Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Speculating Other Lives

I’ve been reading two biographies of Mary Wollstonecraft: Janet Todd’s Mary Wollstonecraft: A Revolutionary Life, and Lyndall Gordon’s Mary Wollstonecraft: A New Genus (which I have only recently started). I do love a good biography and both books are enjoyable, painting very different pictures of Wollstonecraft (Todd’s unsympathetic portrayal of a moaning, nagging, inconsistent woman; Gordon’s “pioneer of character” scarred by her background of domestic violence).

I’m intrigued, though, by the way biography so very quickly moves into speculation, often on the slenderest grounds. Take Gordon’s theorising about Miss Mason, one of the teachers at the Wollstonecraft sisters’ school at Newington Green. Mary Wollstonecraft, Gordon writes, often referred to her as “‘poor Mason’, as though some misfortune were common knowledge”. Gordon informs us that “in most such cases the parents had lost their fortune, so that instead of fulfilling her destiny as a marriageable ‘lady’ the daughter was compelled to work as teacher or governess”. Miss Mason, we are led to suppose, is one such bereft marriageable.

Now, Gordon is perfectly right to mention that this was an all too common situation for poor daughters in the eighteenth, and indeed the nineteenth and early twentieth, century. However, touching though the image is, on what grounds is it the most likely explanation of poor Miss Mason’s condition? For all we know poor Mason may have walked with a limp, had a wall eye, or given birth to an illegitimate child and been abandoned by the father (another horribly common occurrence and one Mary Wollstonecraft herself suffered at the hands of Gilbert Imlay). Of course, in the last case it is unlikely that Miss Mason would obtain employment in a school, even given Wollstonecraft’s advanced views – she had a living to make after all - so we can probably rule it out. Even so, there are any number of explanations for the epithet “poor” that are just as likely as the one Gordon suggests.

Still, it’s a minor point about a minor figure in Wollstonecraft’s life (though no doubt what happened to Miss Mason was not a matter of minor significance to her). Things get a little bit more complicated in Todd, who speculates to such an extent that I began to think that “perhaps” was the most commonly used word in her book. Let’s look at the case of Mary Wollstonecraft’s brother Henry, indexed “Henry, uncertain fate of”. Henry, having been apprenticed in Beverley, suddenly disappears from the family correspondence. He may, Todd proposes, have run away from a harsh master. She doesn’t, however, think this accounts for the “complete silence [which] suggests something more extreme”.

A little consideration and she hits on the theory that Henry had gone insane, perhaps even tried to kill himself - “a common reason for incarceration”. This opens up the way to a page about the treatment of the insane in the eighteenth century, the number of asylums in Hull, York, and Hoxton, and madness in the Austen family. The fact that the Wollstonecrafts moved to Hoxton, where London’s major asylums were located, strengthens the case. We are therefore to believe that a family who out of embarrassment never again refer amongst themselves to their afflicted brother took enough interest in his fate to move to Hoxton with him. Unless they intended to visit him regularly this seems odd, particularly as Todd informs us that families “usually disposed of the defective very thoroughly”. If that were so, surely the best thing to have done with mad Henry would have been to leave him well out of the way in Yorkshire.

Well, of course Henry's insanity is perfectly possible. It’s also possible that the family letters referring to Henry, mad or sane, have been lost or destroyed. Perhaps the letters were burned because, along with news of Henry, they contained derogatory remarks about the drunken, impecunious head of the family. Or perhaps they were torn up (and Henry cut off by his relatives) because they referred to unspeakable acts carried out by the missing brother: he had contracted syphilis, or been seen going into a molly club.

The point is that there appears to be no evidence whatsoever to support the theory that Henry went insane and was put into an asylum. Even so, the theory is the foundation of a later speculation, when we learn that Wollstonecraft, Godwin and Joseph Johnson visited Bedlam in 1797 “perhaps to see an old friend or relative – possible even her brother Henry – or to provide Wollstonecraft with some background for her writing”.

There’s no harm in speculating, of course. It’s good to throw out ideas, provided it is perfectly clear that they are only ideas. Neither of these writers can be accused of trying to pass off theory as fact. Even so, some suggestions do seem to be based on the most flimsy reasoning, a sort of a + b = c where a = slender evidence, b = one of a number of possibilities, and c = conclusion. Dynasties have been founded on this kind of argument. Take Joan of Arc. Here we have:-

The woman who was burned at the stake in the Rouen marketplace on May 30 1431 was entirely covered by a penitent’s robe and hood (a – slender evidence).

The woman was not Joan of Arc but someone else in disguise (b – one of a number of possibilities). (She may have been swamped by the clothes because they were too big for her; she may have been badly beaten and her captors wished to disguise the fact.)

Therefore Joan of Arc survived the flames and went on to marry and have children (c – conclusion). Flimsy? I should say so. You’ll find more like it in Pierre de Sermoise’s Joan of Arc and Her Secret Missions.

But let’s be serious again. Todd and Gordon do not deserve to be mentioned in the same context as such crackpot theorising. It’s one thing to explore possible explanations of puzzling circumstances (why poor Mason? why no mention of Henry?) but quite another to invent puzzles and triumphantly solve them by rewriting the records.

These musings do make me wonder, though, about the role of speculation. Without it would biography be possible? If biographies confined themselves entirely to the known or recorded would they be very short and very dull? Would we miss opportunities to engage with the life and times of our subjects? Are biographers who speculate really historical novelists manqué? Like historical fiction writers they “fill in the gaps” and they imagine what people may have thought or felt in certain situations. The difference is they lack the skill to know what to put in and what to leave out (look, I’ve done this research on the treatment of the insane and I’m damned well going to include it). Should the skills of the novelist have any place in biography? What is the difference between fiction and history? What, for example, makes Tom Stoppard’s play Travesties fiction when it is just as possible that James Joyce, Tristan Tzara and Lenin met in Zurich as that Henry Wollstonecraft became a Bedlamite? Must we stray into the fog of authorial intention? Can we only assess a text if we have the author’s (or someone’s) assurance of what it is (this is biography, this is drama)?

Yes, it certainly is fun to speculate. I haven’t any answers – but I shall be thinking about these issues as I continue with Gordon’s book and any biographies I read in the future.

Saturday, 21 August 2010


I am sorry to say it, people seem to go to the theatre principally for their entertainment!

So complains Sneer in Sheridan’s The Critic, and if that’s what people want that’s what they’ll get if they hurry down to the Chichester Festival Theatre and catch the double bill of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound and Sheridan’s The Critic. Since the National put the plays together in 1985, they’ve been widely recognised as a couple, and have even been taught as a pairing in schools. In some ways that’s a shame as it’s too easy to fall into the “compare and contrast” approach to literature (the characters of Richard vs Bolingbroke, images of war in the poetry of Brooke and Owen, etc, etc). They do make for an entertaining three hours, however.

I didn’t know the Stoppard play and I was surprised at how funny it was; the parody of the country house murder is wonderfully done. The comedy is spiked by a disturbing edge when the barrier between performance and spectator, here the critics Moon and Birdboot, breaks down. It’s a deliciously dizzying sensation to be an audience watching a play about an audience watching a play, especially when that play rounds on its audience and swallows them up. It made me think of the way many of us shuffle away from the front row whenever we go to a performance for fear of being picked on, of being sucked into the event and out of ourselves. It’s the terror of the child at the pantomime who dreads being called onto stage by some fearsome dame and made a fool of in some way she cannot understand.

I did, however, reread The Critic beforehand. This is a play in which the author hands it on a plate to the company. It’s funny on the page with, in the first act, some fantastic dialogue and even more fantastic characters. Who couldn’t make much of Sir Fretful Plagiary who, worse than a bad notice hates no notice; or Mr and Mrs Dangle, a couple who are weary of one another in private but pretend to be “loving and affectionate” in public for fear of being hitched into a story. Then there’s Mr Puff, who with shameless glee reveals the secrets of his profession, from the “puff direct” to the “puff by implication”. Lovely stuff, but the act is little more than the preliminary – the puff – for the main business of the piece, which is the rehearsal of Puff’s tragedy The Spanish Armada.

If the cast made great work of Act I, they really went to town for Acts 2 and 3. Puff’s dreadful play, made more dreadful because the actors have been given carte blanche to cut “whatever they found heavy or unnecessary to the plot” – which is just about most of the script – is hilarious. It’s rendered even more so by the mess the performers make of it. While Puff is lost in admiration of his work, the actors have nothing but contempt for it, “cutting and slashing” until not even Puff knows what’s going on. Who wouldn’t relish the role of the captive Spaniard Don Whiskerandos, who takes so long expiring that eventually the actor gets bored and stomps off grumbling “I can’t stay here dying all night”. Joe Dixon really does give the Don everything in a side-splitting performance – and yes, Joe, I did see you laughing beneath your comedy whiskers and I admire you all the more for it. Then there’s Tilburina who goes mad in white satin because that, says Puff, is the theatrical rule, with her confidante who goes mad in sympathy and is ordered by Puff to keep her “madness in the background”. Both were beautifully played by Hermione Gulliford and Una Stubbs.

It’s all there in the text and this wonderful production made the most of it. But Sheridan gave the best last. The stage directions ordain that the play ends with a battle between the Spanish and British fleets followed by a triumphal masque. The directions (I’m looking at the 1988 Penguin Classics edition, ed Eric Rump) are minimal: “Flourish of drums – trumpets – cannon, etc, etc…the fleets engage…music plays Rule Britannia…The procession of all the English rivers and their tributaries…etc begins with Handel’s water music – ends with a chorus”. What a gift: cannon – music – costume – marches – and etceteras! What follows is the most wonderful, barmy, chaotic, noisy, disastrous, and exuberant bit of madness I’ve ever seen on stage. I laughed until there were tears in my eyes.

I could tell you what I laughed at, but I don’t want to do spoilers. All I will say is that if I get a chance to see this production again, I’m booking front row seats (again: by a strange fate we were in the front row, and yes we were almost sucked into the performance when Mrs Dangle (Una Stubbs) asked Gerard to hold her champagne glass for her while she was dancing).

The two plays wonderfully parody their target genres: Stoppard and Christie’s The Mousetrap, Sheridan and the bombast of the eighteenth century tragedy. It’s a strange thing though, parody. We laugh at what we love: I did at any rate, for mock it how you will I still love a good fop, a witty woman, and a country house full of toffs bumping one another off. I never miss a Poirot (David Suchet’s marvellous creation), I wish they’d made more Inspector Alleyn, and I am an avid reader of eighteenth century drama. The affection shone through at Chichester, and especially in Puff, who the outstanding Richard McCabe made the butt of an affectionate fun. I love Puff: there’s a charm in his vanity, his enthusiasm, his pride and pleasure in what he has written, and the way he submits to the depredations of the actors while comforting himself with the thought that lop and top how they will, he will print every word. He is truly unaware of the awfulness of the piece: there’s a prelapsarian innocence in his complete lack of critical knowledge. Puff cares about his play, delights in his “trope, figure, and metaphor”, and it’s for that I love him.

For details of the production at the Chichester Festival theatre see - http://www.cft.org.uk/cft-productions_details.asp?pid=372

Sunday, 8 August 2010

In St James’s Square

What makes the perfect library? Is it one that still spends money on books, not just computers and DVDs? One that nevertheless uses modern technology to its fullest extent to make the best research tools available to its readers? One that never throws out books? One that has reading rooms that are genuinely quiet enough to work in? One that lets you borrow books for as long as you need them? One that offers you access to on-line catalogues and research databases from your own home? One with membership open to all?

They’re certainly the things I look for in a library. Not one that periodically throws out books and journals. Not one where you’re trying to work against a background of chatter, the rustling of food packets, the blare of mobile phones. Not one that culls its reference sections and moves the much reduced collections into tiny corners of its premises. Not one that thinks the bulk of its budget is best spent on computers. Not one that has bought into some Gradgrindian ideal of providing “information” and thinks it’s done its duty when people can Google. A good library is unashamedly intellectual. That’s why I’ve decided to splash out on a subscription to the London Library in St James’s Square.

The Library was founded in 1841 after a successful campaign by Thomas Carlyle and others to establish a library in the capital from which books could be borrowed, a service which was not provided by the British Museum. Carlyle was sick of the “importunate distraction” of the public reading room: the “buzz and bustle…waste of time in coming and going; waste of patience in waiting; add discomfort, perturbation, headache, waste of health.” The issue of libraries and health was clearly one that haunted the Victorian mind: in 1891 an advocate for free public libraries described a method of vaporising books with carbolic acid to disinfect them. As far as I know the London Library hasn’t introduced any such scheme, although the books are housed in stainless steel stacks on grilled shelves which no doubt allows for the bracing circulation of air.

Carlyle himself, after passionately pleading the cause of a city that was worse off than “the wretched fishy village of Reykiavik” which had a “Public Lending Library, free to all Icelanders”, resigned from the Committee and in the main kept out of the business of running the Library once it was established. He was, however, a great borrower. He took out the novels of Balzac and George Sand, the Latin chronicle of a monk at Bury St Edmunds by Jocelin de Brakelonda, while his wife Jane borrowed Currer Bell’s Shirley because some people thought she herself had written the Jane Eyre books and she “was curious to know whether the new one was up to my reputation”.

The Library is undergoing a major redevelopment, some phases of which are already completed. It seems to me, however, that the spirit of the place can’t have changed all that much. For all the computer terminals, photocopiers, and modern lighting, it’s still the books that dominate. I feel that if I went looking for Shirley I’d find the very copy Jane Carlyle read all those years ago. In the London Library I’ll be walking in the footsteps of Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf; maybe sitting at a desk recently vacated by Tom Stoppard or Peter Ackroyd. Perhaps their shades will guide my pen, or at the least nudge my elbow when I’m typing. The London Library is not only a place to go and look up a few things or get a bit of today’s favourite commodity, information. It’s an inspirational place, and that is what makes a perfect library.

You can get some idea of what the London Library looks like by visiting http://news.bbc.co.uk/today/hi/today/newsid_8743000/8743878.stm

The London Library website is at - http://www.londonlibrary.co.uk/index.htm

And finally - and absolutely unconnected - who wants to see something amazing? One of the highlights of our recent holiday in Scotland was a visit to Loch of the Lowes where we watched nesting ospreys via a live webcam in the visitors’ centre, before going out to the hide to see the birds with our own eyes. It was an experience not to be missed. You can visit the Scottish Wildlife Trust’s website now and watch live footage of these beautiful birds - http://www.thewebbroadcastingcorporation.com/swt/swt.php.