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Letters, Lawrence, Shakespeare and biography *.

Some time ago the Royal Mail ran a series of television advertisements urging viewers to make more use of its services. In these days of creeping privatization I have no idea how much public money now goes into the Royal Mail but, if the sums are still considerable, then I think that taxpayers might well resent them being spent in this way. It is as if the Ministry of Transport, in its efforts to 'get people out of their cars', were to run a comparable series on the benefits of the horse-drawn carriage. Letter-writing is surely doomed and will die out with the rapidly decreasing number of its current practitioners. If already it can hardly compete with increasingly fast and cheap methods of transportation, the telephone, the e-mail or the text message, what hope will it have in the coming era of the video link?

It is always assumed that the disappearance of letters will' seriously affect biography as we currently know it, and there are some who have even suggested it will prove a mortal blow. Certainly most biographies are heavily reliant on what might be called 'first person utterance'. That is a category which includes diaries, confessions, memoirs and autobiographies (if the biographer is lucky enough to have them), but also of course, and more usually, letters. There are not many literary biographies of figures born within the last two or three hundred years for which letters are not the primary and indispensable source. This is so much the case that one has to wonder how biographies on traditional lines can ever be written if letters and other kinds of first-person utterance are lacking. 'What would we not give', writes Schoenbaum, in his admirable Shakespeare's Lives, 'for a single personal letter, one page of diary!' (1) I have argued recently that because, in Shakespeare's case, there is no surviving materia l of this kind, a traditional biography of him is impossible; and that (in the common phrase) we can never know what he was like. (2) The effect of my cogent reasoning can be seen every day on the bookstands. Apart from a will and a signed deposition in a court case, no personal documents of Shakespeare exist, yet a steady stream of biographies of him continues to appear. How do their authors manage?

One answer is that they speculate wildly. Anyone who has ever read a scolarly introduction to a Shakespeare play will be able to infer how arduous and unrewarding Shakespeare scholarship can frequently be. Since the effect of reading these introductions is so often like chewing sawdust, it is not difficult to imagine how much work went on at the mill. In order to prove what can, in fact, never be proved definitively, so much hard work is required on the habits of particular compositors, the provenance of certain quartos, the possible allusions in the plays to contemporary events, that it is no surprise if, when the opportunity for biographical speculation comes along, there should be a sudden release of libido and sober scholars should forget their inhibitions. No one speculates more irresponsibly than a Shakespeare scholar temporarily on the loose. For those of them who resist the impulse, however, another solution to the lack of appropriate information is the substitution of background for foreground: compe nsating for our ignorance of the particularities of Shakespeare's life with lots -- and lots -- of historical context. Yet context can suggest only how a representative male of Shakespeare's background would probably have thought, felt or acted in a certain situation, not whether his feelings, thinking and behaviour were representative in this or that particular case.

The third solution, of course, is to discover Shakespeare through his works. Biographers are unfortunate here in that drama is an especially awkward genre with which to play 'hunt the author'. To take the most familiar move in that game, how do you identify the authorial voice among so many? Commentators have traditionally assumed that Shakespeare offers the definitive portrait of himself in Prospero, but why not also in Peter Quince? Yet if plays are problematic, Shakespeare did also write sonnets. There surely is first-person utterance with a vengeance, a whole soap opera of love, jealousy, rejection and betrayal. The difficulty here is not only the heavily conventional nature of sonnet writing in Shakespeare's time but also his own deliberate ambiguities. One would feel more confident in claiming that Shakespeare's sonnets told us important facts about his life if, after 200 years of scholarship, there were now a consensus as to the identity of the addressee -- to whom were these letters in verse metaphori cally or perhaps even literally sent? What we desperately need in relation to the sonnets is extraneous information, a real letter or two. That at least is what D. H. Lawrence felt. When Lawrence was about to publish his Collected Poems in 1928 he wrote a Preface in which he gave some brief biographical details about himself. This was because, he said, in anticipated contradiction of the New Critics, 'It seems to me that no poetry, not even the best, should be judged as if it existed in the absolute. Even the best poetry, when it is at all personal, needs the penumbra of its own time and place and circumstance to make it full and whole'. And he went on: 'If we 'knew a little more of Shakespeare's self and circumstances how much more complete the Sonnets would be to us, how their strange, torn edges would be softened and merged into a whole body!' (3)

As far as first-person utterance is concerned, Lawrence's own case could not be more different from Shakespeare's. In addition to a plethora of documents of an autobiographical nature, there are now eight thick volumes of letters in the Cambridge edition. The usefulness these have for the biographer is in many respects mundane. People who write letters can by accident begin with the wrong date or the even the wrong place (the wrong address), and they can very occasionally deliberately set out to deceive, but broadly speaking a letter will tell us where the subject was when. We have almost no idea of Shakespeare's movements -- did he always tour with his company, was he in the habit of nipping back to Stratford during the play season? -- but thanks chiefly to Lawrence's letters we know where he was on almost every day of his adult life. His letters tell us also whom he knew and what kind of relationship he had with different friends or acquaintances, whereas we are in the dark as to Shakespeare's preferred com panions, the people he saw on a regular basis. Lawrence's letters allow us to establish an accurate chronology for the composition of his works (what a mountain of painful material in the scholarly editions we would be saved if there were a letter from Shakespeare which read, 'Finished Romeo and Juliet yesterday' or 'Thought I'd have another look at King Lear'). Because many of Lawrence's letters are to agents or publishers, they give us a good idea of how much money he made.

These are vital matters for biographers, but of course letters are traditionally expected to yield something more, more (that is) than the nuts and bolts of biography. Because they are regarded as more personal documents than novels, poems and plays, they are expected to provide reasonably direct information as to temperament and character, to be the chief items of evidence in answer to the question: 'Well, what was X really like?' It is most of all through letters that biographers in the past have characteristically hoped to gain access to their subjects' inner lives.

'First-person utterance' is an uncomfortably broad category. A possible division within it between autobiographical writings on the one hand and letters on the other can be made to correspond to what are two traditional, familiar -- but at the same time rival -- versions of selfhood. In the first of these we are only ever essentially ourselves when we are alone, communing with our own thoughts or the great Nature in which we live. According to this view, it is with the selfhood we establish in solitude that we go out to meet the world. The rival and more recent version has it that selfhood is brought into being only by social relations and is always the product of a social context: that we only become what we are in response to others. The first of these notions we associate most naturally, it seems to me, with the Romantic poets and the second with Durkheim and the development of sociology.

Whereas diaries, confessions and the like might be said to belong to this first, Romantic view of the self, a collection of letters can be associated with the second. This is because when people write letters they invariably adopt a tone and manner appropriate to the individual to whom they happen to be writing. They prepare a face to meet a face, as Eliot almost says. Even that notorious figure from English folklore, 'Disgusted, of Tunbridge Wells', is a different person when writing to his mother than when he is composing one of his indignant letters to the newspapers. Reading through a volume of letters to a variety of correspondents demonstrates that the most apparently inflexible of individuals are changeable, different things to different people. It shows that people who may never once have set foot on the stage are role-players.

The adaptability of Lawrence as a letter-writer was the chief note which F. R. Leavis was anxious to strike when in 1962 he reviewed the first academic collection of Lawrence's correspondence, edited by Harry T. Moore. In Lawrentian circles this is a famous, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say notorious, review in Leavis's most ferocious polemical style. 'I have tried', it begins, 'but I find it impossible to be grateful to Professor Harry T. Moore for what he has "done for Lawrence"'. (4) Anyone who reads the review now might well conclude that Leavis did not try very hard, but what is interesting here is that, when he does eventually come to explain why he admires Lawrence's lettters so much, his emphasis is on 'the marvellous sympathetic responsiveness with which [...] Lawrence's tone and manner vary with the correspondent. One might fill pages', he goes on, 'illustrating the variety and attempting to do justice to the flexibility and range'. (5)

I want to say a word about the implications for Leavis's position on Lawrence of praising him in this particular way, but let me first agree, as I think any fair-minded reader should, that flexibility is certainly an important characteristic of the Lawrence letters. Take as an example two letters he wrote on 17 August 1921 from Zell-am-See in Austria (the setting for the second half of The Captain's Doll). The first begins, 'Meine Liebe Schwiegermutter'. It does not continue in German as so many of Lawrence's letters to his mother-in-law do, but is thoughtfully couched in very simple English phrases whose German equivalents are never far away.

The hot weather is gone: much snow has fallen on the Kitsteinhorn, and the air is never hot any more. This afternoon we went the way you went last year, over the hill and meadows to Bruck. We drank Kaffee in the Gasthaus, and came home as the sun sank behind the hills opposite. It was very pleasant. But what a long walk for you, last year! (6)

The whole of this letter is affectionate and considerate in manner. It shows Lawrence in the role of dutiful son-in-law, by which I do not mean that he only ever played at being dutiful. The letters allow us to see that he sent money to the Baroness von Richthofen regularly, worried about her health, and in general put a great deal of effort into consolidating his relationship with her. Until he himself fell seriously ill, he showed great flexibility and considerable powers of adaptation in presenting to an old German lady, whose knowledge of the English literary scene must have been minimal, a 'Lawrence' with very little connection to the figure that name usually evokes. There is between her Lawrence and the more familiar one the same kind of relation as that between the 'Charles Swann' of the narrator's family and the way that figure is regarded by everyone else in Proust's novel. One advantage of such a letter is that it shows a famous man in his ordinariness (as Swann's relations with the narrator's aunts show him in his), although I suppose there is a certain type of investigator who, looking hard at Lawrence's letters to his mother-in-law, might wonder why it was that there was so often such a strong mutual attraction between Lawrence and old ladies, and why he was normally so comfortable in their company.

The adaptability Leavis refers to is evident from the letter which follows immediately after the one to Lawrence's mother-in-law and which was written the same day, very probably at the same sitting. The recipient was Scofield Thayer, the wealthy editor of an Amercan periodical called The Dial, who happened to be in Europe and had invited Lawrence to visit him in the town on the North Sea where he was staying. This letter does not begin in German as the previous one had, but it quickly breaks into that language. 'Dear Thayer, Ach no. Vielen Dank -- but the North Sea, a storm, a cross editor at the end of an endless railway journey: ach, nein, susser Herrgott' ... and so on into more German. Here the foreign language is only part of a corruscating verbal display for the editor of a journal which had a significant role to play in Lawrence's move from absolutee destitution in the later war years to comparative prosperity in the early 1920s. Lawrence did not kow-tow to people who could do him good, but he was a p rofessional writer who in 1921 knew that his bread was likely to be more liberally buttered on the other side of the Atlantic than in Europe. He refuses Thayer's invitation very firmly, but so as to make him aware that he is dealing with a gifted, strong-minded but essentially reasonable and not too troublesome contributor. If many of his sentences are simple in the grammatical sense, their simplicity is very different from that which Lawrence adopts for his mother-in-law.

It snowed on the mountains here and seven people fell down a glacier for ever and I forswore the north. I loathe the smell of snow in my nostrils. I loathe the accursed white element grinning under heaven. I shall die if I don't eat yellow figs within a fortnight.

But the manner is variable and with a range of tone well illustrated by Lawrence's talk at the end of his letter of visiting the United States in the following year: 'then in the spring I too shall come to AMERICA. Needless to say my knees lose their brassy strength, and feel like chocolate fondants at the thought.' (7)

Lawrence's letter to the Baroness von Richthofen is a model of calculated straightforwardness; the letter to Scofield Thayer is written by someone who is conscious of the desirability of maintaining friendly relations with influential editors, and also aware of a reputation for epistolary brilliance to keep up.

The differences between these two letters are striking proof of the flexibility Leavis praises; but they are also indicative of a potential conflict between Lawrence's talents as a letter-writer and that Romantic ideology of the self to which I have already referred. Leavis inadvertently illustrates the conflict when (in a phrase I previously omitted) he qualifies his reference to Lawrence's 'marvellous sympathetic responsiveness' with 'while he is always unquestionably spontaneous and sincere'. And he demonstrates the conflict further when he refers to Lawrence's epistolary relations with the English upper class. 'It isn't that he doesn't adjust his tone to them, he does.' Leavis writes. 'He wouldn't have that quintessential human courtesy which characterises him if he didn't. But he is always his spontaneous self.' (8) Spontaneity, sincerity, the spontaneous self ... there is no reason whatsoever to believe that Lawrence would have disapproved of these expressions or of their tendency to imply the existence of some inner centre which guarantees the authenticity of spontaneous expression and in relation to which one can claim to be sincere. There are thousands of phrases in Lawrence's own writing which carry similar overtones, and it was the apparent lack, in the societies of California and Australia, of the phenomenon to which they implicitly refer which so disconcerted him. 'They are always vaguely and meaninglessly on the go', he says of the Australians. 'That's what the life in a new country does to you: it makes you so material, so outward, that your real inner life and your inner self dies out, and you clatter round like so many mechanical animals.' (9) Yet if Lawrence is (as Leavis claims) 'always unquestionably [...] sincere', how does he manage also to be so flexible; and if he is always his spontaneous self, how is that he is so adept at assuming numerous different roles?

The terms Leavis employs are self-contradictory, but it might help in their elucidation to note, first of all, that the way in which I stated (above) the antithesis between autobiographical writings on the one hand and letters on the other must be false. What I then took to distinguish letters is that they are at least partly determined by the addressee. The implication was that confessions, memoirs, diaries are not, whereas, after all the work which has been done on these forms of writing in the last twenty or thirty years, it has become hard to ignore that they too are audience-directed, even if the audience concerned is God or that ideal readership of a few, specially selected dead people which Stendhal imagined for his Souvenirs d'egotisme. The difference between the most private autobiographical document and a letter is not absolute but only ever one of degree, and that fact alone might make one want to look more quizzically at the Romantic view of self.

I have suggested that the language of those who hold this view usually conjures up a singular entity to which the various manifestations of behaviour can be related, an indwelling core, centre or essence, some secular equivalent of the soul. Pascal implicitly encouraged us to make connections between selfhood and the soul, it seems to me, when he argued that, whereas another person can love us only for our attributes, which are subject to decay and change, God alone can love us for ourselves -- our 'moi'. (10) It is one of the many justifications for calling Lawrence 'religious' that he seldom, if ever, baulks at the word soul, just as he is also perfectly at home with the vocabulary of Romantic selfhood. Somers can reasonably be taken to illustrate the truth of this when, in Kangaroo, he elaborates on his creator's criticism of the 'outwardness' of Australians and claims, 'When they're quite alone, they don't exist', adding a little later, 'They're nice. But they haven't got the last everlasting bit of soul, solitary soul, that makes a man himself. The central bit of himself'. (11)

This combination of ideas of centre and soul is common, but there are important as well as familiar qualifications in Lawrence to the more traditional Romantic view of self. His sympathy with an approach it is convenient to call Heraclitean, for example, means that he is not inclined to think of the self as in any way fixed or stable; and his growing hostility to psychoanalysis (as he understood it) is only one sign among many of a conviction which strengthens as he grows older that the self can never be known. Integrity for Lawrence therefore involves obedience to some inner principle certainly, but often to an inner principle which is both shifting and unknowable. The attempt to live with integrity can combine rather than oppose sincerity on the one hand with flexibility on the other, because it is a question of being sincere in the particular moment rather than according to a set of pre-existent standards or norms.

This way of resolving the sincerity/flexibility dilemma is, I suppose, possible, but it is not very satisfactory. What kind of true self is it, after all, which is constantly on the move and impossible to identify? It seems as if Lawrence was aware of the weaknesses in the Romantic view of self, and even alert to the strengths of the rival, sociological view (his remarkable short story 'The Man Who Loved Islands' would certainly suggest that), yet was perfectly happy to deal in the currency of self, soul and centre whenever it suited him. This is a reasonable thing for him to have done: novelists are not logicians or philosophers; but it was not reasonable for a critic as distinguished as Leavis merely to reflect that uncertainty or ambivalence. In Leavis's defence is that Lawrence expresses approval of the Romantic view much more directly that he expresses criticism of it. Yet everyone remembers how, after he had written Sons and Lovers, Lawrence declared himself dissatisfied with the 'old stable ego of the character', (12) and it might be taken as emblematic of critical unease with the way this dissatisfaction manifests itself in his writing that in the 'Breadalby' chapter of Women in Love the Contessa should say of Birkin, 'Look he is not a man, he is a chameleon, a creature of change'. Even more relevant to my topic is the complaint Gerald makes directly to Birkin in the 'Man to Man' chapter of that novel: "'I feel", Gerald continued, "that there is always an element of uncertainty about you -- perhaps you are uncertain about yourself. But I'm never sure of you. You can go away and change as easily as if you had no soul".' (13) Since Birkin is so closely allied with the author of Women in Love, these words might suggest that there were moments when Lawrence himself doubted the existence of his soul.

I have said that, if we work by contraries, then Lawrence's remarks on the need for poetry to have its penumbra of time, place and circumstance anticipate the New Critics. That strain in his thinking, which would, if not deny, then at least throw doubt on the existence of the 'soul', could be taken as looking forward, not so much to the theory of the self as socially constructed, but rather to more recent, post-structuralist or post-modern attacks on the idea of the essential self. It is never easy to see what importance these might have for biography. As I have suggested, apart from the mundane information letters provide, they have always tended to be treasured by biographers because of the keys to their author's personality which they are expected to provide. But what if these keys are as illusory as the subject's soul or self? What use is a key when there is nothing behind the lock?

There is a technical problem in searching in letters for keys of this kind. However voluminous a surviving correspondence happens to be, it is almost always impossible to call it complete. There are eight volumes of Lawrence's letters but, when he was a school teacher in Croydon, he must have written to his mother regularly, and not one of the results has survived. Often we do not know, and can never know, exactly what is missing. Worse than this is that we must often be unaware that anything is missing at all. Where a gap in a correspondence can be established, there will always be a temptation for a biographer to over-interpret. Almost all we really know about the private side of Jane Austen's life, for example, comes from the letters she wrote to her sister Cassandra. There is a long gap in the sequence of these letters from September 1796 to the autumn of 1798. For David Nokes this 'can only be' (my emphasis) because Cassandra, in whose custody the letters were left, destroyed the ones for that period. He r reason for doing this, he suggests, was that she did not want to have around her anything which might recall a time which had been particularly painful (at the beginning of it the man to whom she was engaged had suddenly died). Later on he notes that all Jane Austen's other biographers have drawn attention to another, although much smaller gap in her correspondence and attributed it to the distress she felt when the family moved from their village in Hampshire to Bath. (Legend has it that she fainted when she was first told of the impending change.) 'No letters to Cassandra survive for the month of December 1800', Nokes quotes Deidre Le Faye as saying, 'which suggests that she destroyed those in which Jane gave vent to feelings of grief and perhaps even resentment at being so suddenly uprooted from her childhood home'. Nokes concedes this might be true, but he goes on: 'quite possibly the inadmissable sentiments which Cassandra chose to suppress were those of an unseemly excitement'. (14) I do not know what the evidence is for imagining Cassandra Austen as quite such an active censor of her sister's letters, but what these accounts seem to ignore are all the reasons, accidental or otherwise, why letters should sometimes go missing. Of these the most frustrating is the fact that the person in whom the subject confides, to whom he or she habitually conveys the most intimate thoughts, may often be too close at hand for a letter to be necessary. In many cases, letters only seem invaluable for the detection of the keys to personality because there is nothing better.

Jane Austen's correspondence with Cassandra reminds us that, for letter-writers themselves, some letters may be more important than others. I have tried to demonstrate Lawrence's flexibility with letters to an editor and his mother-in-law, but it could be claimed that his relations with these people were not very important to him, and that there are other letters where he is (as it were) much more himself, where we make contact with the 'real' Lawrence. These might include, indeed would have to include, all those which biographers habitually pillage for resounding statements of his 'philosophy': the 'Thank God I am not free, any more than a rooted tree is free', for example, in a letter to Harriet Monroe in September 1922, (15) or very many statements of a similar type in his letters to Middleton Murry or Bertrand Russell. When one looks closely at these statements in context, they never seem to have quite the significance which commentators are anxious to give them, but it is perhaps not in any case a subjec t's ideas which (in Lawrence's case at least) best characterize him or her. More revealing of temperament - to give that meaning to the phrase 'what Lawrence was really like' - might be the letters which are indicative of those sudden outbursts of violent anger testified to by nearly all his friends and acquaintances. He complains to Earl Brewster in November 1921:

But it is a world of canaille absolutely. Canaille, canaglia, Schweinhunderei, stink-pots. Pfui! - pish, pshaw, prrr! They all stink in my nostrils.

That's how I feel in Taormina, let the Ionian sea have fits of blueness if it likes, and Calabria tinkle like seven jewels, and the white trumpet-tree under the balcony perfume six heavens with sweetness. That's how I feel. A curse, a murrain, a pox on this crawling, sniffling, spunkless brood of humanity. (16)

I quote this, of course, because it shows so clearly how the putatively real anger of a putatively real Lawrence becomes a literary performance as he plays the part of an angry man. Only in a text designed to be read would one find the very-hard-to-pronounce 'pfui, pish, pshaw and prrr'. There are other letters in which the anger seems far more 'authentic', but the fact that the act of putting pen to paper always and inevitably commits Lawrence to performing his feelings on a literary stage means that establishing a hierarchy of authenticity among his letters would be a difficult business.

Who in any case would have the chief responsibility for that task, the biographer or the subject? Which of the two would have the authority to pronounce one kind of letter more important than another for an understanding of the real self? When, in the recent past, biographers have dealt with autobiographical texts they have often felt themselves in a situation analogous to that between psychoanalysts and their patients and been ruled therefore by the dictum that no one is able to tell the truth about themselves, that there is no such thing as self-analysis. The same principle has been invoked in dealing with letters, which are often regarded as more interesting for what they betray than what they state and which are then, through an alliance of psychoanalysis with literary criticism, subjected to an intensive reading between the lines. The aim of this reading is to produce a picture of things as they really were, the true state of affairs. The psychoanalytically inclined biographer takes the first-person utte rance of the subject and deduces from it a real self of which the subject would not, and indeed in some sense could not have been aware.

Not many biographers are overtly committed to psychoanalysis. but to a greater or lesser extent the vast majority have been influenced by Freud, or by popular Freudianism. Yet the model of psychoanalytic practice with which they have in the past worked, and still work today, is regarded in many quarters as out of date, old-fashioned. I can best indicate one of the ways in which this is so quoting, from Critique of Psychoanalytic Reason by Chertok and Stengers, this account of the address to the 35th International Psychoanalytic Congress in the late 1980s by Robert Wailerstein (who was then the president of the International Psychoanalytic Association):

Wallerstein was attempting to resolve a thorny question. Given the current multiplicity of competing analytic theories, ought one to conclude that psychoanalysis is indeed splintering? Is there one psychoanalysis or many? There is no point, responds Wallerstein, in seeking or in hoping for a theoretical reconciliation among the interpretations of ego psychologists, Kleinians, Bionians, Lacanians, Kohutians, and so on. [...] And yet, psychoanalysis is one: beyond their theoretical differences, all psychoanalysts employ the same interactional techniques, 'built around the dynamic of the transference and counter-transference'. The different psychoanalytic theories should therefore be accepted in their diversity as metaphoric constructions. Any explanatory theory, according to Wallerstein, derives its status solely from its capacity to engender a common language between analyst and patient, a language a patient learns to accept and understand, and that will give meaning and coherence to the therapeutic relation. The metaphor is neither true nor false but should be effective; that is, it ought to be experienced as adequate by the patient from a cognitive and affective point of view. (17)

These are technical matters, but the lay public has been given some indication of what they might mean in the work of Adam Phillips whose essays have proved so popular and who has managed to reach the same kind of educated general public as have biographers such as Richard Holmes, Hermione Lee and Ray Monk. Commenting on Wailerstein's position, Chertok and Stengers say: 'The day has still not come when every patient entering analysis is officially warned that what is being proposed is a metaphoric adventure for two; he is not told that he will learn to experience his life according to the favorite metaphoric scheme of the person treating him.' (18) Official warnings of the kind Chertok and Stengers here refer to in their sub-ironical way may not yet be common, but no one can read Adam Phillips without realizing that, in certain quarters, the idea of psychoanalytical practice as a search for the true, historical cause of the patient's suffering (a traumatic episode, a primal scene) has been abandoned in favour of metaphoric adventuring. To invoke those metaphors which used to be current in this field, it is no longer a case of getting to the root of the matter, seeing through the patient's statements to what lies beneath, but rather of finding an appropriate narrative mode in which the patient's problems can be addressed. Truth -- and by extension therefore history (in the old sense) -- are not the issue.

The analogy between biographers and analysts is not strict. Biographers do not stand in the same relation to the first-person utterance of their subjects as analysts do to the free associations of their patients. It makes a difference when your patient, your subject, your interlocutor is dead. Given that the subjects of biographies are indeed usually dead, it may be that the 'interactional' relationship which matters as much as that between them and their biographers is the one between biographers and their readers. But putting these complications aside, and supposing there are some ways in which the analogy does hold, what difference would it make to biographers if they became keenly aware of the abandonment, in some circles, of the notion of psychoanalysis as an empirical science? This question is, I think, recognizable as a narrower, more focused version of my previous query as to how biographers are going to adapt to what in our culture is now often referred to as post-modernism. When are they going to re cognize that their traditional efforts to get to the root of the matter are illusory and that, by treating a subject's correspondence as the most valuable source of evidence as to his or her character, what they are doing is transforming the letter into a fetish? In fact, of course, in so far as it is a matter of recognizing that the 'truth' is unattainable, and that the world we inhabit is one in which we constantly tell stories about ourselves and other people, biographers could be said to have led the flight into metaphor. When they read Adam Phillips they must feel that they have been speaking prose all their lives. With their deliberate confusions of fiction and fact, and their eagerness to fill any narrative gap with speculation, the same kind of 'metaphoric adventure for two' which he implicitly proposes for patients is what they have been offering their readers for years. To complain, as I have, that there is no evidence for a life of Shakespeare, in any but the most external sense, may thus be a mist ake. There seems to be in the general public such an insatiable need for a 'life' of Shakespeare that how it is satisfied becomes immaterial, and recent Shakespeare biographies could therefore function as models of the way in which biography can continue to thrive in an age without letters. One demand which I think could reasonably be made, however, is that biographers should always be clear about what they are offering the reader and not confuse speculation with sober historical enquiry. Perhaps we do after all need some preliminary statement of intent of the kind Chertok and Stengers refer to, something perhaps along the lines of: 'In this biography, where there are letters to testify to the subject's thoughts and feelings I have been happy to use them, but where such letters do not exist, I have made those thoughts and feelings up as I have gone along.'

* Parts of this talk have already appeared in 'Lawrence in his letters', Etudes Lawrenciennes, no. 3 (1988) 41-9.


(1.) S. Schoenbaum, Shakespeare's Lives (Oxford, 1991), 568.

(2.) David Ellis, 'Biography and Shakespeare: an outsider's view', Cambridge Quarterly, 29 (4) (2000), 296-313.

(3.) See V. de Sola Pinto and Warren Roberts (eds), Complete Poems of D. H. Lawrence (London, 1964), 28.

(4.) F. R. Leavis, 'Anna Karenina' and Other Essays (London, 1967), 167.

(5.) Ibid., 173.

(6.) Warren Roberts, James T. Boulton and Elizabeth Mansfield (eds), The Letters of D. H. Lawrence, Vol. IV (Cambridge University Press, 1987), 72.

(7.) Ibid., 72-3.

(8.) Leavis, op. cit., 173.

(9.) Roberts et al., op. cit., 263-4.

(10.) Blaise Pascal, Pensees, ed. Louis Lafuma (Paris: Seuil, 1962), 286.

(11.) Bruce Steele (ed.), Kangaroo (Cambridge University Press, 1994), 132.

(12.) George J. Zytarak and James T. Boulton (eds), Letters of D. H. Lawrence, Vol. II (Cambridge University Press, 1981), 183.

(13.) David Farmer, Lindeth Vasey and John Worthen (eds), Women in Love (Cambridge University Press, 1987), 92 and 206.

(14.) David Nokes. Jane Austen: A Life (London, 1997), 169,221.

(15.) Roberts et al., op. cit., 307.

(16.) Ibid., 108-9.

(17.) Leon Chertok and Isabella Stengers, Critique of Psychoanalytic Reason (Stanford University Press, 1992), 129.

(18.) Ibid., 131.


+ Address for correspondence: School of English, University of Kent, Canterbury, Kent CT2 7NX, UK. E-mail:

David Ellis teaches English at the University of Kent at Canterbury. He has published widely on biography, D. H. Lawrence, Shakespeare and Wordsworth. He is the author of the third and final volume of the new Cambridge biography of Lawrence, Dying Game (CUP, 1998), and more recently of Literary Lives: Biography and the Search for Understanding (Edinburgh University Press, 2000).
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Author:Ellis, David
Publication:Journal of European Studies
Article Type:Critical Essay
Date:Jun 1, 2002
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