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Whose Life Is It Anyway? : Why one prefers a biographer of one's own : KEEPERS OF THE FLAME: Literary Estates and the Rise of Biography, By Ian Hamilton (Faber & Faber: $24.95; 344 pp.)

October 23, 1994|Victoria Glendinning | Victoria Glendinning is a biographer whose books include "Vita: A Life of Vita Sackville West" (Morrow) and "Anthony Trollope" (Alfred A. Knopf)

What is posterity? Nothing but "an unending jostle of vanities, appetites and fears," concludes Ian Hamilton at the end of a book that is quite surprisingly entertaining and suggestive. One might not suppose that a work subtitled "Literary Estates and the Rise of Biography" would give one cause to laugh aloud, but it does. Hamilton is a British poet, an editor and himself the biographer of Robert Lowell and, notoriously, of J. D. Salinger (well, he tried). For all his scholarship, he writes here with the immediacy, economy and ease of a witty man talking over a bottle of wine.

The "keepers of the flame" are the friends, relations, devotees, literary executors and biographers, in whose hands lies what Hamilton calls the "after-fame" of great writers. We live in an era of copious, candid and some would say intrusive, biography. The questions Hamilton addresses about the history and ethics of the genre were never more topical. "How much should a biographer tell? How much should an executor suppress? And what would the biographee have wanted--do we know?"

He proceeds chronologically, by means of case-histories, each marking some change or development in the perceived function of the custodians of greatness. This leads us into the history of publishing and of the law on copyright, into the company of some egregious crooks and creeps, and into some stimulatingly unprovable statements from Hamilton. The poet and priest John Donne (d. 1631), for example, was "the first" important writer to leave a substantial collection of letters, and his no-good son was "the first" to see that there was money to be made from a literary parent's leavings. Edmund Curll, the 18th-Century publisher, was "the first" to cash in on scurrilous instant biographies. Robert Burns was "the first" to have his frailties exposed by a biographer (he drank himself to death). Just occasionally, Hamilton is wrong. He writes that Thackeray's daughter "vetoed all thoughts of a biography," thus fueling speculation about skeletons in cupboards; in fact, she commissioned Trollope to write a book about her father, which he did. Admittedly, she gave him very little material to work on.

The book is full of tasty details about cabinets and laundry-baskets of letters and manuscripts falling into greedy hands, or being used as wrapping paper for groceries. Keepers of the flame tended to be self-appointed. The poet Marvell's landlady posed as his wife in order to get money owed to his estate. Sir William Davenant liked it to be thought that he was Shakespeare's illegitimate son. Thomas Hardy had the bright idea of controlling his after-fame by ghosting his own biography, ostensibly authored by his second wife.

The book is free from academic pedantry. Hamilton remarks that Johnson's life of Dryden contains "the funniest and cruellest" of the "many wildly improbable" accounts of Dryden's funeral, quoting none of them, and thus whetting the reader's desire to find out more. Likewise, he writes of William Warburton, the adviser and editor of Alexander Pope, that Pope guided him to a rich wife "and then (via her very rich uncle) to a bishopric and a palatial estate." Most scholars would have ruined their narrative flow by dutifully identifying, if only in a footnote, the "very rich uncle."

Not Ian Hamilton. His pace and semi-satirical tone extract the maximum entertainment value from pompous literary mayhem. He writes with informed malice about the frequent rivalry between a dead author's self-aggrandizing "best friends" as to who is the true keeper of the flame. Disciples are often catty about co-disciples. One reviewer of "The Life of Dickens" by his friend and champion John Forster complained that it "should not be called 'The Life of Dickens' but 'The History of Dickens' Relations to Mr. Forster.' " Yet Forster was cavalier about his hero's materials. He chopped extracts out of Dickens' letters (discarding the tattered remains) and pasted them into his manuscript, which was thrown away afterward by the printers. Boswell was the most successful flame-keeper of all time, making the relationship between subject and biographer the central pillar of his "Life of Dr. Johnson," to the extent that Boswell is now a more lively commercial proposition than Johnson himself.

They believed in "definitive" biography in the past, and possessive jealousy such as John Forster's found destruction preferable to the gaze of alien eyes. John Cam Hobhouse, neurotically possessive about the late Lord Byron, engineered the burning of his idol's autobiography, unread, because it had been shown to Tom Moore and not to him. Hobhouse was uneasy lest there might be something uncomplimentary about himself in it.

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