BOOK REVIEW / A bonfire of authors' vanities: 'Keepers of the Flame: Literary Estates and the Rise of Biography' - Ian Hamilton: Hutchinson, 18.99

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J D SALINGER is mentioned only once in this book, but he is partly responsible for it. Ian Hamilton's attempt to write his biography might have been one of the literary horror-stories in Keepers of the Flame. Fired by veneration and curiosity, the biographer of Robert Lowell approached the reclusive novelist in 1983 and received a pained response; he could not stop him, but had suffered so many intrusions on his privacy that he could endure no more of them - not 'in a single lifetime'.

Shouldn't this have been enough? If a living subject says don't, then should you? (No, says Sir Stephen Spender, currently, to his uncalled-for biographer. Yes, say those who argue that the famous are anyone's fair game.) Hamilton rationalised his continued pursuit by splitting himself in two: his ethical self 'grappled feebly with the moral issues' while his ruthless biographer self set to. Salinger took him to court on the issue of 'fair use' of unpublished letters, and Hamilton lost. But his revenge was The Quest for Salinger, the whole story of the blocked book, published in 1988.

That book ended with the wry observation that although Hamilton's hero-worship for Salinger was now all gone (it's one of the dangers of writing - or reading - biography), their names, in the bitter annals of literary litigation, would be 'linked in perpetuity'. Such divorceless marriages and intractable moral issues are the stuff of Keepers of the Flame, which makes an understandably disenchanted survey of what Henry James brilliantly calls 'the quarrel beside which all others are mild and arrangeable, the eternal dispute between the public and the private, between curiosity and delicacy'.

Hamilton traces these eternal disputes from the 17th to the present century. He gives a brisk overview of copyright history and of changing attitudes to life-writing and hero-worship: first the 'over-crowded and ill-tempered' savageries of Grub Street; then the conflict between desanctifying Boswellian curiosity and the mysteries and scandals of Romantic 'cultism'; then the Victorian 'Reticence in Three Volumes' and horror at great men being treated 'like pigs to be ripped open for the public' (Tennyson); and, in reaction, the 'gleefully unauthorised' Strachey, steering us towards the modern realms of 'psychography (sic), fictionalisation and debunkery'. It makes a violent, lurid history of broken promises and mismanaged wills, reputations whitewashed or traduced, feuding widows and executors, scholars and crooks. And through it all you hear 'the sound of snipping scissors and paper crackling in the grate', the bonfires of the authors' vanities.

The stories are well known, but they still make great copy, and are presented like that - with little care for scholarly finetuning or detailed footnotes or bibliography, but with lots of bold narrative brio. Real-life versions of The Aspern Papers abound. Here is the amazing saga of the Boswell papers, a 'colossal hoard' long hidden in the family home at Auchinleck and then in an ebony casket in Malahide Castle near Dublin, and long unsought. Partly from family inertia and queasiness, partly because a footnote misprint in the Life of Johnson said that Bozzy's letters had been 'burned' (for 'buried') 'in a mass of papers in Scotland', nobody thought to look for them. Even though a batch of them turned up in 1857 as wrapping-paper in a shop in Boulogne, the hoard was not uncovered until 1924, by the Yale scholar Chauncey Tinker, who had just published his edition of all the Boswell letters he knew of. Only then did he penetrate the ebony cabinet in the Irish castle:

The drawers which I was permitted to pull open were crammed with papers in the wildest confusion. I felt like Sinbad in the valley of rubies . . . At once I realised that a new day had dawned for Boswellians, and that for C B Tinker there was a dreadful crisis.

Here are Byron's rival executors, Hobhouse and Thomas Moore, burning his 400-page memoirs (in which, said Byron, 'you will find a detailed account of my marriage and its consequences') in the offices of John Murray. Here is John Forster, Dickens's faithful friend, snipping out the bits of the 1,000 letters he wanted to include in his biography, and throwing the rest away. Here is Swinburne's sitting-room in Theodore Watts-Dunton's very odd house in Putney, where for many years, by way of clearing his desk, the poet made a habit of rolling up all his letters and manuscripts in old newspaper; and here, a bit later, is the book-dealer Thomas Wise going down to Putney on behalf of Edmund Gosse, to try and squeeze a few more of Swinburne's manuscripts out of 'the old chap', WattsDunton, who is 'terribly slow to deal with: brings out one item at a time, and talks over it for half an hour on end, with the idea of increasing my desire for it.' And here are Hardy and the second Mrs Hardy, sitting at Max Gate while Hardy writes his 'biography', Florence types it, and Hardy corrects it in 'a fake calligraphic hand' so that everyone will think she wrote it after his death.

Minor characters in the lives of great men - John Donne's shady son; Edmund Curll, rogue-publisher and vindictive enemy of Pope; the cunning theologian Warburton, Pope's posthumous 'bodyguard' - here leap into idiosyncratic and noisy prominence. So do all the defensive relicts: Emily Tennyson, Mrs Kipling, Mrs Stevenson, Rupert Brooke's mother and Ted Hughes. Through all these stories, an intractable division of opinion persists between writers who make their own bonfires, like Henry James (that's the best way, says Hamilton, rather surprisingly), and writers who, like Larkin and Kafka (and with famously ambiguous results) ask others to do the burning for them.

Paul Delany, whose book on Rupert Brooke is cited here, says that a biographer, 'unlike other kinds of writers, soon discovers that there are people who don't want him to do what he has chosen to do - and are also in a position to hinder his doing it'. Many of the authors here don't see why he has to do it at all: 'Our business is with their books' (Wordsworth on Currie's biography of Burns-as-alcoholic); 'The artist was what he did - he was nothing else' (Henry James's story of the biographer haunted by his horrified subject); 'If Eliot wished to live quietly, succeeding in avoiding notice, living and partly living, without making his life a continual allegory, then he had a right to. Let it go at that' (Larkin, with dignity, on Peter Ackroyd's life of Eliot).

Huh, says Hamilton. Larkin knew very well 'that in the case of Eliot - and in the case of Larkin - biography would never 'let it go at that' '. Hamilton's own tone of voice, sceptical, macho, and relentlessly debunking, shows just how far biography has split away from hero-worship. There's no such thing as a great writer, in Hamilton's book, only a gang of posturers, drunks, hacks, mercenaries and equivocators.

Milton 'spent much of his life squabbling' ('out of deep conviction', mind). Dryden was 'happy to be paid on the nail for couplets which he could almost manufacture in his sleep'. Byron brought to bear, on his estranged wife, 'the complete Byronic box of tricks'. George Eliot's husband rated her 'a heavy thinker'. Joyce comes across as a detestable poseur, Plath as an 'eloquent distortionist', cultified by a risible 'woman's movement'. As for posterity, so often appealed to, have no illusions: it will be 'an unending jostle of vanities, appetites and fears'.

Occasionally Hamilton mitigates this grimly derogatory stance with the more humane voices of his writers, pleading for dignity, or good motives, or (Henry James, of course) for 'the literary vision, the vision for which the rarest works pop out of the dark of the inscrutable, the untracked'. But what we are left with is the taste of ashes.