måndag 20 augusti 2012

Life and works

After having enjoyed a spot of literary tourism during my holiday (one week still to go, thank Heaven) and having started on Jude Morgan’s latest – The Secret Life of William Shakespeare  – I have reason to ask myself: why are we (people in general, and bookish people in particular) so interested in the lives of famous authors? After all, they often lead pretty unremarkable lives. Shakespeare is a case in point. True, his existence in London must have been mildly interesting, what with belonging to a company of players, getting chummy with a reckless earl, creating a character (Falstaff) who is such a hit with the monarch that she actually requests a sequel (royally commanded fan fiction!) etc. But we know next to nothing about his personality, and for all what we know to the contrary, his plays and poems have nothing whatsoever to do with his “real life”. Jane Austen is another example: I’m sure she herself took the fact that she “never met her Mr Darcy” with equanimity (how do we even know that Austen would have fancied a Mr Darcy?), but the lack of romance in her own life does come as a bit of a disappointment to her devoted readers.  Even a flamboyant author like Dickens cannot hope to live a life that matches his novels in incident (or villain-intensity). So why do we insist on exploring our favourite authors’ lives – why can’t we be content with their works?

I think a lot can be explained by what I call the “passage to Narnia” factor. In the film Shadowlands, a small boy comes to visit C.S. Lewis (I believe it was a relative) and at once runs in search of the famous wardrobe. He finds it, but of course no passage to Narnia. Swallowing his disappointment, he reassures the author that he knew that it was just an ordinary wardrobe, really. This, of course, is perfectly true. But like the boy in the film, we can’t help hoping to find a gateway to the imaginary world of our famous authors, and we think getting closer to their lives will help us. After all, authors do sometimes use bits of their own life in their fiction, don’t they? Who’s to say that Viola, or Mr Darcy, or Uriah Heep never walked the Earth?

Because the primary interest is in the author’s creations, not him/herself, there is something melancholy about literary tourism, at least for my part. A chair that Dickens sat on can, sadly, never have the same apppeal for me as a chair belonging to James Carker, and I’ll never come across one of those because he never existed. And so I find myself having a great deal of sympathy with projects that try to link authors’ lives and works as much as possible. Flights of imagination in biodramas – such as making the foreman of the blacking factory in the TV series Dickens of London into an undeniably Heepian figure – are most welcome. But it can get out of hand. Remember the film Becoming Jane (one of the few Austen-related films I have not been able to sit through)? There, it was hinted that Jane Austen couldn’t possibly have written about love and sexual attraction without having experienced it first-hand. So whatever happened to the author’s imagination, then? As someone correctly and acidly pointed out, no-one presumes that Shakespeare had to murder someone in order to write The Scottish Play.

The greatest part of an author’s imaginary world will, I’m afraid, be available through their work only, and literary characters are for the most part figments of imagination. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t indulge ourselves with a bit of Narnia-chasing (if Morgan doesn’t go to town on Golden Youth-Dark Lady speculations, I, for one, will think it a lost opportunity). Even if we don’t find the passage to a magic kingdom, finding the wardrobe is nice enough in its way.