Sunday, 27 January 2008

A Life Less Ordinary

The dovegreybooks group I chat about a lot has been discussing something, which I thought I'd allow to tumble over onto my blog. Sometimes my brain just won't think of new topics every night... plagiarism is just a word for people who don't copy enough different people...

Biographies. Particularly literary biographies (which, I'll be honest, are more or less the only ones I read). I have of Fanny Wollstonecraft (yes, Fanny) which I'm going to start very soon, expect reports back in a week or several. A literary biography w
ell done is a wonderful thing, offering new lights on a writer's work, and allowing one to engage with their life, surroundings and acquaintances. So far, so good.

But readers are not rational creatures. I know it shouldn't matter whether or not an author is 'nice' (whatever we choose
that to mean) - if a novel or play or poem is great, then that should be it, but of course this isn't the case. If someone discovered a beautifully written ode by Hitler, I doubt I could consider it a favourite. So, today's point to muse and respond to - has a writer's biography or autobiography ever spoiled the way you read their work? Or maybe improved it?

For me, a couple have been compromised. I adore Katherine Mansfield's short stories, but Claire Tomalin's biography left me not fond of the woman. Virginia Woolf, as you may know, is a firm favourite - but Hermione Lee depicts
her as quite selfish and arrogant (though other biographies have made her seem much more gentle, self-deprecating and witty). On the other hand, biographies of Jane Austen, Richmal Crompton and AA Milne have only made me like them more. I'm determined to avoid Margaret Forster's biography of Daphne du Maurier, after Our Vicar's Wife said it spoilt the novels for her somewhat. So, it unquestionably does make a difference to me, what an author was like as a person - but should it? And does it for you?


  1. No, I can't remain unmoved by what the author was like - the death of the author has never happened for me and I find that knowing about the life always affects the way I read the work. The first time this happened, for the good, was when I was studying Keats for A-level many moons ago and read Robert Gittings' wonderful biography. Keats has been one of my favourite poets ever since.

  2. Actually yes I agree it can spoil the books a bit -- or vice versa. Like Alis I loved Keats even more after the Gittings biog but having had an enthralling re-read of Rosamund Lehmann's novels recently, I did go off her a bit when I read the very good biography by Selina Hastings. Shame really, but there you are.

  3. I'm with Alis on Gittings' biography of Keats: hard not to fall in love with him. I find I can separate the author from his life. Dickens treated his wife abominably but I still rate him almost numero uno. Evelyn Waugh was not a nice man but that doesn't stop me admiring his books. And so on.

  4. I almost never read literary biographies. Now whether this is because I don't care what the author was like in "real life" or whether I don't want to know is a question I have not yet answered. However it does allow me to neatly sidestep your interesting question about about spoiling or improving a particular author's work. I don't however see why readers cannot be rational; at least I don't go along with your blanket statement although the moral/ethical questions regarding works by monsters such as Hitler, Stalin, etc etc are important ones.

  5. I have a theory that many (if not most) of our great writers (or, at least, very successful writers)were successful at the cost of others - or another person. They are 'driven', and driven people can be very selfish - or at least, self-centred.
    Reading Daphne's biography I found that I disliked her - not because of what she was, but rather, because of the way she treated others.
    Consider any great writer - and think about the people close to them. Count the bruises. Does it affect your enjoyment of their books? Maybe the books are still WONDERFUL - it's just picking them up which is more difficult!

  6. But what about our Jane? I'm sure she never hurt anyone! And I shan't hear a word different!

    And, Peter, I was rather tongue-in-cheek when saying readers aren't rational... perhaps they can be. But I'm afraid I usually am not.

  7. Tricky one Simon. I find the character of a person comes through more in diaries and letters whereas a biographer will take a particular stance which you will, or will not, agree with. Diaries are a give away. I read Laurence Olivier's many moons ago and by the end felt he was an extremely, self centered unpleasant and unselfish man. Now I read Noel coward's diaries and while I am sure he could be waspish and be unpleasant, his essential kindness shone through his writing and I have liked him ever since.

    It is the same for me in acting. If I don't care for an actor then, while I might be able to admire a performance, I cannot warm to him so there are certain people who I do not go and see as I know that their personality gets in the way.

    It really is a very personal viewpoint that we each have and while we should be able to read/wtacth/listen dispassionately, it is sometimes difficult to do so

  8. in my post on Sir L I meant to say 'selfish' not unselfish in case you were wondering about my seeming contradiction...

  9. Didn't Jane Austen run a kitten-punching factory on the side?

  10. I can't really think of an example in which a biography spoiled a writer's work for me. On the other hand, I wouldn't read a biography of a writer that I didn't like. So, there you go. I guess I like who I like no matter what. Although you do make a convincing point regarding someone nasty, such as Hitler.

  11. I'm afraid I prefer reading bio/autobiographies, diaries, letters, etc. (authors and artists) more than reading many novels.

    I have probably read only a couple of Katharine Mansfield's stories but loved reading her diary and a bio. of her - interesting comparison, varied a bit in details depending on which one was edited by her husband.

    VW: Diaries! Letters! Absolutely fascinating - loved both series, can't think of anything comparable.

    Fanny Burney: Read the diaries online - great reading. I haven't read any of her stores, can't seem to get interested in fiction set in that time period.

    There are many others too but I won't go further...

  12. I have to say that I'm not that judgmental about the lives of writers and do usually judge authors' works separately from their lives. However, there have been some occasions where something I have found out about an author has prevented me enjoying, and sometimes even reading, their work.

    The whole "white man's burden" thing makes it very difficult for me to read Rudyard Kipling - I have only ever read The Jungle Book and though I am aware that Kim is considered one of his best works, maybe even his best work, I'm not entirely sure that I want to enjoy it.

    I am also unable to countenance reading Ted Hughes after having read a lot about his relationship with Sylvia Plath, which ended tragically. I was disgusted by Birthday Letters in which Hughes said that Assia Weevil had been entirely responsible for the suicide of Sylvia Plath. As though he had no responsibility for his own actions and as though Weevil had been the one who betrayed Plath. Given Assia Weevil also later killed herself, I was infuriated by Hughes' blaming it ALL on her and refusing to accept any responsibility.

  13. I think reading the Beatrix Potter biography certainly enhanced my appreciation of her work. The only literary biography that comes immediately to mind is Claire Tomalin's book about Jane Austen which I don't think changed my opinion of Austen's work - I already loved it.


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