Sometimes it seems from the book pages that modern British readers are far keener to read clever-dick analysis and Hello!-style gossip about great writers than we are to approach their actual works, laying ourselves innocently and humbly open to what they have to say to us. It is good for publishers’ profits but less good for our souls. I was lucky enough years ago to study literature under tutors who demanded that we acquire only the most basic historical context and sketchy personal information about the masters, but who insisted that we knew each text and judged it by its intended meaning, its truth and the skill of its execution.(via Bookninja)
However good a biography, you still get closer to a writer’s heart and spirit by going back to the works themselves. It really is not necessary to know whether Jane Austen was a virgin, or which of T. S. Eliot’s wives it was who slept with Bertrand Russell. Interesting, but not essential. In youth I learnt much formative wisdom from Howards End before I ever found out that E. M. Forster was gay, or indeed a bloke at all; I read Evelyn Waugh at 12 in an equal state of uncertainty about the author’s gender, and nonetheless revelled in the acid beauty of the prose.
Later, in long university months of studying Paradise Lost, I dutifully checked up on the politics and religion of the time but felt only a passing interest in the fact that the blind poet dictated it to his daughters (and that interest was mainly because my tutorial partner and I had a theory that the damn thing was meant to be six times as long, only the duty daughter sometimes got bored and sneaked out of the room for a nap leaving Milton orating to the cat).
07 September 2006
Ever been had?
Libby Purves explains why the Betjeman hoax is such a good thing for "the whole trade of popular literary biography":