I’ve wielded the hatchet over at Vulpes Libris, on a biography of William Wilberforce. Great subject, awful execution.
First Light is an Unbound book, initially paid for by its subscribers. Because the book has to sell before it’s published Unbound have to do a great deal of pre-sell publicity, and it certainly helps if the author, or subject, is famous. In this case – First Light: A Celebration of Alan Garner, edited by Erica Wagner – the subject is famous (if you’ve read any of his novels: I was stunned to discover that my husband hasn’t, so his pile of books-to-be-read is now substantially larger than it was). The editor is famous if you’ve read any of her novels, or any of the newspapers or magazines that she writes for. But, even if one wanted to buy the book because one liked The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, or Wagner’s book reviews for The New Statesman, outside these two groups there is a gaping hole, and into the hole a host of celebrity contributors have been poured. If writing by a Big Name is printed in a book supporting a Lesser Name, then all the Big Name’s fanbase will flock to buy the book, or at least tweet about their intentions of so doing. This is the third Unbound selling strategy.
First Light is an exceedingly handsome book (though, annoyingly, it lacks an index). It’s a deeply absorbing collection of 43 essays and poems, a Robert Macfarlane word-map and Cornelia Funke’s unexpected illustration of Garner as the Horned One. It creates a fractured kaleidoscopic picture of Garner, packed with surprises. He was the teenage sprinter who did his training with Alan Turing on Alderley Edge. He was a promising young classicist who left his hard-won place at university to learn how to write. He is the descendant of generations of stone-workers who have lived in the same place in Cheshire for hundreds of years. He rescued a medieval hall, and moved a Tudor cottage 16 miles to join it. He carried an oak shovel around in his kitbag for four years during his National Service, worried that if he didn’t have it with him it might disappear again, as it had in his infant school, and in the mine down the road where the Victorian miners dug it up. It was later carbon-dated to the Bronze Age and still works perfectly well. Things get dug up in his own garden all the time.
He also wrote novels. The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath captured me before I was 12, but I never really liked The Owl Service or Red Shift, though we had to read them at school. I inexplicably missed out on Elidor, but devoured The Guizer, The Stone Quartet and A Bag of Moonshine. As an adult I returned to Garner when I found Strandloper and Boneland high and dry on a bookshop shelf (I reviewed them two years ago for Vulpes Libris). I’ve got Thursbitch and The Voice that Thunders on my reading list now (with Elidor). If nothing else, First Light has given me a much better grip on what other Garner works are out there that I should be reading.
The essays that really spoke to me are the ones that told me more about the books I know, or now want to know, by how they worked on other readers. Helen Macdonald and Rowan Williams’ poems do this. Neil Gaiman’s observation about Boneland makes complete sense of the whole Colin and Susan saga for me: that there is a missing third novel that hasn’t (yet) been written, preceding and explaining the terrifying, schizophrenic anguish of Colin’s search for his sister in the Pleiades. I’m so tired of Stephen Fry’s multiple appearances in every medium, but what he says about Garner’s writing rings true: Garner is a writer who trusts his readers. Ali Smith’s recollections of seeing The Owl Service on TV, Philip Pullman’s carefully-chosen words about the moral relationship between craft and writing, and Margaret Atwood’s totally bonkers story about a people-skinning raccoon – these are the Big Name contributions to draw the unGarnered reader in, to find out what their heroes think of him. It’s unclear what the Atwood story says about Garner or his writing, but what anthology editor is going to refuse a short story from Margaret Atwood? Perhaps it was simply a present.
Less well-known names (unless you’re into archaeology or professional storytelling, for example) give revealing recollections of how a Garner book did things to their mind, or how he popped up in their professional or private lives one day holding a thing of wonder to show them, and how he has never left. There is pain in some essays, that articulate how Garner’s writing work as healing and therapy. These moved me: seeing behind the public frontages of these Big Name authors lessened my dislike for their writing.
There are also New Big Names included who were presumably asked to write something because they are so hot right now. There are So-So Names who get in because they are part of the London literary scene, on the spot for commissioning because they move in the same circles as the editor, or in Unbound’s orbit. Many of these contributions were uninteresting, being not much more than ‘My favourite Alan Garner book and why’, which we can all write ourselves. At least one was a regrettable froth of self-indulgent twaddle. The most memorable essays are those by specialists pointing out something hitherto unnoticed or remarkable that Garner has said or done, and the people from Garner’s life who have no particular public presence, whose biographical stories prevent the book slopping into woolly mush. It might so easily have gone that way, had it merely been a luvvy-festschrift (which is good, because Garner is absolutely not a luvvy). Despite all the necessary publicity and puffery needed to get this book off the ground, it’s a great addition to biography. I’m glad I subscribed.
I’ve read two biographies of Naomi Mitchison in the past week (working up some conference papers). Both lean very heavily on Mitchison’s published memoirs, and note that her record of her interwar life, You May Well Ask (1979), is deliberately vague about some important matters. Jill Benton’s Naomi Mitchison. A Biography (1990) is both rather too personal and unsettlingly gappy. Jenni Calder’s The Nine Lives of Naomi Mitchison (1997) begins as an almost straight copy of Benton until we reach the Second World War, when Calder frees herself from the pattern her predecessor set down, and from Mitchison’s own memoirs, and begins to write independently and fully, almost to the end of Mitchison’s life in 1999.
Both the biographies are feminist, in that they were published by leading British feminist publishing houses of their day, Pandora Press and Virago. Benton’s focus on Mitchison as a feminist figure makes the parts of her biography which don’t concern women’s rights or sexual politics very underwritten, almost amateur in the way they are skated over or ignored. Compared with Calder’s extensive and really fascinating treatment of Mitchison the Highland politician, the colonial matriarch in Botswana, and of her increasingly domineering presence as a political gadfly from the 1960s, Benton’s approach seems inappropriately and obliviously worshipful. She prints a photo of herself with Mitchison with one of her photos of Mitchison digging potatoes in the garden, pushing her privileged access into the reader’s attention. She writes about being able to go through her heroine’s private papers in her bedroom chest of drawers with an almost cloying smugness, but doesn’t critique her own subjectivity. In contrast, Calder discusses her awareness of being drawn into Mitchison’s theatricality, and acknowledges her worries about her diminishing objectivity once she had met Mitchison and stayed at her house. The glamour of a powerful mind and impressive literary achievements is palpable in both biographies, but I think Calder deals with it best: it is not easy to write a biography when the subject is alive, energetic, and giving you her strong opinions from her own sofa.
As you see, I don’t care for the tone in Benton’s book, or her subjectivity. I don’t feel that I trust her judgement of her subject, nor do I trust her choice of what to write about and what to ignore or obscure. Her admiration for Mitchison as a twentieth-century feminist and literary heroine has diminished her critical sense. I also get pernickety about the lack of rigour, or simple fact-checking, in Benton’s biography. The words and names that are misspelled and misunderstood (not many, but some are important) give a pretty clear indication that this enthusiastic and eager American literature professor did not take enough trouble to understand Mitchison’s Scottish context or British Left culture adequately.
The similarity between both biographies until they reach 1940 is startling when one thinks that Calder was only writing seven years after Benton. She only acknowledges the existence of Benton’s book once, following the same trail while ignoring Benton’s footprints running ahead of her in time. But something happens when she reaches the Second World War, as if Calder begins to use sources that Benton had no access to (or did not bother to search out). More importantly, Calder starts to write at this point as an independent critic: not another Mitchison fan, but a proper biographer, capable of making judgements about Mitchison’s emergence as a dogged political idealist and an indomitable and undoubtedly aggravating opponent.
Calder’s understanding of Scottish culture and geography gives her a huge advantage over Benton, explaining and unpacking periods of Mitchison’s life in detail that Benton had skipped over in half a sentence. She shows how much of Mitchison’s life in the 1950s and 1950s was taken up with work as a local councillor and advocate for Highland development: Benton barely mentions this at all, in comparison. Calder is equally good in the long section about Mitchison’s African life, which Benton discussed briefly and without comment, leaving me mystified as to how Mitchison had ended up in such a role and place, so different from anything she had done before. Calder digs down into the detail of how Mitchison arrived at her self-appointed role as the ‘mother’ of the Botswana tribe whose chief she had been kind to when he was at school in England. I admire the even-handed way that Calder links Mitchison’s earlier life and political concerns with her busyness with tribal affairs and attempts to equip the Bakgatla for modern life. Calder also dares to discuss her doubts that Mitchison had achieved anything useful during her membership of the tribe, and gives a fairly even-handed assessment, with a small balance in Mitchison’s favour: a library, sowing the seeds of a women’s movement, support to the young chief and protection and influence used against the former colonial authorities in Botswana’s early independence.
How these aspects of her life relate to Mitchison’s novels? Calder does a very good job of integrating Mitchison’s political writing with how and why she wrote her fiction, and makes a proper effort to assess Mitchison’s many, many later novels and her short stories. Benton does attempt this but soon gives up, as if she didn’t have access to copies of all the novels (which, to be fair, most of us don’t). Probably some of Mitchison’s novels are better than others, but the quality of The Corn King and the Spring Queen and The Blood of the Martyrs, two of her three major works (I haven’t yet read The Bull Calves, but it’s held to be equally important) make it imperative that all her fiction be discussed properly, to show how these towering works fit into her literary output. Calder discusses title after title from the 1960s to the 1990s, putting them in their place in Mitchison’s vast oeuvre. I could have improved my own reviews of Mitchison’s three science fiction novels (reviewed here, here and here) if I had read first what Calder has to say. Her biography not a full literary assessment, but its the best we have of all that Mitchison wrote.
Overall, if you want to buy a biography of Naomi Mitchison, get Calder’s, because there isn’t much that Benton tell us that Calder does not. If you want a feminist assessment of Mitchison’s life, Benton may have the edge, because she got there first in describing Mitchison’s life outside the memoirs, but Calder beats her hands down for history and literature.
Jill Benton, Naomi Mitchison. A Biography (Pandora Press, 1990, paperback 1992), ISBN 0-04-440862-5
Jenni Calder, The Nine Lives of Naomi Mitchison (Virago Books, 1997), ISBN 1-85381-724-4
You can find an extensive Naomi Mitchsion library at Kennedy & Boyd.
Today’s letter in the Really Like This Book podcast series A-Z is I, and I have moved out of fiction, and to the intriguing biography by Molly Izzard, of the Middle Eastern traveller and woman of letters, Freya Stark. Stark made her name in the 1930s as the first western woman to travel in some very remote regions since the legendary Gertrude Bell, and also for being the first westerner to map and survey various parts of modern Iraq and Iran. She was awarded various prizes by the British Royal Geographical Society, and was fast becoming a legend in her own lifetime, as an intrepid woman explorer and as a writer, when the Second World War broke out. During this conflict she became even more famous for her intelligence network of propagandising pro-British supporters in Cairo and points further East, and continued to write her successful books, of travel and reminiscence.
Molly Izzard came across Freya Stark’s books when she was herself living in Egypt. She was full of admiration for Freya’s achievements, until she was rather surprised to be told by another famous British traveller and explorer, Wilfrid Thesiger, that Freya was nothing special, and had been hyped beyond anything she deserved. This disjunction, a very positive public impression contrasted with authoritative private reservations, led Molly Izzard to look into Freya’s actual achievements, in the context of history, geography, Freya’s diaries and the work of other surveyors at the time. She began to realise that the legend of Freya Stark was very carefully constructed indeed, with a large number of facts glossed over or unsaid because they did not suit Freya’s own ideas about her own history.
This biography is in many ways a debunker of the legend but not in the usual manner. Freya Stark WAS a great explorer of her day and WAS important and innovative in the intelligence work she did for the British during the war. Izzard shows that she was also ruthless, a fantasist, unscrupulous and very selfish. Freya was an important figure in feminist history for her independent achievements within a patriarchal system. She was also a user of women and monopoliser of men. This isn’t so serious, on the scale of things, but her personal behaviour, and her selective lack of scruples, are rather off-putting. Her conduct, in terms of how she manipulated the system and took advantage of people, and avoided taking responsibility herself, is increasingly irritating, as we are led through her story, and during the war it becomes simply outrageous. By halfway through this biography I was appalled at Freya’s behaviour, but also bewildered as to how I was supposed to feel about her.
This is a fascinating biography in two ways. The first is what we learn about Freya Stark, her work, her historical context, and about what happened in her life. The second is how the biography is written, and the subjectivity of the biographer. I don’t mean that Molly Izzard is too subjective, but that reading this biography forces you to think about the process of biography, and about what we choose to remember, and what we want to be told about a person.
Most biographies start at the beginning, usually with the meeting of the subject’s parents, or even their grandparents, and then go on through life until the subjects die. There might be a coda of afterlife, an assessment of the subject’s achievements and influences, and a suggestion of some kind of figurative rebirth. The biographer is very rarely present, the narrative is related anonymously and if any personal or subjective opinion appears, it often feels like an intrusion. We don’t expect a biographer to give us their personal views. A memoir is different: in a memoir a specific person is doing the remembering, and the memoir is all about their subjective opinions. In this biography of Freya Stark, Izzard moves between memoir and biography, but also writes as an investigative reporter.
She begins three-quarters of the way through Freya’s life, with a description of their meeting, and then the story moves back to when Freya had just achieved her first fame, in the mid-1930s, and thereafter carries on until the end of the war. This takes up most of the book, and Izzard finishes with a triumph of detective work that reveals the truth of Freya’s ancestry, her relations with her father, her mother, her sister, and her Italian brother-in-law. These dynamics shaped Freya into the explorer and independent spirit that she became. Izzard also suggests that Freya was a suppressed lesbian, but I am unconvinced by this. So there are a lot of facts presented in a back-to-front and inverted way, quite contrary to the usual biographical pattern. This is enough in itself to shake up one’s assumptions, and to force a rethink about how a life can be told, and how the way this particular life is being told is giving us information.
Throughout all this, we are expected to already know some of Freya’s works, to know roughly what she did, and most importantly, to accept her as being a famous and admirable person. She had, after all, been given a Damehood, the equivalent of a knighthood, by the Queen. Her connections to twentieth-century British life and letters are social rather than cultural: Freya knew the son of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning when she was a child, she lost a friendship battle to Ivy Compton-Burnett after the First World War, and she was a friend of the British Queen Mother in her old age. But what if you don’t know any of that cultural background? What if you’ve never heard of Freya Stark, and might be interested, perhaps, in reading the book because it’s an account of the end of British imperialism in the Middle East, and describes the background to modern Iranian and Iraqi politics?
Izzard knows this area intimately, since she too worked in Intelligence in the war, and lived in the Middle East for some decades. Her account (and here we are certainly in memoir territory) is of how the British imperial machine was beginning to lose touch with politics, by failing to recognise that there were new states emerging from the dying British empire. In the context of Freya’s activities, this presents Freya not as an unreliable and unprofessional operator, in imperial administrative terms, but as an iconoclast and a rebel against the state. It’s an abrupt change of perspective, and it certainly makes you think harder about exactly what Freya was doing when she was busily organising pro-British propaganda activities: was she perhaps thinking further ahead, past the end of Empire and the need for some pro-British residual feeling in these areas, for the times to come when Britain would need the goodwill of Iraq and Iran?
Freya’s sheer audacity comes through again and again in this book. She was mischievous and anarchic, as well as being an imperious grande dame. She was an opportunist and was at times a hypochondriac and an egotistical monster. Izzard explains a lot of this by explaining Freya’s hideous childhood accident when she was nearly scalped by a factory machine, and her intensely close relationship with her mother. Freya was deliberately eccentric, and cultivated a persona of Edwardian aristocracy which was quite unconnected to where she came from, but had a lot to do with the people and lifestyle she preferred. Her personal belief systems defy comprehension, but so do the bizarre beliefs of her paternal grandfather, who founded his own Starkite sect of Protestant non-conformists in Devon in the nineteenth century. Even when she was affected by the early stages of senility Freya could still make small talk with strangers in four languages, and revelled in being the Grand Old Lady of the Italian village in which she spent much of her life when not travelling.
Izzard shows us all this, and opens up a box of complicated memories and shuttered experiences. How she tells this story is as important, and revealing, as what she tells us. Both are gripping, and the book is very rereadable, if only because the revelations at the end make you want to start it all over again. I do recommend this book highly.