Carla Carlisle on Wordsworth and biography

Poor Wordsworth. The least romantic of the Romantic poets. Not lovable in the way that Keats, Shelley or Byron are lovable and forever young. Early death (Keats dead at 26, Shelley at 30, Byron at 36) is Romantic. We gaze at portraits of these beautiful young men, we read their spontaneous letters and passionate poetry. Through no fault of his own, Wordsworth lived to be 80. Letters reveal a man who is kind and reserved, who embraced age long before he reached his prime.

For true lovers of Wordsworth, Grasmere is Mecca. The faithful come in winter, when the spirit of the place rises like the mist from the lakes. The Wordsworth Trust, devoted curator of Dove Cottage and the Wordsworth Museum, holds a literary weekend in January. Last Saturday evening, a large and learned crowd gathered to hear the Romantic biographer Richard Holmes talk about the books and writers that have most influenced him in his life.

An autobiographical talk about biography. Mr Holmes’s life of Shelley, The Pursuit, won the Somerset Maugham Award and endeared me to the poet for life. His two volumes on Coleridge, Early Visions and Darker Reflections, sit on my shelves. Despite winning every major prize, my copies look unread.  But the biographer is like the poets he knows and loves: personal, endearing and intimate. He traces his life’s journey via Shelley’s The Mask of Anarchy, Auden’s O What Is That Sound, Carol Ann Duffy’s Prayer. He doesn’t mention Wordsworth.

Which doesn’t surprise me. I was brought up on the great trio of English poets Shakespeare, Milton and Wordsworth but I don’t know anyone who now reads Wordsworth for pleasure. I’m of the generation that was forced to learn I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud by heart, and my father could quote The World Is Too Much With Us, but who now reaches for The Prelude on a winter’s night? Feminists took up the cause of his sister Dorothy, sifting through her journals to find her brother’s rough drafts, but William is now condemned to the category of ‘more read about than read’.

Sitting across the room, another distinguished biographer listens intently to Mr Holmes. Selina Hastings’ Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham featured in every ‘best books’ list. As much as I loved her biographies of Nancy Mitford, Evelyn Waugh and Rosamond Lehmann, I hesitated to read it. I spent hot summer days in my youth in thrall to the sensuous struggles in Of Human Bondage and The Razor’s Edge, but in my memory, these books seem half-trashy. I’ve never felt like re-reading them, and yet Maugham was the mostly widely read English writer since Dickens, the most successful of Edwardian playwrights and the highest-paid writer of his day.

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In the end, I did buy Miss Has-tings’ life of Maugham, and I’m now so immersed in her account of the writer’s sad and tumultuous life, I can hardly put it down. And yet, I wonder if it will lead me back to Maugham’s writing. I doubt it.It’s tempting to say that biography is more readable than the writers themselves because it’s more of our own time. The biographer is one of us, sees the past through a modern lens. But I believe our reading life goes in phases. Fiction is the pleasure of the first half. Fiction is (ideally) plausible. Biography and diaries and letters  are (ideally) true.

Pilgrims make their way to Grasmere because Dove Cottage is the real thing, the truth of small rooms, of views of the lake. I don’t long to see Maugham’s villa in the South of France, but Miss Hastings’ life of the writer is a portrait of a time and a place that is still recognisable. It’s the bone of fact. Not drama, but true.


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