Claire Tomalin talks about her prolific biography-writing. Her latest subject is Thomas Hardy in Thomas Hardy: The Time-torn Man.
1. You are widely regarded as a pre-eminent biographer of your generation. Do you find you choose your subjects or do your subjects choose you, as it were?
I've chosen almost all my own subjects. I was asked to take on Katherine Mansfield and hesitated. I found her engrossing, but I am less fond of that book because it cost me terrible efforts and I had ambivalent feelings about the subject. I admire her courage and boldness, and the best of her writing is wonderful in its concision and swiftness. But I had reservations about some of the stories, and about the sort of cult of her saintliness that Middleton Murray set up, which seemed to me to do a disservice to the real, tough, complicated Mansfield. Wollstonecraft was my own cherished subject. She led fairly naturally to the other late 18th-century women I have written about (and also to the small book on Shelley, and much later to my edition of Mary Shelley's 'Maurice'). Nelly Ternan, my 'Invisible Woman', also led me to research the lives of actresses, which was another route towards Mrs Jordan, with whom Nelly's mother acted. My big leap in the dark was into the 17th century. I became absorbed in Pepys slowly, through reading his diaries as the Matthews & Latham edition came out. I also felt I had unfinished business, since I studied the civil wars at school and was rather firmly persuaded to give up the idea of reading history at university in favour of English literature. But history is my real love, and I regret not writing more general history. I believe context is always as important as the thread of the life story you are telling, and with Pepys I had an opportunity to work my way through a lot of 17th century background reading. I'd like to go back to the 17th century for another book if possible. As for Hardy, I admire him profoundly as a poet, and find his novels extraordinarily intriguing in different ways. His life is quite dark, with much struggle and unhappiness, but he did emerge into the sunlight in the end with his poetry and the appreciation of younger poets.
2. T.S. Eliot once wrote there is a difference, in art, between the “man who suffers and the mind that creates”. For him it followed that readers should not look to the author’s life to better understand his work. As a literary biographer, what do you make of this claim? Can biography help us penetrate the mysteries of great books?
Eliot, great poet and critic that he was, was also one of the great disapprovers of biography, and after him scores of carping academics have repeated his dictum and shaken their heads at the form. I don't for a moment think that biography 'penetrates the mystery of great books' or explains why Mozart or Austen or Shakespeare was a genius. Nobody can explain that. But I see nothing wrong in noting down what is known of their lives. Even Eliot presumably accepted that it was all right to know birth and death dates, nationality, residences, illnesses... a few basics. So why should it be wrong to know dates of marriage and divorce - occupation of parents - education - political affiliations - and so on? It's a sort of snobbery to say these things don't matter. Of course they matter.
3. Hardy lived at the intersection of two different worlds – one vanishing and just coming into being. Your book pays careful attention to the social and historical contexts that shaped him, so where do biography and history meet?
As I said earlier, the historical context has always seemed an essential part of constructing any biography (I've never wanted to write about a living subject). It's one of the great attractions and rewards of the work, delving into politics, economics, art history, medical history, theatre history, royal history, child-rearing and schooling, transport, architecture, agriculture and so on. Historians will handle a much wider range of sources than a biographer, and will be covering a broader spectrum of events, time, peoples. Biographers use historians more than historians use biographers, although there can be two-way traffic - e.g., the ever growing production of biographies of women is helping to change the general picture of the past presented by historians.
4. One of your central claims, as I take it, is that Hardy was constantly trying to recover something in the past which was unrecoverable. What part does this play in our continued interest in him both as a historical figure and literary genius?
I used to think that what made Hardy attractive was that he gave us a lost past, but I'm not sure about that any more. What makes the poetry so good is the voice, awkward, absolutely individual, that reports on what he sees, what he feels, the sort of conversations he has in his head with (mostly) dead people or with unknown, unnamed figures. Thom Gunn said Hardy was much inspired by the ballads he knew as a boy, and that's certainly true. He writes so boldly, takes such chances with the prosody, varies his style from music hall ('The Ruined Maid') to modernist ('Snow in the Suburbs') to surrealist ('During Wind and Rain'). The range is wonderful - from the railway waiting room where the emigrant family is to the fallow deer in the snow, from grim recall of a failed love affair ('Neutral Tones') to flirtation ('The Terra-cotta Dress'), from tormenting self-pity ('Wessex Heights') to exuberance. 'The Convergence of the Twain' is an amazing poem, and 'The Dead Drummer' is a small, classic lament for a soldier killed overseas. As to the novels - Jude of course shows the old rural life broken, and Tess shows it breaking. The Mayor of Casterbridge, a tragedy, shows it changing too. So does The Woodlanders. Under the Greenwood Tree and Far From the Madding Crowd are the two that celebrate it most, although there is change indicated in them too. Hardy knew the past was irrecoverable, just as his Christian faith was, and although he wrote tenderly of what it had meant he did not pretend it still prevailed. I like his honesty.
5. It has been argued that we read to “confront greatness”. Do we read biography, then, to see its machinery?
Why do we read biography? Why do we choose to write it? Because we are human beings, programmed to be curious about other human beings, and to experience something of their lives. This has always been so - look at the Bible, crammed with biographies, very popular reading. People take what they want from a biography, and I get some shocks sometimes when they tell me what they have concluded from what I have written. Mostly they find their existing prejudices confirmed. I like to be surprised when I research, and it has happened often enough, so that just when I think I am learning to understand a particular person, something that makes them seem different again crops up. In Hardy I have tried to explain how it came about that he decided to write the sort of books publishers and editors wanted rather than what he wanted to write - he understood that he had to get published in the first place if he was to earn his living as a writer. He did not have the instant success of Dickens, but a struggle. The result is that it is easy to find fault with the novels, overloaded with plot, often hastily and sometimes carelessly written - Hardy did not polish his prose, he got the work to the publisher or editor as fast as he could. What is surprising is how much there is in them in spite of this that is good and vivid and odd and memorable. All the people I have written about remain with me - perhaps they are my closest friends.
Claire Tomalin is the author of six highly acclaimed biographies and her books have won her numerous prizes: including the Whitbread First Book Prize and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Biography. In Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self she turns her attention to one of England's most remarkable diarists. For ten years, from 1660, Samuel Pepys kept one of the most significant records ever made of human life. In Samuel Pepys Tomalin traces Pepy's youth and the extraordinary triumphs and disasters that continued for three decades after the diary ended; finally showing how he made sure that the diary would be preserved for posterity. Here, Claire Tomalin talks to penguin.co.uk about Pepys' womanizing ways, the importance of the Diary and how she nearly lost her eyesight combing through all the material available on Pepys' life.
Until now all your biographical subjects have been women, and they've been late 18th century or 19th century figures - what then attracted you to Pepys?
I know I've been called a feminist biographer - and I am a feminist - but in fact I have written about many men: Shelley, Dickens, William IV, Sheridan, D.H. Lawrence, to name a few. It's true that apart from Shelley these were not the title figures in my books. I'm interested in history, in trying to relate the past to the present and to understand how people thought about their problems and pleasures, health, work, marriage, politics, and so on.
What are the principal biographies of Pepys published before yours, and how would you characterize them?
The first great Pepys scholar was John Tanner, born in 1860, who devoted much of his life to studying material about Pepys and editing Pepys' letters as they became available. He wrote a useful short biography, and on his death in 1931 all his papers were handed to Arthur Bryant, who used them as the basis of his famous three-volume biography of Pepys published in the 1930s. Bryant was a master of narrative, but his pace is leisurely and the third volume ends fourteen years before Pepys' death. Richard Ollard's one-volume life of 1974 is another fine book. My feeling was that, since both Bryant and Ollard concentrate on Pepys' public life as a naval administrator, there was room for a book that put more emphasis on his personal life and above all on his achievement as a writer.
The popular image of Pepys is that of a womanizing civil servant whose main achievement was the reforming of the Navy? How fair is that?
Pepys did pursue a lot of women. He is amazingly frank about this in the Diary, and also allows us to see that his success with women was pretty limited. He was a civil servant (before they were so named) and he gave more energy to naval administration than to womanising. He became a dedicated professional, working very long hours and organising a team of assistants to assist him in his work. He spoke effectively in the House of Commons for more shipbuilding. He persuaded Charles II to set up examinations for lieutenants. He effectively set up the Navy List, and he instructed captains to keep journals of their voyages. He did not take on the worst abuse, the system of pressing. In the history of the Royal Navy, Pepys is an important figure. But his greatness lies in the writing of the Diary - a unique and extraordinary achievement.
In many ways he's obviously an attractive character, but the way he changed political sides and the way he appeared to get rich from his public duties are likely to be problematic for us today. Is this just a case of applying contemporary values and expectations?
Changing political sides was as hard to avoid in England in the 17th century as in (say) Czechoslovakia in the 20th. A hard core of heroic figures stuck to their allegiances through thick and thin, but most people trimmed to fit the times. Pepys began as a republican and continued to have severe misgivings about Charles II throughout the period of the diary, but his career depended on serving the King and his brother and heir, James, Duke of York, also Lord High Admiral. James appreciated Pepys' talents and promoted his career - with the result that Pepys gave him personal loyalty. Hence the curious spectacle of Pepys as a Jacobite from 1689, on refusing to take the oath to William III.
How would you describe his attitude to and behaviour with women? Do you think he had a happy and fulfilling marriage?
Pepys' account of marriage is one of the great themes of his Diary because it shows how fluid his feelings were - something I believe to be true of most of us, although not often acknowledged. He was both very happy with Elizabeth and very unhappy - proud of her beauty, her wit and artistic skill, tormented by jealousy, irritated by her careless housekeeping, frightened of her reaction should she discover his pursuit of other women. They shared a taste for reading, for shopping, for ordering new clothes and doing up the house. Their sexual relations were never good: she had a medical condition that affected things badly from the start. Children would have changed things between them, but there were none, a sadness to Pepys and probably to her, although he does not say so. None of her letters have survived, but now and then he lets us hear her voice, naming her favourite dressing gown which she liked to lounge about in 'my Kingdom', and calling him a 'prick-louse' (because he was the son of a tailor) or a 'false, rotten-hearted rogue' when she was angry. He hit her occasionally, but she fought her corner very successfully.
He's most famous for his Diary, of course, but this wasn't published until over one hundred years after his death, and then not fully for another one hundred and fifty years. Could you give a brief publishing history of the Diary.
The Diary was a secret one, written in shorthand, but the shorthand was a well-known one, and Pepys interspersed it with many words in longhand. He made careful arrangements to preserve it after his death. It has been transcribed three times, the first time by a Cambridge scholar set to the task by Magdalene College, to whom Pepys had bequeathed his library. John Smith was paid £200 and took three years on the task, which he did well, but his work was cut and garbled by Lord Braybrooke, who was given it to edit. The second transcription, by Mynors Bright, was made in the 1870s, and this time four-fifths of the text was published, provoking criticism because of indecent passages. The third, and this time complete, transcription by William Matthews and Robert Latham, was published from 1970, after the Obscene Publications Act had been passed, and the publishers had taken legal opinion. So it took from 1660 until 1970 for the first page of the Diary to be printed as Pepys wrote it.
The Diary only covers one decade, and he lived for another thirty years. Why do you think he stopped writing it?
Pepys himself explains that he is giving up the Diary because he fears he is going blind. He said that giving it up was rather like dying. He did not go blind, but he never took up the Diary in the same way again (there are snatches of diary keeping at later periods of his life, but they are thin stuff). My feeling is that the death of Elizabeth and his professional success and rise in social status removed two of the stimuli that had kept the Diary going. And once having set it aside he may simply have quailed at the thought of the energy and commitment needed to take it up again. Writers, including the greatest, do sometimes just decide to stop writing - Shakespeare, for example.
What precisely is the value of the diary? Is it a historical document chiefly, or do you believe it has literary values beyond that?
I regard the Diary as one of the great works in the English language, taking its place alongside the greatest - Chaucer, Dickens, Shakespeare. It's a million and a quarter words long, it opens a window into London society during an extraordinary decade in which the nation changed its politics and everyone had to adjust; it tells us more about the men and women of the time than anyone else has done; and it explores the inner nature of its writer with unparalleled frankness. You can't ask for much more than that. Pepys was not just jotting down what had happened that day - he selected and shaped his material like any artist.
You write in some detail about his life after the Diary. What sort of evidence/documentation did you have to work with?
For Pepys' later life there are stacks of letters, his own and those of contemporaries, in many libraries and in private possession; parliamentary records; State papers; wills; bank accounts - Hoare's bank in Fleet Street has a lot of Pepys material; Royal Society records; Christ's Hospital records; picture material and maps; medical records - and so on. I sometimes thought I was going to lose my eyesight following Pepys - but it was worth it. What a man he was.