Life has only occasionally set me down among biographers. Once, sharing an office with a future eminent Man of Letters, I fell into discussion with the Mol about his biography-in-progress of a minor artistic figure known to be homosexual, but not to have had many regular relationships. Later, this came up in conversation with a former flatmate who–at an earlier stage in her chequered career–had been a rent-boy. “Oh, him,” she drawled on hearing the name, “We all had him. And very generous he was, too.”
In my innocence, I reported this source to the Mol, who declined the information. It was not because of the possible unreliability of my friend, though her motto has always been to change your sex, not the facts. No–his assumption was that this was not the sort of information he wished the biography, a useful stepping-stone in his own literary career as much as an account of its subject’s, to contain. It was, you see, just gossip.
And yet it was also information about the subject’s estrangement and loneliness, upper-class male mores and his tendency to exploit and, nonetheless, to be liked. It was, if not any sort of final word, evidence about character. The testimony was also revealing about my friend, who gets left out of other people’s biographies and will never quite rate her own. Why, in the scheme of things, do writers’ casual pub acquaintances usually rate a digression, and their whores never?
Biographies are not just the shilling life that tells you all the facts; they are, at best, a microcosm of the world that surrounded those facts. It is from the untidiness of people’s more rackety goings-on that whole misconceptions about the world can often be corrected.
The diaries of the 19th-century Yorkshire gentlewoman, Anne Lister, with all their fumbling under crinolines (rather toned down, alas, in the Virago excerpts), knocked on the head a whole school of radical separatist historiography that assumed that lesbians did not actually do it until voyeuristic male sexologists put ideas into their heads. Indeed, Virago’s decision to omit some of the raunchier episodes, on the implausible grounds that male scholars might use them for base self-gratification, meant that the knocking-on-the-head was less thorough than it should have been.
Gossip should never be the sole purpose of a biography, but the material some would exclude as “mere” gossip is often a significant part of the subject’s influence. Gossip is often what people know in a person’s lifetime, apart from the work. It may also inspire emulation.
In the late 1940s, W H Auden briefly considered marrying Rhoda Jaffe and leaving his lover Chester Kallman. Composition of The Age of Anxiety coincided With their affair. Richard Davenport-Hines mentions Leonard Bernstein’s composition of his Second Symphony, based on the Auden poem, in his new life of the poet (Auden; Heinemann, 20 [pounds]). He does not, however, make the link between Bernstein’s use of the poem and his decision to, for a while, give up young men and marry Felicia. His eye is on the facts, but not on the ball.
Davenport-Hines, indeed, is a good example of how a biographer can include much of the dirt and all of its social context, and yet somehow miss the point. He is an adequate critic of Auden, and has done his research. Yet whenever he quotes Auden’s letters, with their vigorous combination of camp and sermonising, his own prose lies dead on the page.
Nor, of course, is gossip just a matter of recording facts. Sometimes, when gossiping, we have to take a line. For example, when Auden went back to God, he did so in a peculiarly lazy, self-serving way, allowing himself the indulgence of drunkenness and a sexuality rejected by the orthodoxy he espoused without any sense of sin. Whether out of refusal to judge, or an incapacity to smell bull-shit, Davenport-Hines treats this betrayal of much that the young Auden had stood for with surprising equanimity.
Gossip should not replace moral judgments in biography; it is a place whence they emerge. When Michael Holroyd and Quentin Bell stuck all the sex back into Strachey and Woolf, it was because the Bloomsburies treated their relationships as a laboratory for their post-Christian ethics; they took their philanderings seriously, and so should we. It was a mistake on Roy Harrod’s part to leave the bisexuality out of his J M Keynes–it was well-known enough for monetarists to use it as a stick with which to beat his economics.
Roy Jenkins, in his excellent but disingenuous Gladstone (Macmillan, 20 [pounds]), invents a new biographical sin. He gives us all the sexual gossip–the steamy attempts to reform whores, the autoflagellation when aroused by Latin verse–as a way of distracting our attention. A highly sexed Gladstone wrestling with the starched spirit of his age to retain personal integrity is a way to remake the statesman for our time, and is also true. Jenkins slips the odd fast one by us in the process–he never really addresses Gladstone’s early opposition to the abolition of slavery, nor his obsessive search for snoring remedies throughout his adolescent years, for example, or tells us precisely where he stood on, say, the Married Women’s Property Act. Nor does he deal with the gross anti-Semitism attributed to Gladstone by Stanley Weintraub.
Gladstone is someone we are particularly entitled to judge by current standards because he judged other ages and cultures by his own; he took matters seriously, and so should we. We, in turn, will be judged by other ages, whether we moralise or not. There is, in the end, nothing frivolous about gossip. In his forthcoming Grooming, Gossip and the Evolution of Language (Faber), Robin Dunbar argues that language itself started as phatic chatter during pre-human grooming, and almost immediately became a way of dishing the dirt, of sharing information on the reliability of sexual and political allies in the extended family. Gossip, and moralising, are in our genes.