than its sales figures.
Posted by Francisco Augusto Vaz Brasil at 22:51
Devil take the hindmost
- Shadows of the Future: H.G. Wells, Science
Fiction and Prophecy by Patrick Parrinder
Liverpool, 170 pp, £25.00, July 1995, ISBN 0 85323 439 6
- The History of Mr Wells by Michael Foot
Doubleday, 318 pp, £20.00, October 1995, ISBN 0 385 40366 6
- A Modern Utopia by H.G. Wells,
edited by Krishan Kumar
Everyman, 271 pp, £5.99, November 1994, ISBN 0 460 87498 5
London Review of Books - Vol 17, No. 24m 14 December 1995, p. 18-19
Among other certain things (death, taxes etc) is the rule that no work of science fiction will ever win the Booker Prize – not even the joke 1890s version. H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine had no chance against ‘literary’ authors like Hardy and Conrad. In the twenty-five years it has been running, no SF title, as I recall, has even been shortlisted for Martyn Goff’s real thing. In 1940, T.S. Eliot struck the recurrent establishment note when he labelled Wells a ‘popular entertainer’.(Dickens was stigmatised with the same term by F.R. Leavis in The Great Tradition.) Patrick Parrinder has been opposing such anti-Wellsian prejudice for the best part of a quarter of a century. His opposition takes the form of scholarly works which patiently mount the case for critical respect. Parrinder’s contributions include the Critical Heritage volume (1972), a study of Wells’s composition methods, H.G. Wells under Revision (1990, co-edited with Christopher Rolfe), and the reissue of Wells’s scientific romances currently appearing under the World’s Classics imprint. (For copyright reasons – Wells having died in 1946 – this series will probably only be available in America.) Parrinder’s more theoretical interventions include Science Fiction, Its Criticism and Teaching (1980), a work which places Wells as ‘the pivotal figure in the evolution of the scientific romance into modern science fiction’.
Shadows of the Future (a title which plays with the equivocal initials ‘SF’) is Parrinder’s most forceful critical plea so far for the importance of Wells. He begins by staking a claim for The Time Machine as ‘one of the Prophetic Books of the 19th century’, a work which ‘casts its own shadow over futurity’. In fact, two claims are made: one for Wells as a prophet novelist, the other for prophetic fiction (PF?) as a significant literary genre. Parrinder’s own discursive method, as he tells us, is modelled on the Time Traveller’s – a series of ever further ranging intellectual explorations. Wells is praised as the Edward Gibbon of his day, and he is also celebrated for writing parodic fiction of Bakhtinian subtlety whose designs are indistinguishable from the current hypotheses of theoretical physicists like Kip Thorne and Stephen Hawking. Parrinder’s chapters take the form of free-wheeling meditations on Wellsian topoi – ‘Possibilities of Space and Time’, ‘The Fall of Empires’, ‘Utopia and Meta-Utopia’. In Part Two of Shadows of the Future, he branches out into ‘Wells’s Legacy’ – which he takes to be the whole corpus of 20th-century British and American science fiction. There is a wealth of massively informed insight in the book, but more impressive – and more convincing – is the high seriousness with which Parrinder approaches his subject.
There are, however, three problems in joining Parrinder on his high critical road to a full rehabilitation of Wells. The first is Parrinder’s advocacy of the early scientific romances (the only works by Wells which have currency nowadays) as ‘prophecy’. A prophet wanting to communicate his forecasts to mankind might engrave them on stone tablets; he might buy billboard space in Leicester Square or an advertisement on Sky Television; the last thing he would do would be to wrap his prophecies up in popular science fiction – a genre which ranks in cultural authority with the fortune cookie and the cracker motto. A second problem is SF’s appalling record in accurately predicting scientific discoveries and future events. After the usual genuflections (‘Wells foresaw the future wars and anticipated the weapons of war, notably the aeroplane, the tank and the atomic bomb’) any comparison of, say, The War in the Air with what actually happened aeronautically in the world wars, or The First Men in the Moon with Cape Canaveral in 1969, reveals how wildly wrong science fiction invariably is. Nostradamus, Old Moore and Mystic Meg have SF beat every time. (Parrinder sportingly quotes against himself Fredric Jameson’s paradox that science fiction’s role in life is ‘to demonstrate and to dramatise our incapacity to imagine the future’.) The third, and most intractable, problem is the non-fiction prophecy which Wells wrote in the early 20th century, during the period when he felt he was outgrowing scientific romance, and put novels like The Time Machine away as childish things. It is an embarrassment for Wellsians that the master should so disvalue what his admirers, and posterity generally, have seen as his masterwork.
Posted by Francisco Augusto Vaz Brasil at 22:47
Kids Gone Rotten
- Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, edited by John Sutherland
Broadview, 261 pp, £10.95, December 2011, ISBN 978 1 55111 409 5
- Silver: Return to Treasure Island by Andrew Motion
Cape, 404 pp, £12.99, March 2012, ISBN 978 0 224 09119 0
Island!!! by Sara Levine
Tonga, 172 pp, £10.99, January 2012, ISBN 978 1 60945 061 8
London Review of Books – Vol 34, No. 20 – p. 26-28
John Singer Sargent’s ‘Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife’ (1885).
The first return to Treasure Island was made by Robert Louis Stevenson himself. Fourteen years after the novel was published, Longman’s Magazine published ‘The Persons of the Tale’, in which Captain Smollett and Long John Silver step out of the narrative after the 32nd chapter to have a chat ‘in an open place not far from the story’. Stevenson has the two men wonder whether there is ‘such a thing as an Author’, and – if there is – whose side he’s on. The captain berates Silver for being a ‘damned rogue’; the rogue retorts: ‘Now, dooty is dooty, as I knows, and none better; but we’re off dooty now; and I can’t see no call to keep up the morality business.’ The captain is sure that the author is ‘on the side of good’ (he means on his side). ‘“And so you was the judge, was you?” said Silver, derisively … “What is this good? … by all stories, you ain’t no such saint … Which is which? Which is good, and which bad?”’ As the captain starts to denounce Silver again, the piece ends with the captain saying: ‘“But there’s the ink-bottle opening. To quarters!” And indeed the author was just then beginning to write the words: chapter xxxiii.’
Matthew Bevis teaches English at Keble College, Oxford.
Posted by Francisco Augusto Vaz Brasil at 22:43