The impermeability of the page

Reading a novel is sometimes described as a one-way conversation. The writer speaks to the reader, but the reader cannot speak back, except in the imagination. But the page is not completely impermeable, it does leak. Writers will sometimes offer information, in interviews, in talks, in reviews, and in the reminiscences and comments by others, and this information can shed light on something in the writer’s novels. Michael Gorra, writing in his book, The Portrait of a Novel, an account of Henry James’ masterpiece The Portrait of a Lady, recounts James’ experiences of, and opinions on, George Eliot. It is well known that although James admired some aspects of her writing, he decried what he saw as the failure of the overall structure of her novels. He thought she failed to achieve what we can see he was aiming for himself: the single story, here the history of Isabel Archer, her successes and her failures. George Eliot, in contrast, has many story lines running through each of her novels, and sometimes the protagonists of the stories hardly meet. What have Dorothea Brooke and Dr Lydgate to do with each other in Middlemarch? It is a passing encounter, but we can read it as an account of an all too common event, a glancing blow struck by two people on each other.

This is a little like a conversation with the writer, a conversation relayed through a third party. The reader finds these hints, and thinks, Ah, yes, that explains why you wrote that scene the way you did. When we talk to our friends, we draw upon our shared knowledge of their life and ours, our conversation sits within that knowledge, and when we build up a picture of the life and beliefs of the writer we also have this illusion that we know them as friends.

The words of others can be misleading, of course. We know that all too well from our daily lives, and we can now think that J E Austen-Leigh, nephew of Jane Austen, did his aunt a considerable disservice in the Memoir which he wrote. He was so clearly trying to protect his aunt’s memory from any hint of impropriety, and intent on portraying Jane Austen as a kind, modest woman. He wrote that ‘there was scarcely a charm in her most delightful characters that was not a true reflection of her own sweet temper and loving heart’. Well, as Fay Weldon writes, in an introduction the Memoir, we beg to differ. The writer who could portray the foolishness of Mrs Bennett, the unkindness of Mr Bingley’s sisters and the arrogance of Lady Catherine as well as she did must have been a sharp and perceptive observer. Relatives of authors should probably stay away from writing such accounts. Henry Cross, husband of George Eliot after her long-term companion Henry Lewes died, wrote a hagiography after George Eliot’s own death, making her out to be a saint. Cross was not regarded as the intellectual equal of George Eliot, unlike Lewes, and there were signs that their marriage was troubled.

Nor are writers always truthful about themselves, of course. They are invariably to be disbelieved when writing about their childhood. For one thing, memories of distant events can be hard to recapture, and many people feel the need to reinvent their childhood. Was Charles Dickens’ childhood as bleak as he painted it in his autobiography, or hinted at in that other autobiographical novel, David Copperfield? Sometimes you feel the touch of honesty, though. Margaret Drabble, who has written stories of educated, middle class women fighting to make their way in a man’s world, has written a semi-biographical novel, The Peppered Moth, based on the life of her own mother, a novel that perhaps shows something more than is usually revealed about why Drabble has the beliefs she does, and which she sets out in her writing. Many of her novels touch upon her own life, a life shared by many women, from the first tentative exploration of the world that is her first novel, A Summer Birdcage, to the difficulties of an aspiring writer removed from her natural environment to be with her actor husband and their small children in a small-town theatre (The Garrick Years), and to the wonderful central trilogy of her writing that starts with The Radiant Way, depicting the life of three women friends.

Another way in which authors reveal themselves is in the alterations and edits that they make to drafts, once preserved to a considerable extent when novels and poetry were typed on typewriters. The computer, with its instant editing facility, has probably put an end to much that was once preserved. It is extraordinary being able to see the alterations that Sylvia Plath made to her poems, reproduced in The Restored Edition of Ariel, published by Harper Collins. And Ted Hughes (in Winter Pollen) has written movingly about the evolution of Sylvia Plath’s last poem, Sheep in Fog, with facsimiles of the drafts. Poor man. All that guilt, written out in Last Letters. And poor woman, tied to a man like him. The consensus seems to be that Last Letters isn’t a great poem, and he never published it during his lifetime, something that gives one more confidence about its reliability as a document.

Valerie Eliot, guardian of her husband T S Eliot’s reputation, did a great service by seeing that a facsimile of the original drafts of The Waste Land, with annotations by Ezra Pound was published, and we can see the evolution of that remarkable poem, and gain some insight into the beliefs and poetic aims of Eliot and Pound.

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