Lyndall Gordon talks to us about her new biographies of T.S Eliot and Henry James, which published this month.
There’s no way to tell the whole truth about a life. If we think of our own lives, and want to tell all, it would be impossible. From the start – a biography of Eliot – I asked myself: what story do you want to tell? In the case of a writer’s life, the answer comes readily because poems and novels direct the biographer to the vital story, what Henry James calls, famously, ‘the pattern in the carpet’ of a great career.
Eliot’s story was simple: ‘the sequence that culminates in faith’. He explores this repeatedly, dramatising the tension between the model lives of the saints, ‘burning in every moment’, and the flaws of people like himself. A gift to a biographer is his honesty about his flaws: his pride, intolerance, and guilt over his treatment of women. ‘Things ill done and done to others’ harm’, he confesses in his wartime masterpiece, Four Quartets.
Vital to Eliot’s spiritual search were five remarkable and very different women: his mother, the guiding light; his first wife, Vivienne, who provided the inferno for his poetry; his first love, Emily Hale, a Bostonian drama teacher whom his poetry transformed into a Beatrice figure, a ‘Lady of Silences’; the brisk, brainy Mary Trevelyan, his companion in the forties and fifties; and finally his much younger second wife, Valerie Eliot, who offered him forgiveness. I wanted to find out what they were like in actual life and what they wanted, measured against what Eliot made of them in his imagination. It was fascinating to find how far they lent themselves to the roles his poetry assigned.
Henry James had a power, beyond that of any other man, to plumb the unknown potentialities of women. I wanted to tell the story of two women in particular. The first was his beloved cousin, Minny Temple, a free spirit – far too free for James’s mother – who was the real-life ‘heroine’ of his youth in Newport, Rhode Island. The second woman was his friend and fellow-writer, Constance Fenimore Woolson, a great-niece of James Fenimore Cooper, whose depressive solitude led to her suicide in Venice in 1894. Both drew James’s attention, a creative attention that claimed them through their untimely deaths. I was intrigued by the creative fertility of James’s almost obsessive, posthumous relationships with these rare women.
I’ve always chosen lives that push me to experiment with biography. Eliot’s masks opened up the challenge of the hidden life, as did James’s concentration on secrets: the centrality of what is unstated. Both Eliot and James direct the biographer to the gaps and silences, the mystery at the core of lives. Both are sceptical about the kind of outer shell stressed in what used to be called ‘definitive’ biography: the official chronicle of public events like, say, the Nobel Prize ceremony Eliot attended in 1948. ‘Our lives are covered by the currents of action’, he remarks. To peel back the visible action, to discern the movements of the mind and spirit, this is the exciting challenge.
Here's a selection of keyword-matched articles that you might also find interesting: