Friday, November 23, 2018

Diaries and literary biography

Until now there has been no significant analysis of the use of diaries in the development of literary biography. A new survey, however, finds important links between the two genres and draws attention to several key features: how diary material has been more fundamental for major developments in literary biography than is generally acknowledged; how published diaries flourished while biography languished in the nineteenth century; and how some biographers - even of the most famous diarists - have relegated their subject’s diaries to little more than a resource to tap into when convenient, while others perceive the persona of the diarist as crucial to a writer’s ‘life.’

These are the main conclusions of one chapter in Wiley-Blackwell’s important new work published today: A Companion to Literary Biography. The book contains 33 essays, written mostly by academic scholars, and an introduction by the editor Richard Bradford, an esteemed literary biographer and noted expert in the field. According to the publisher: ‘The Companion brings a new perspective on how literary biography enables the reader to deal with the relationship between the writer and their work. Literary biography is the most popular form of writing about writing, yet it has been largely neglected in the academic community. This volume bridges the gap between literary biography as a popular genre and its relevance for the academic study of literature.’ Some pages are available to preview at Googlebooks, and the book can be purchased (for £120!) from Amazon.

I, myself, contributed Chapter 10 - The Role of Diaries in the Development of Literary Biography. Here are the conclusions to that chapter (much of which can be read, at the time of writing, in the e-book version available at Googlebooks).

‘The history of literary biography has been much studied and written about, but not from the standpoint of how it might have been affected and influenced by diaries and diarists. Here, I have tried to redress that imbalance by touching, albeit lightly, on some features in both genres, features that show, among other things, how significant changes in the development of biography may well have been driven or fueled by diary writers. It is an impossible leap to see the origins of literary biography in Japan 1,000 years ago (since they were not published in English until the twentieth century), but, on the other hand, it should not be ignored that so long ago there was an artistic culture in which life writing - diaries, biographies, travel journals - not only existed but reached heights of literary excellence still much admired today.

Some 500 years later comes the first evidence in England of individuals, from various different strata in society, recording their lives in diary form - biographical writing. For the Boy King, Edward VI, inspired by his tutor, Cheke, to give more significance to his reflections by writing them down, we have a document of immense historical importance, but one that gives us, at the very least, a feeling of the boy’s life. For Henslowe, his simple account notes are an invaluable first-hand source about the literary world in which he and Shakespeare worked. Most intriguing of all is Anne Clifford, whose diary is one of the very first to document feelings and thoughts, as well as a remarkable story that resonated strongly with one of the twentieth century’s literary figures, Vita Sackville-West. 

Pepys and Evelyn were diarists of the highest order, but in very different ways, not least because their diary habit emerged long before such feats of life writing were commonplace. And it is worth emphasizing that their diaries remained hidden, unpublished until the early part of the nineteenth century. Modern biographers of Pepys, notably Tomalin, have rightfully placed his diary center stage in their ‘life’; but the same cannot be said of Evelyn, for his most recent biographer, Darley, has ignored the diaries as a literary work - this despite Evelyn having kept his diary for 80 years. Other modern biographers have also been dismissive of the persona of the diarist, or diaries as a work to be discussed in relation to a subject’s life - Sutherland does much the same with Scott, O’Keeffe with Haydon, and Briggs with Woolf.

Many, if not most of those, who study the history of English literature agree that Johnson and Boswell can be found at the well-spring of literary biography, the former for his Lives of the Poets, and the latter for his biography of the former. It is clear that around Johnson, and partly because of him, there was a culture of keeping a diary, one that infected not only Boswell, but Fanny Burney and Hester Thrale. And out of this cauldron of life-writing activity came Boswell’s great biography, and another of Johnson by Thrale. It is well understood today that Boswell’s Life of Johnson was heavily dependent on his diaries, but it is my contention that his pivotal place in the development of literary biography came about largely because of his diaries, because he was a diarist. All four writers remain of much interest to modern biographers, their diaries (only travel diaries in Johnson’s case) providing plenty of material to interpret and reinterpret. 

Forward in time from Boswell come two important literary biographies, Moore’s life of Byron and Lockhart’s impressive work on Scott. Both these, in fact, were derived in part from much admired diaries. Indeed, it was Byron’s youthful travel diaries that inspired a middle-aged Scott to begin a journal that would be judged as one of his greatest works. Byron was not a diary keeper by nature, nor were others in the Romantic circle. Shelley tried, but it was his wife, Mary, who kept their joint journal up to date and maintained it beyond her husband’s death, much to the interest of modern biographers. And Dorothy Wordsworth’s diary, a plum source for her husband’s biographers, has over time come to be highly regarded and has raised her own status to that of a literary figure.

While literary biography is considered to have been stagnating for most of the nineteenth century, it was a boom period for diaries - everyone was at it, and many producing works of literary and historical excellence. In Britain, there were writers as different as George Elliot, Lewis Carroll, and Beatrix Potter, whose diaries would shed much light on their lives and their writing; and there were those from the theater world, such as the actress Fanny Kemble (whose later diaries were a bold voice against slavery in the United States). The same pattern was developing overseas. In the United States, there were writers like Emerson, who left behind voluminous diaries, as well as Louisa Alcott, providing unparalleled biographical insights. The author Stendhal, the painter Delacroix, and the Goncourt brothers were all producing diaries that would become French classics of the genre; and in Russia diary writing was becoming a way of life for all the Tolstoys.

With so many writers monitoring their lives by this time, it was inevitable that some would wish to descend further into the depths of their minds and consciousness, looking for explanations of their own behavior and actions, to understand their relationships with other people and the world around, or because they were simply curious to record what they found. For this chapter, I have chosen the very different painters, Benjamin Haydon and Marie Bashkirtseff, the English don Arthur Benson, and the Swiss philosopher Henri-Frédéric Amiel to demonstrate how diarists were beginning to exploring their inner selves, and thus leave behind more enlightening information than biographers had generally had access to beforehand. And by the end of the nineteenth century, two writers - Alice James and W.N.P. Barbellion - stand out for the hyper-consciousness and care with which they wrote their diaries, aware of public interest in the inner life, and aiming for literary success.

If the genre of literary biography had been stagnating for much of the nineteenth century, it was about to explode with ideas - first with Lytton Strachey, then with Virginia Woolf. My aim has been to show that wherever one looks in the genre’s history, there are diaries and diarists, and this is no less true of its reinvention with Strachey and Woolf. My main argument is that by the time of this literary revolution there was a plentiful supply of new, fresh, and invigorating diary material not only feeding into what information was available to biographers but challenging them to find new ways of writing the ‘life.’ It is interesting - I claim no more - that Strachey chose four subjects, for his Eminent Victorians, all of whom were diarists, but diarists with this newly widespread predilection for self examination. Interesting, too, how steeped Woolf was in the diary genre. She was extremely well-read in other people’s diaries, and was reading the newly published diaries of Anne Clifford, edited by her friend Vita Sackville-West, while writing Orlando, a fictional biography of Sackville-West. This turned out to be her most innovative contribution to literary biography. She was also a brilliant diarist herself, and almost every one of her biographers acknowledges how central diary writing was to all her other writing. Thus, it also my contention that the very act of writing a diary has been instrumental in allowing writers to break through into new biography forms, as with Boswell, but so too with Woolf.’

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