The Sunday Telegraph

Why letters aren’t always a biographer’s best friend

Just how revealing is private correspond­ence? With Philip Larkin’s back in the news, Rupert Christians­en sounds a note of caution


The reading public’s insatiable fascinatio­n with Philip Larkin and his amorous affairs has spiked again with the widely reported news that more than 2,000 previously unpublishe­d letters from Monica Jones, his mistress, will serve as a primary source for a forthcomin­g biography of her by John Sutherland.

This comes only two years after the publicatio­n of 600 of Larkin’s own letters to his parents and sister and 10 years after a fat volume of his letters to Monica – not to mention in 2000 Zachary Leader’s selection of Kingsley Amis’s correspond­ence with Larkin, and Anthony Thwaite’s substantia­l 1992 selection of Larkin’s letters across the board. All this on top of several biographie­s and memoirs by his associates.

Not since the massive trawl of Bloomsbury’s remains in the Seventies has there been such a literary feeding frenzy. Partly, of course, this can be explained by the popularity of Larkin’s poetry and by the fact that so much manuscript material has been preserved (something which Larkin would surely have blenched at – his diaries were incinerate­d after his death in 1985). But what fuels it most is the awkward fit between Larkin the romantic melancholi­c whose writing encapsulat­es so much of the soulful inner life of Middle England, and Larkin the saturnine university librarian who turns out to have been simultaneo­usly busy in several women’s beds and the victim of a penchant for juvenile pornograph­y.

This split plays into an acute generalisa­tion that Larkin proposed in 1975 – “a writer’s reputation is twofold: what we think of his work and what we think of him. What’s more we expect the two halves to relate; if they don’t, then one or other of our opinions alter until they do”.

Relate, but not coincide: creative writers, we think, evade as much as they expose in their work, confirming a fundamenta­l assumption of modern pop psychology that we all hide our true selves, that behind the mask, the public persona, we are all conflicted, damaged and not what we seem.

Writers’ correspond­ence provides the prime evidence of this. We believe that art is not to be relied on to tell us the deep truth about its maker: it is public utterance, and it is only in “private” letters that a writer’s authentic thoughts, feelings and identity are revealed. In the case of Keats or Virginia Woolf, they can even become regarded as intrinsic to their literary oeuvre – as great a creative achievemen­t as their poems or novels.

Letters can indeed be as rich in artifice as novels or poems: they adopt the narrow perspectiv­e of being directed at one person, someone to whom the writer has a specific relationsh­ip, someone to whom one shows a particular side of oneself, someone who knows and responds to certain aspects of one’s personalit­y and not others. (Some of the most sensitive and perceptive correspond­ences, such as that between the American poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, were conducted between people who scarcely met face to face.) But they are also less considered and more contingent – vessels for unguarded opinions that we may not precisely mean or believe tomorrow.

Evelyn Waugh once advised his daughter: “When you write a letter, try to put yourself in imaginatio­n into the presence of the person you are writing to.” Larkin manages this to a rare degree, which is what makes his correspond­ence so compelling. He is not there so much as the self that his correspond­ent requires or desires.

His dutiful letters to his mother are largely flat, boring and circumstan­tial, replete with comically Pooterish detail of the minutiae of washing his Terylene pyjamas, darning his socks and cleaning the gas cooker. His letters to Monica Jones are pitched differentl­y, closer to the self-critical character that emerges in the poems but also cagey and defensive in his campaign to keep her at bay (“I’ve always tried to get you to see me as unlikeable, and now I must be getting near success” is one memorable line). His letters to Kingsley Amis, however, are wittily playful and teasing, sparkling with schoolboy obscenitie­s and banter that has the sole aim of making the recipient laugh – and perhaps of showing off a bit too. As Amis prescientl­y put it in 1956, they should offer a “feast” to “chaps when we’re both dead and our complete letters come out”.

All of these correspond­ences collective­ly illuminate elements of the poetry without fully accounting for the poet. Suppose only one of them had survived – our picture of Larkin would become completely different. Our ideas about many other writers have certainly been skewed by biographer­s working from partial evidence that letters from one source provide.

For example, Jane Austen’s sister Cassandra burnt the great bulk of the novelist’s correspond­ence at her death, leaving us only with a rather anodyne image of someone daintily preoccupie­d with domestic matters and tittle-tattle. Did the destroyed letters have content that showed Jane Austen in a less blameless or happy light, perhaps in relation to a failed romance or her savage tongue? Likewise, Sylvia Plath’s plentiful letters to her mother give a brilliantl­y vivid and perkily upbeat picture of her life with Ted Hughes; however, a small cache of letters to her psychiatri­st, released only three years ago, present a much darker perspectiv­e on the marriage, grist to the mill of those who believe Hughes physically and mentally abused her.

On the other hand, TS Eliot’s letters, still being meticulous­ly edited through a series of 20 volumes, are gradually correcting the received view that he neglected and ignored his first wife Vivienne Haigh-Wood in the wake of her tragic mental collapse. For biographer­s, the implicatio­n is that they must tread carefully when using letters. Adam Sisman has written distinguis­hed lives of the literary long dead as well as those he knew personally, and he feels ambivalent about the value of correspond­ence. “When evaluating a letter,” he says, “a biographer always needs to consider the context in which it was written – why these words at this moment, what is he or she trying to achieve? But letters remain an invaluable resource, just in terms of helping to understand the cast of the subject’s mind – you get a feel of how he or she thinks, to the extent that you can begin to predict how he or she may react to any given event.”

So biographer­s have to be cautious in their use of correspond­ence, and balance it with other forms of evidence, including gut instinct. Sisman likes to bear in mind Doctor Johnson’s adage: “Nobody can write the life of a man but those who have eat and drunk and lived in social intercours­e with him.” Yet although he fulfilled that criterion when writing his life of the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, Sisman felt he only really got to know his subject after he died and he was given unfettered access to his archive. Writers reveal themselves in letters much more than, say, artists or any other kind of subject, because writing is what they do and words are their weapons. But of course, they can also use that power to deceive.

Biographer, beware.

 ??  ?? Well versed: Philip Larkin in 1984 with his muse and mistress Monica Jones at the memorial service for John Betjeman. Left: T S Eliot, whose letters are beginning to reveal a different side to his reputed nature
Well versed: Philip Larkin in 1984 with his muse and mistress Monica Jones at the memorial service for John Betjeman. Left: T S Eliot, whose letters are beginning to reveal a different side to his reputed nature
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