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The Great Ladies' Literary Lady

October 11, 1987|MARY BLUME | Blume lives in Paris and writes for the International Herald Tribune. and

LONDON — Rebecca West lived from 1892 to 1983 and was a novelist, critic, historian, reporter and Dame of the British Empire. She also lied a lot.

"She spent a lot of the second half of her life revising the first half because she was aware of herself as a work of art as well as of her art as art. She thought of her life as a bad book, and as an artist that drove her mad," says Victoria Glendinning, whose good book "Rebecca West: This Is What Matters" has just been published (see review, Page 6).

Its author found it a hard book to write. "It's so much easier to write a long book than a short book," she says. Glendinning has six boxes of unused material. "You have to know what you are leaving out and why, what you are putting in and why. You've got to justify every sentence you write. At first I thought I would go mad but it got quite exciting. It's concentrated, like a stock cube instead of a soup."

One of the best of the excellent British biographers now at work, Victoria Glendinning specializes in large-scale, overpowering, well-connected literary ladies: stately galleons whose progress she briefly and elegantly arrests before setting them back on course. She is a friendly woman with a big laugh and a clever face, and her devotion to her demanding and sometimes fearsome subjects has always been tempered by the real-life demands of husband, house, four sons and a dog.

"I could only write really well at night because all through the children's childhood that was the only time I had, and I was conditioned that during the day you carried bundles of clothes from one room to the other and helped people off with their Wellingtons. I do the equivalent of that still in the day--I find it really hard to work in the morning, it seems an illicit act."

In 10 years she has written four major biographies, beginning with Elizabeth Bowen in 1977. Edith Sitwell and Vita Sackville-West followed in 1981 and 1983, and now, with Rebecca West launched, she is very privately trying her hand at fiction. "I've done something different with each book and I've learned something new with each book and the Rebecca book taught me more than anything else. I think I've taken it as far as I can, I'd have to explode it into something quite different and maybe that's not for me to do."

Her biographies are scrupulous, affectionate, detached and very funny when she finds the quavers and cracks behind the facade. She gives her subjects the attention they feel they deserve, but not always for the reasons they think they deserve it. The publisher commissions her biographies, and possibly her one mistake was to say yes to Edith Sitwell, who turned out to be a strangely ghostly subject.

"She was a major public figure because of her strange appearance and her public readings and her pronouncements and her outrageousness, and yet she was a person to whom in her private life nothing happened at all. She hardly left the secret garden of her childhood. You know, she wrote about Sleeping Beauty, and her version is the only one I've read in which no Prince Charming comes to kiss her alive. She's left sleeping forever. That's pure Edith. Her emotional life was highly intense but not in the way ordinary people think of as intense."

An honest biographer, Victoria Glendinning says, should give the subject's private life exactly the same proportion he or she feels it has to that person. "In some people their private life is not the most important thing. It's their own private life and in their own heads it's a small piece of luggage."

She thinks biography as voyeurism is dying out. "It had to come because biography had been so buttoned up, but now I think no one cares who did what to whom in bed quite so much.

"I'll give you a precise example of what I mean. There's a book by Rupert Hart-Davies on Hugh Walpole which was written in the 1950s. It's a sophisticated, erudite book that never said or suggested Hugh Walpole was a homosexual. When I read it I thought, 'My God, how sort of upper-class hypocritical! You can't do that!' It seemed an obfuscation. And then I read it again more recently, and it seemed highly sophisticated because anyone who was grown-up, anyone older than 12, would know Walpole was a homosexual, and so what?"

Glendinning isn't so much a pricker of balloons as a student of what keeps them up, although she wonders if betrayal is not inevitable. "Oscar Wilde said Judas is always the biographer. I take these people who have their public image and sort of unpick their knitting and show the sore places under the silk."

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