p u l p i t d j tay l or

Caches in the Attic

Not long ago I had a telephone call from a somewhat dis- tressed biography-writing friend. It had been his ambition to write a book about, well, let us call him X, a justly celebrated editor, poet and long-term ornament of the postwar literary scene who died some years ago. My friend’s difficulty lay not in finding a sponsor, for an enthusiastic publisher stood ready to sign him up, but in getting past Mrs X, his subject’s widow, who had expressed her opposition to the project. Was there anything he could do, he wondered? The straight answer, alas, was no, for Mrs X controlled her late husband’s copyrights. Without her say-so there would be no permission to quote and we would be in Eliot country, that debatable and problematic land in which Peter Ackroyd somehow managed to write his 1984 biography T S Eliot.

At the time I thought Mrs X’s prohibition wholly misguided, on the grounds that X was a great man whose achievements needed celebrating, that without a biography they might be in danger of being overlooked, and that my friend, on the evidence of his past work, would have done an excellent job. But after a little reflection I wondered whether Mrs X had a case. There had been a great many other women in X’s life. However discreetly treated, the question of the babe factor was clearly going to raise its head at some point, and even the most open-minded relict may be expected to bridle at authorising publication of her late husband’s letters to other women.

A little further reflection confirmed that, on the scale of transgressions against the biographer’s art, Mrs X was a very minor offender, and that there are far worse scandals currently doing the rounds. Take, for example, the case of the late J R R Tolkien, dead these forty-one years, of whom there exists a single life. Written back in 1977 by the late Humphrey Carpenter, it was ‘authorised’ by Tolkien’s heirs to the point that the section Carpenter had included on ‘Tolkien the man’ was instantly blue-pencilled by his son Christopher. It may well be that Tolkien’s descendants disdain the prospect of some beady-eyed biographical sleuth going through their father’s personal life with a fine-tooth comb, but the fact remains that in the past few decades they have constructed a vast, multinational business out of The Lord of the Rings and the general public is entitled to have its curiosity slaked about the person who wrote it.

Even worse, perhaps, is the sad story of George Orwell’s letters to Eleanor Jaques, a woman to whom he proposed marriage while living at his parents’ house in Southwold in the early 1930s. These came briefly to light five years ago when one of Eleanor’s daughters died and a search of her woodshed revealed a buff envelope containing a score of Orwell’s handwritten missives to her mother on which had been added the instruction, ‘Burn after my death’. Destined at one point for auction at Bonhams, the letters were mysteriously withdrawn from sale and have since disappeared, an absence made all the more annoying by the fact that the man who owns the copyright to them – Orwell’s adopted son, Richard Blair – has never been allowed so much as a glance at their contents.

Most biographers, it must be said, encounter problems of this sort: obstructive relatives who may possibly have something in the files but can’t be bothered to look; old gentlemen sitting on scrapbooks whose contents they may or may not divulge if sufficiently flattered. A quarter of a century ago I wrote innumerable letters to the distinguished bibliophile Anthony Hobson, who died last month, in an attempt to secure access to his celebrated collection of Firbankiana. It was an abject failure, mitigated only by the eventual publication of Hobson’s sumptuously produced Ronald Firbank: Letters to His Mother in 2001.

Though tremendously irked at the time, I saw Hobson’s point. They were his letters and he had his own plans for them. In the same way, it is entirely possible that Eleanor Jaques’s heirs may not want accounts of what their grandmother got up to in the Suffolk long grass in the early 1930s released to the world at large. To set against this is the argument that hard evidence of the relationship already exists in the documents printed in Peter Davison’s The Complete Works of George Orwell, and that Eleanor herself died as long ago as 1962. One might also bear in mind the infallible biographical subject’s maxim that if you don’t want something to survive then you should get rid of it. Unburnt letters, it might be said, demand to be read.

On this reasoning, Philip Larkin’s secretary, left with the task of shredding her boss’s private diaries, should have stayed her hand. I asked Andrew Motion, Larkin’s first biographer, what he thought of this during a recent literary festival round-table about the life-writer’s responsibilities. ‘I was bloody cross,’ Motion conceded, while going on to propose that the ‘full disclosure’ line so often trumpeted by the biographer was simply untenable when it came to Larkin’s women. The various relationships he had pursued had all taken place within living memory; shadows rather than arc lights were sometimes required; sensitive handling rather than dramatic exposures.

Clearly there are all kinds of excellent reasons why a biographer setting to work shortly after his or her subject’s death will end up pulling punches. However, the literary executor who jibs at the release of information long years after everyone involved has gone to their graves is surely making a mistake. I can remember, several years ago, contacting the heirs of Siegfried Sassoon (died 1967) and Elizabeth Ponsonby (died 1940 and model for the Hon Agatha Runcible in Vile Bodies), both of whom had starring roles in a book I was writing about the Bright Young People. I never did get to see Sassoon’s diary, which contained accounts of his affair with Stephen Tennant (died 1987), on the grounds that its contents were too intimate to publish. Ponsonby’s descendants, on the other hand, were entirely unconcerned by her sexual escapades in the 1920s. ‘Everybody’s dead,’ her niece remarked. ‘What does it matter?’ r a u g u s t 2 0 1 4 | Literary Review 1