Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Too much information?

I have nearly finished writing my review of Hermione Lee's biography of Penelope Fitzgerald for the Journal of William Morris Studies and I have mixed feelings.
Hermione Lee writes that ‘perhaps self-deceivingly, I have felt while writing this book that [Penelope] might not have disapproved of me as her biographer – if there must be a Life – because she had liked my book about Virginia Woolf, and had been kind to me when we met’(p. 433). I am pretty sure that Penelope wouldn't have like the idea of anyone writing a biography of her, and yet, of course, she was a biographer herself. Like Penelope’s own biographies Hermione Lee's book is an absorbing read: thoroughly researched, judicious, sympathetic, yet pulling no punches.
I now know an awful lot more about Penelope than I did before. In some ways I now know more about her than I do about about my closest friends, and I'm not sure that I like it. Lee admits that ‘there are many things she did not want anyone to know about her, and which no-one will ever know (p.434). Her war-time letters to her husband, Desmond, which might have thrown more light on her marriage were lost when their barge sank in the Thames along with many other family documents, including letters from her mother, who had died when Penelope was eighteen. But it was also Penelope’s nature to be reticent and to guard her privacy particularly in relation to the catastrophies which befell her family in the 1960s. And then too there was her relationship with her daughter-in-law. Deeply attached to her son Valpy, she was horrified when he got engaged at eighteen to a Spanish girl and married her as soon as he left Oxford. Lee doesn’t gloss over her unwelcoming and unkind behaviour and she wouldn’t have been doing her job properly if she had. Still, I found myself wincing from time to time and feeling like a voyeur. There is one episode of doubtful authenticity, which I think I would perhaps not have included - so I am not going to recount it here.
Does the biography increase my pleasure in reading Penelope's novels? No. Does it threw light on the creative process and the evolution of a novelist? Yes. So returning to that earlier proviso – if there had to be a Life – and perhaps for a writer of her stature there did have to be one - I think Hermione Lee did a very good job. Yet, fascinating as I found this book, I closed it feeling very thankful that no-one is likely to write a biography of me.


Blogger Sue Hepworth said...

I really enjoyed this post, Chrissie, and I am also pleased that no-one will ever write my biography. One of the rare advantages of being a mid-list author.

Wednesday, 08 January, 2014  
Blogger Christine said...

I am so pleased you enjoyed it. Yes, no-one will be rummaging through our dirty linen - unless our writing careers take an unexpected turn.

Wednesday, 08 January, 2014  
Blogger annoxford said...

I was going to say, don't be too sure, Christine! Referring to your statement that no one was likely to write a Christine Poulson biography. However, because of Sue Hepworth's post and your reply, I didn't think it would work. '0) But I promise, should I write the definitive Christine Poulson biography, I will NOT reveal any secrets except those that refer to your "writing life." Having fun, having some time to catch up on your Reading Life tonight. And found your thoughts on that biography very interesting. And compelling enough to check it out.

Thursday, 09 January, 2014  
Blogger Christine said...

Lovely to hear from you, Ann. I am pretty sure I am safe . . .
The biography is good, but the novels are better. My favourite in The Beginning of Spring.

Friday, 10 January, 2014  

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