The value of nearness in fiction and biography
Biographers, like novelists, are casuists
In his preface to The Aspern Papers, Henry James talks about the story practically without mentioning the plot. His real interest was the ‘Florence [of] years ago’. The preface is a romantic nostalgia trip in best thickly-laden, High Victorian style. His sentences are strained and convoluted, like his attempt to evoke ‘the air of old-time Italy.’ And he knows he cannot really get back there. It is make believe. He admits, in a camp imitation and ornate expansion of Julius Caesar, ‘The pious fiction suffices; we have entered, we have seen, we are charmed.’ He’s only in it for the high-end sentimentality.
The story he wrote was real enough. It was based on facts. He had heard that Claire Clairmont, Mary Shelley’s step-sister, was still alive and living in Florence. Just hearing about her, the mere fact of her existence, meant that the legend of Shelley flickered ‘enough to give me my facts, bare facts of intimation.’
These ‘bare facts of intimation’ (the fact that someone who knew Shelley was alive nearly sixty years later) had the same sort of impulse for James and his fiction as the facts of Shelley’s own life had for his poetry.
Let’s linger on that word, intimation. It means a hint, a suggestion, an indication. Its root is the Latin intimatio, ‘an announcement’, from past participle stem of Latin intimare ‘make known, announce, impress’. We can practically see James receiving impressions of the old Florence like a radio receiving a broadcast.
Intimations are distinctly Romantic affairs. Wordsworth was forever haunted by the idea that, ‘The things which I have seen I now can see no more.’ The glimmering past shines bright. And there is a pervasive sense that the past can be re-created, there is a constant harking back. ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive!’
For Romantics, all intimations are imaginations. And so it was for James with Claire Clairmont. Nine tenths of the artist’s interest in facts, James says, is ‘what he shall add to them, and how he shall turn them.’ James was excited by that fact that although ‘The things which I have seen I now can see no more’, with some imagination they could be recreated.
Something similar is true for biographers.
Richard Holmes’ book Footsteps is a collection of essays about his travels as a young man. The story of how he became a biographer is interweaved with impressionistic biographies of four people: Robert Louis Stevenson, Mary Wollstonecraft, Nerval, and, importantly for us, Shelley.
Just like Henry James worked from the bare facts of intimation and imagined himself into Shelley’s Florence, Richard Holmes compiles a living past out of notebooks, memories, archival research, and imagination.
He follows Shelley around Italy, eventually arriving in Pisa, making his way down to where Shelley and Mary (and Claire Clairomont) lived, by the Arno. But the house they lived in was gone. As he stood there, Holmes realised he could still take a photograph of the view Shelley would have seen every morning, arms full of books and papers, as he went down to his boat. It reversed the perspective, meaning that Holmes was ‘looking outwards from within Shelley’s life.’
Talk about the ‘bare fact of intimation.’
Holmes calls this a mere trick of perspective, but also a ‘definite method of recapturing time.’ It would be easy to object to this. The houses were gone, and so was much else. Holmes describes Shelley’s Pisa as ‘elegantly crumbling’. That’s a notably Romantic image (and reflects a half built, abandoned ruin behind another one of Shelley’s Italian houses) and it’s not clear whether Pisa would have been ‘elegantly crumbling’ in the same way when Shelley was there. Even the trees and plants would either be mature or many generations on. The landscape would have shifted, probably quite perceptibly.
Rather than the photograph he took capturing ‘a moment of time’, Holmes believes they linked ‘one “instant” with the next… with a dissolving (rather than a freezing) of much that was temporary and ephemeral.’ This reminds me of Larkin describing a woman in a photograph as ‘smaller and clearer as the years go by.’ That comparison shows us that the thing being measured is not the image, but the person looking at it.
Incidental details might have changed, but the essential picture will be similar. Holmes was thinking of Shelley and what he saw. He was ruminating on the unpublished lyric Shelley wrote at Pisa, with the lines,
Go to the East…
You, being changed, will find it then as now.
Holmes’ perspective is merging with Shelley’s. That is an act of imagination. Without that the place, the photograph is a bare fact, no intimation. If that was true, Holmes would not be there on the trail of Shelley, imagining him and his life, he would be like Tennyson’s stranger’s child from In Memoriam, someone new to the landscape, unaware of its intimations.
For facts to resonate, the person seeing, hearing, reading them has to be receptive.
This starts to show us that the biographer is not a type of factual historian. Henry James’ imaginations are just as real and relevant for Richard Holmes. Both are trying to revive Shelley’s Italy.
Henry James was a late, Victorian Romantic. It had become a clogged and cloying sort of Romanticism by then, but Romanticism it still was. Just as James’ original story was seventy years on from Shelley, Holmes was another sixty years on from James’ preface. By then, with the riots and revolutions of the 1960s underway, another sort of Romanticism had arrived.
They were both having a Wordsworthian reaction to the places Shelley had been connected to, Florence and Pisa, and could haven taken these lines from the Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood as their motto:
Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is it now, the glory and the dream?
Landscapes are used differently by them both to evoke and invoke the past, but the imaginative impulse is the same.
Henry James knew that Claire Clairmont (he calls her Jane) lived in Florence and that if he had heard of her sooner ‘I might have seen her in the flesh.’ But — importantly — he didn’t want to see her. If he had done, it might have reduced the ‘romance value.’ She was more use to his imagination as a suggestion, a wraith. Like poor, desperate Shelley haunted at the end of his life by visions of Mary dying, in a state of post-traumatic depression about her miscarriage, and grieving for his dead children, James was deeply affected by the intimation of Claire, more so than by her reality.
He realised that although she was the last link to the past he ought not to ‘read meanings into things absolutely sealed.’ The thrill of knowing she had been there, so close, was enough. This is like Richard Holmes, on the trail of Robert Louis Stevenson in the Cévennes, who came to a footbridge Stevenson had crossed which was now broken and had been replaced with a newer bridge further along. Like James, Holmes realised there is a limited visibility to the past.
You could not cross such bridges anymore, just as one could not cross literally into the past.
Even in imagination the gap was there. It had to be recognised, it was no good pretending. You could not play act into the past, you could not turn it into a game of make believe. There had to be another way. Somehow you had to produce the living effect, while remaining true to the dead fact.
Holmes sounds like he is in opposition to James. James, who talks about the Italy he was trying to revive being ‘too numerous, too deep, too obscure, too strange, for any ease of intellectual relation. One must pay oneself largely with words, I think, one must induce almost any Italian subject, to make believe it gives up its secret.’
Holmes has his ‘dead facts’, James has his ‘bare facts of intimation’. But the difference is not so clear cut. Holmes’ technique to produce the living effect, since he cannot cross the bridge, is imaginative. All the way along his journey through the Cévennes, people know about Stevenson. The folk memory of his travels has passed into legend there. ‘The reality of Stevenson’s presence… was uncanny.’ The way Holmes gets people to talk to him is through naive charm, and often his hat, which acts as a ‘talisman’, even, he says, giving him vivid dreams about Stevenson when he sleeps under it.
As he went along the trail, Holmes pieced together the subtext of Stevenson’s life, by making imaginative leaps and then corroborating them later in the archival record. Like James, he is looking for ‘bare facts of intimation.’ This combination of folk memory, following the trail, is a reaching back to the past, to get as close as possible even though the bridge is down. It’s what James called the ‘value of nearness’:
there had been, so to speak, a forward continuity, from the actual man, the divine poet, on; and the curious, the ingenious, the admirable thing would be to throw it backward again, to compress—squeezing it hard!—the connexion that had drawn itself out, and convert so the stretched relation into a value of nearness…
That reaching back, compressing the time that has past, through folk memory, ghosts, talismans, was what Holmes was doing along the Cévennes. It was also why he took the photograph. As an imaginative prompt to help him create a value of nearness with Shelley at Pisa.
Wayne Booth points out that all of James’ talk in the preface is about atmosphere, his almost weepy obsession with the ‘visitable past’, and nothing at all to do with the story, the plot, or the protagonist. However, the protagonist is the voice of The Aspern Papers. He is the one who ‘visit[s] and evoke[s] the past.’
And yet. Aspern is the protagonist precisely because he violates that past. ‘He hasn’t the slightest idea how the past can be effectively visited.’ The plot and the atmosphere are at odds with each other, but they have one narrator. This is a weakness on James’ part. As a grasping, debased character, Aspern is not ‘adequate to the task of evoking the poetry of the visitable past.’
The problem is that by using Aspern for both tasks, James breaks the ‘realistic intensity’ he is trying to create. The whole point of James’ writing is realism. Booth points out that this is a flaw for James.
Booth identifies three narrative voices. First, the ‘narrator’s self betrayals’. This is the protagonist narrating his story and inadvertently exposing his moral flaws. Second, the narrator evoking the past, which ‘taken out of context might be indistinguishable from James’ own voice.’ Third, what Booth calls, ‘the passages of mumbling… that lie in-between.’
By using one voice for both tasks, James diminishes the credibility of his realism. Of course, we can suspend our disbelief while we read The Aspern Papers, and ignore the fact that James has not met his own conditions, or mostly ignore it. But in biography there is a much closer connection between the fact and the intimation. For a biographer, the problem would be much bigger.
This is about sympathy. We know what sympathy James wants us to have, even though there are the three voices in one. When a biographer confuses those things, it gets untenable.
There is a passage in Footsteps where Holmes admits he made a mistake in his biography of Shelley. There is a child, Elena, which may or may not have been Shelley’s. In his biography, Holmes said the baby was Shelley’s by the maid, Elise, and that Claire had had a miscarriage at a similar time. This was his explanation for the lacuna in the record which others have assumed pointed to the baby being Shelley’s not by Elise, but by Claire.
His revised view was that the baby was an orphan that Shelley adopted and paid for a foster family to raise in an act of atonement for Claire’s miscarriage (not fathered by him). There is evidence that points to it being Claire’s child. But Holmes was persuaded otherwise because of his interpretation of Shelley’s and Claire’s characters.
Despite the circumstantial evidence (missing diaries and suggestive references to dates) that the child is Claire’s, Holmes says, ‘a biographer does become slowly convinced about his subjects’ characters… they become one of the most important of all human truths.’
This is a departure from history. He goes beyond the archival record (or lacuna). As he suggests, it might have been ‘misguided’ of him to produce any solution at all, let alone one so suppositional as to be based on character. Consistency of character is something we are concerned with in fiction — which is what Booth criticises James for.
Biography is not history in the sense that it doesn’t deal with philosophical principles and rules. It is not general. It is a form of casuistry, looking at specific cases and making specific judgements using whatever principles are appropriate and fair.
Casuistry is defined as, ‘the practice of taking each case as it comes, using judgment to discern the right outcome, while allowing plenty of room for mitigating or exacerbating circumstances.’ That’s what Holmes was doing with Shelley and Claire, and it’s exactly the imaginative latitude that biographers have in common with novelists, albeit to a lesser degree, when they deal with the ‘bare facts of intimation.’
The biographer sees every part of a constantly unfolding pattern: he sees the before and afterwards, both cause and consequence. Above all he uses repetition and the emergence of significant behaviour over an entire lifetime. As a result, I have become convinced of the integrity of human character.
The child was left in Naples. That is entirely out of keeping with Shelley’s character, who had objected strenuously when Claire’s child with Byron was left in Naples. Rightly so, it tuned out, because the poor mite was later abandoned in an orphanage by Byron, where she died alone two years later.
By breaking ‘the laws of character’, and writing that Shelley had abandoned his own child, Holmes thought he had broken the trust between biographer and reader. This is where the unique casuistical dimension of biography comes alive.
The whole practice of writing a biography is a character judgement. This is about using the imagination to go beyond bare facts and mediate for the reader so they can have sympathy with the subject. A list of facts and extracts from sources would be as useless as a biography that never quoted the voice of the subject in letters, diaries, poems, conversations. Biography has to show us the person, clear as can be seen.
Like James, biographers have to be careful not to mumble and confuse their voice with the voice of the subject. Holmes thought his breach of trust had done just that, broken the ‘powers of re-creation’ biographies have to bring what James called the visitable past to life. This is, Holmes says, a literary illusion… that makes [biography] so close to the novel.’
The way biographers create characters, and use this ‘literary illusion’, is different and the similarity in Holmes’ and James’ approach is partly because they are Romantics, but partly because of the shared illusion fiction and biography rest on.
The great appeal of biography seems to lie, in part, in its claim to be a coherent and integral view of human affairs. It is based on the profoundly hopeful assumption that people really are responsible for their actions, and that there is a moral continuity between the inner and outer man… character expresses itself in action.
Profoundly hopeful indeed. These are Romantic beliefs, no longer philosophically viable after Galen Strawson, and advances in physics, biology, neurology, genetics and other areas. There’s a debate to be had, but the Romantic notion of the unlimited human is over.
As much as he is thinking like a Romantic here, Holmes did feel constrained by Shelley’s character. Like a novelist, he was aware that people contradict themselves. But he was working within what he judged to be the reasonable confines of those two people. They were not unlimited. They were, to some extent, predictable.
There are always gaps in history; biographers and novelists work to fill them to bring us closer to the possible lived reality. For all the notions of free will and human potential, the ‘bare fact of intimation’ remains a limiting factor.
I delight in the palpable, imaginable visitable past — in the nearer distances and the clearer mysteries, the marks and signs of a world we may reach over to as by making a long arm we grasp an object on the other side of the table.
That’s James, writing like Holmes, apart from a few baroque trills, and it reminds us of the bridge Robert Louis Stevenson crossed that Holmes could not. Both James and Holmes started with bare facts of intimation; James was free to add, to turn, to evoke. The only damage was to the integrity of a model he set himself.
We know James is using imagination, so we suspend disbelief. The only effect is that James’ story is ‘blurred and robbed of finality.’ It works, just not quite as well as it could. As Booth said, before James we never expected that of fiction writers anyway. ‘Shakespeare has made no claim that his manner will be realistically consistent.’ We expect his characters to turn to the side and give long speeches that break the action. James sets the rules, and he breaks them.
The nature of biography is that realistic consistency is claimed, even in the sort of biographies that stretch the genre and openly speculate. As James said, ‘The historian, essentially, wants more documents than he can really use; the dramatist only wants more liberties than he can really take.’
For all the similarities of imagination, casuistry, and technique, this is the essential difference, the bridge biographers cannot cross. The value of nearness is different for them, which is why when Holmes made his mistake, claiming Shelley abandoned his own child, even though it was not provable one way or the other, he had ‘broken the terms of biographer’s trust’.
By breaching the consistency of the character he had created, with no basis in the archival record, he mumbled, and spoke for the record, for the character. It diminished the value of nearness. And that was ‘a cardinal mistake.’
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