We live, it seems to me, in an age of opinion. Newspaper columnists are paid enormous sums to air views which seem ever more tangential to reality; members of the public are encouraged to text their thoughts on everything in creation; and as for bloggers – why, millions of us blithely send paragraphs such as this out into cyberspace like scientists launching interplanetary craft, not knowing whether anyone out there will receive or take any notice of our signals.
But how many of these opinions are of any profit to humanity? Very few. Dr Johnson, whose 300th birthday we celebrate this year, argued that the task of criticism was to improve opinion into knowledge – and that is what, in its small way, this web log will attempt to do, in addition to spreading the word of new literary endeavours.
How soon after finishing a book should a biographer embrace another project? Some, having lived with a subject for years, feel it almost improper to devote themselves immediately to another, like a widow hurrying into a new marriage; others cannot wait to move on. Among the latter is Caroline Moorehead, who is following Dancing To the Precipice – her acclaimed biography of Lucie de la Tour du Pin – with an account of five heroines of the French Resistance. She never feels happy, she says, if one of her books appears in print before the contract for the next one has been signed.
For novelists, too, it is important to move on. The process of readying a book for publication – as I discovered with my own The Rivers of Heaven – can be enormously time-consuming; but while it is too important to neglect, it is not remotely as fulfilling as the act of creation. The anxiety of that limbo between final proofs and publication (‘The time I hate most,’ Selina Hastings told me after sending off her new biography of Somerset Maugham) is easier to set aside if your mind is already engaged by the next challenge – in my case a novel which combines foxhunting with Chinese expansionism.
One ingredient biographers and essayists do not have to worry about – unless they take great liberties – is dialogue. Rupert Christiansen, the author of brilliant cultural studies such as Romantic Affinities and Tales of the New Babylon, says that he has found this to be the greatest challenge in attempting his first novel. But since he is one of the few contemporary writers I am eager to read on absolutely any subject, I am sure he will prove equal to it.
I was lucky enough to work with both Selina Hastings and Rupert Christiansen on the late and much-lamented magazine Harpers & Queen. Several of our other colleagues have also become respected authors, among them:
Julie Kavanagh, who is following her definitive biographies of Frederick Ashton and Rudolph Nureyev with a book on the model for La Dame aux Camélias;
Maggie Fergusson, who – after her wonderful biography of George Mackay Brown – is working with Michael Morpurgo on an account of his life;
and Jasper Rees, whose highly entertaining I Found My Horn has encouraged him to undertake a further autobiographical adventure, this time an exploration of his Welsh roots.
Another colleague, Markie Robson-Scott, has embarked on an account of her father’s friendship with Christopher Isherwood, while Ysenda Maxtone Graham, whose biography of her grandmother The Real Mrs Miniver was shortlisted for the Whitbread Prize, has turned to fiction with her first children’s book Big School: an extract from it can be read on the tommorrowsbooks.com website.
Five years ago I had the exciting task of writing an article for the Sunday Times Magazine about Philip Larkin’s largely unpublished letters to his girlfriend Monica Jones. Anthony Thwaite was subsequently asked to edit a collection of the letters, which he has now done. However, the publishers – Faber & Faber – have decided rather late in the day that they would like to include some of Monica Jones’s letters to Larkin (held in the Bodleian Library), so it is likely to be some time before it reaches the bookshops. For copyright reasons I cannot reproduce any of the letters, but this was my introduction to them:
A few weeks after Philip Larkin’s death in the winter of 1985, his colleague Betty Mackereth set about fulfilling one of his last requests. Taking his diaries – some 30 volumes of them – into his office at the university library in Hull, she fed each in turn into a shredder, keeping only the covers, before sending the looped and tangled remains to be incinerated. By nightfall, history’s best chance of reconstructing the life and thoughts of the most acclaimed English post-war poet had vanished (to borrow one of Larkin’s own phrases) in slow, suspended skeins of smoke.
What only one person knew was that an archive existed which, to a large extent, duplicated those diaries. It consisted of more than 1,400 letters – as well as 500 cards and telegrams, and scores of photographs – sent over a period of 40 years to Larkin’s longest-standing girlfriend and closest confidante, Monica Jones. Written in his small, neat hand, they chronicle – often day by day, and sometimes hour by hour – every aspect of his life, from the pork chops that he re-heated for supper to the experiences that shaped his poems. They contain declarations of love, his often scathing thoughts on other writers, childhood reminiscences, political diatribes, damning self-analysis, and confessions of sexual inadequacy.
That the collection has remained a secret for so long is due to the sad decline which Monica Jones suffered in the years following Larkin’s death. Living on in the house that the two had shared, she was too confused to remember how much of his correspondence she had hoarded. Only now, following her death in 2001 and the recent decision of her executors to put the letters up for sale, has their existence become public knowledge and their enormous importance recognised. The price put on them is £200,000, which the Bodleian Library in Oxford is doing its best to raise before they are lost to the nation.
The discovery has come as a surprise even to those closest to Larkin. Anthony Thwaite, a friend of the poet’s since 1958, had little luck with Monica Jones when he edited Larkin’s Selected Letters 1940-1985 ten years ago: ‘Monica was in a pretty poor, disorganised state,’ he remembers. ‘She scrabbled around and found twenty letters, of which I used fifteen in the book.’ Andrew Motion uncovered a larger cache when researching his official biography of Larkin, but according to Joan Winterkorn of Bernard Quaritch, the booksellers handling the sale, the archive is ‘almost entirely unseen and unstudied’.
‘To come across a correspondence of such intimacy, carried on for such a long time, is very rare,’ says Joan Winterkorn. ‘His letters to his friends like Kingsley Amis and John Wain were more about things like jazz; whereas with these, because he and Monica knew each other so well, you get a sense of him talking to himself. Given that his poetry is about the minute details of life, they are the most important record that could exist.’
In January, Antonia Fraser will publish a memoir of her life with Harold Pinter. I met the great playwright on two occasions and found him perfectly polite but (as many people did) intimidating, so I look forward to discovering a softer side to him. Meanwhile, Lady Antonia’s daughter Rebecca Fraser is working on an account of the Pilgrim Fathers, and her sister Rachel Billington on a new novel whose denouement makes intriguing use of numerology.