When is a biography a novel? by Brenda Stones

Two doorstop-sized ‘biographies’ were published in 2021, to keep us going through lockdown: Colm Toibin’s The Magician on Thomas Mann, weighing in at 430pp; and Alison McLeod’s Tenderness on DH Lawrence, topping it at 600pp. But both are described as ‘novels’; so when is a biography a novel – or vice versa?

The Magician is magisterial and sombre, like its subject. It is strictly chronological in sequence, and charts all the major events of the subject’s life, though surprisingly skating over a few significant contemporary political events, like the Munich Revolution of 1918. The book scarcely enters into Thomas Mann’s interior, emotional life, though there is invented dialogue to animate the interactions between the many family members.

Tenderness, by contrast, is all emotion, and leaps about between scenes in Lawrence’s life as he muses on his deathbed in Vence. Again, you could say this befits the subject, notorious for his lyrical descriptions of scandalous sensuality. The author herself is evidently also a rather less buttoned-up character than her Irish counterpart; so both authors were clearly drawn to subjects of like spirit to their own.

The two subjects themselves could scarcely be more contrasting: Mann born in 1875 and living a life of public acclaim, including the Nobel Prize for Literature, until his eventual death in 1955; whereas Lawrence, born just ten years later, died prematurely in 1930 at the age of 45. Lawrence’s reputation was dogged by the Lady Chatterley trial, and copies of The Rainbow were publicly seized and burned in 1915. Yet both writers have now attained a level of historic veneration that assures them respectable places on literature syllabuses.

So why did both authors choose to call their works ‘novels’ rather than ‘biographies’? McLeod admits, and this is no doubt true of Toibin as well: ‘Some scenes and circumstances have been changed, invented or imagined for artistic purposes, and to offer a wider window of understanding: to evoke, in other words, the ‘human moments’ that might have occurred between the date-points on the timelines of official history.’ A perfectly valid reason.

Both authors acknowledge reams authentic of source material and research, and skilfully trace the original inspirations for their novelists’ works; but by calling their own work fiction, it gives them licence to bend and invent in order to make connections or straighten kinks in the actual lives, and also to engage the reader through livelier scene-setting.  Or could it also be, commercially speaking, simply that fiction gains more public attention these days, in terms of review space and retail shelf space, than biography?

Given the fanciful flights of imagination in McLeod’s study, including a daring invention of Jacqueline Kennedy’s presence at the New York trial of Lady Chatterley, it has to be said that Tenderness is far further along the fictional spectrum than is The Magician. But however they choose to describe their works, we are lucky to have two such blockbusting volumes to fill the long hours.

‘A Family Affair’ by Jane Stubbs

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The Way of the Hen by Martin Stott

I knew my correspondence with Prince Charles about chickens would assume national significance one day. That day arrived yesterday when *that interview* between Oprah Winfrey and Harry and Megan was aired on TV around the world. It was about 15 minutes in, that the matter of rescue chickens emerged. There were Oprah and Megan surrounded by the Sussexes rescue hens with Oprah clutching a box of eggs, and Megan with an artfully staged basket full. They looked good for rescue hens, a hybrid variety of uncertain name but certain egg productivity – for a year. But next time maybe they should go for Sussexes – they are such a lovely breed and great for beginners. 

Anyway, they love chickens, their wee son loves chickens, their hen house is even named ‘Archie’s Chick Inn’ (that American love of puns again that I mentioned in my last blog, not just that ‘Chick Inn’, but the revelation that Megan’s first job as a teenager was in the ‘Humphrey Yogurt’ milk bar – adorable).  And so does Prince Charles. Perhaps there is an opening here. Harry said in that interview that relations between him and his dad weren’t so good, and indeed Chaz wouldn’t take his calls. A sorry situation. Even an old republican like me can empathise about the family hurt. Which is where that chicken correspondence comes in.

Back in 2008, long before Lord Muck was even a twinkle in his creator’s eye, the muck narrative was rolling. Warwickshire-based Garden Organic and my employer Warwickshire county council (where I was amongst other things, responsible for waste management) were engaged in discussions about waste minimisation, in particular composting, and the practicalities of encouraging householders to keep chickens to reduce food waste.  Prince Charles is Garden Organic’s Patron and the idea was ‘hatched’ that we would get his backing for the extension of the then already running Master Composting programme to include a hen keeping module.

So, I wrote to Clarence House setting out some ideas. A copy of the hand-written notes  on this made their way back to me, and remain one of my most treasured possessions. In response to the various suggestions that I put to the Palace, the Prince annotated my letter with comments like ‘Excellent’ and ‘Hooray!’ and signed off to his staff ‘This is encouraging news! Please keep a close eye on this as it develops because, if it works I would like to  push the whole concept to other councils…’  It ‘took flight’ as Garden Organic’s ‘Hens@Home’ programme, delivered to Master Composters across the country. Clearly a love of hens is a shared  interest between father and son, and here are Megan and Harry happy to share their love with Oprah and 2 billion viewers across the planet.

Living in California I’m sure the Sussexes are into spiritual growth. I’m not so sure if they have got round to reading Clea Danaan’s lovely ‘Zen and the art of raising chickens’  – the sound of one wing flapping, so to speak. But Charles dabbles in Buddhism (allegedly). I suspect that his style is more of the ‘chop wood, feed chickens’ approach. There are many paths up the mountain, but surely the ‘Way of the Hen’ is the one that will bring forth familial reconciliation.

Keeping the Memory Alive by Brenda Stones

We still remember the dramas of the Spanish Civil War through reading the literature of the time: George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, Martha Gellhorn’s The Face of War. We are familiar with those events as the prelude to the Second World War, leading from 1936 up to the outbreak of worldwide hostilities in 1939.

But what about the atrocity that preceded it in 1935, the brutal Italian invasion of Ethiopia, which was just as much a rehearsal for Fascist expansionism? Could we name any literature that was written about it by either side at the time? And why has it been so eclipsed from our collective memory? Is it because we are more concerned with conflicts in Europe than this last-ditch attempt at colonialist occupation in distant Africa?

I was drawn to reading about the invasion of Ethiopia through the largely forgotten Harlem Renaissance writer, Claude McKay. His novel, Amiable with Big Teeth, gives a vivid picture of the staunch support for the Ethiopians by the black population of New York. They form a loyal aid group, called Hands to Ethiopia, which finds itself in conflict with both its equivalent white support group, Friends of Ethiopia, and with Communist infiltrators from the Soviet Union, who try to turn to their advantage the black protesters’ anti-Fascist sympathies. The result is a stand-off between Fascist and Communist tendencies in New York that threatens to overwhelm the original pro-Ethiopian sympathies. This novel had a sad history: the author completed it in 1941, but his publisher rejected it, despite the advances paid towards his living expenses. It then disappeared from view, but another publisher kept it on file, and it finally saw the light of day in 2017, 80 years after the events it describes.

For a totally contrasting view, I picked up Evelyn Waugh’s Waugh in Abyssinia, published in 1936. Waugh was posted to this war zone by the Daily Mail, and one immediate clue to his sympathies is his use of the name ‘Abyssinia’: McKay tells us that all black populations used the name Ethiopia and found Abyssinia ‘objectionable’. But Waugh’s colonialist views go much farther: he praises every product of the Italian incursion, in particular their immediate road-building programme, and the fact that the roads were built by the Italians themselves: ‘and along the roads will pass the eagles of ancient Rome, bringing the inestimable gifts of fine workmanship and clear judgment, by which alone, under God, man grows and flourishes’. The book was never popular in the UK, and failed to attract a US edition.

Another pertinent but controversial publication came out over forty years after the invasion. The Emperor Haile Selassie returned from exile in England after Italy’s defeat in the Second World War, and lived on until his death in 1975. He was then savagely satirised by the Polish writer Ryszard Kapuscinski for his inertia towards the poverty and famine of his Ethiopian people, and his own secluded life of pomp and luxury. The Emperor was published in 1978, translated into English in 1983 and dramatised by the Young Vic as recently as 2016.

And now we have the 2019 Ethiopian novel by Maaza Mengiste, The Shadow King, shortlisted for the Booker prize this year. She also is reminding the world of the atrocities perpetrated during Italy’s attempt to colonise a fiercely independent African country. She paints an epic canvas of the tanks rolling inland from Massawa, the valiant resistance by men and women alike, in bloodthirsty confrontations between invaders and Ethiopian warriors.

So at least we have four very different points of view and different genres across the course of 85 years: a black American, a very white Englishman, a Pole, and at last an Ethiopian woman, all dedicated to telling the world of the war crimes committed in 1935; all helping to keep alive the memory of this monstrous invasion.

60 Years On by Brenda Stones

The year 2020 in itself is far from being any cause for celebration; but perhaps we can salvage some optimism from reckoning how far we’ve come in the last 60 years, since the year 1960, which now stands out as a truly pivotal point for both working-class and feminist fiction. What do we remember of 1960? Which of us were around back then? It’s worth taking a moment to review what a key turning point it was in our literary history.

Up until the end of the Second World War, fiction was largely a male and privileged preserve. A recent review of the territory, The Prose Factory by the well regarded critic D. J. Taylor, scarcely mentions women – apart from a concessionary chapter called ‘Lady Writers’ (sic) with brief nods to Virginia Woolf and Iris Murdoch. Otherwise the field was dominated by male writers and critics with public school backgrounds, such as Evelyn Waugh or Somerset Maugham.

Then came the 1950s and the beginnings of a revolt against that entrenched establishment. Kenneth Allsop’s The Angry Decade (1958) gives a vivid picture of the post-war, middle-class, grammar-school-educated newcomers, who he describes as more ‘dissentient’ than angry. In fact the main tenor of their fiction was not anger but laddish humour and cocky irreverence ‒ in marked contrast to the parallel post-war movement in France, typified by Camus and Sartre’s expositions of existentialist philosophy.

By the end of the ‘angry decade’, the spotlight was passing down the social scale to genuinely working-class authors, like Alan Sillitoe with Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958), Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey (1958) and Stan Barstow’s A Kind of Loving (1960). These writers gave us a graphic picture of both social conditions and also the mindset of post-war working-class Britain. We are almost more familiar with the ‘kitchen sink’ film versions (named after a John Bratby painting of 1954) made soon after: gritty black and white visions of the back-to-backs in Nottingham and Manchester, that were the reality of the times.

And soon after the working-class writers came the women! The new decade began with a bang for women’s fiction: Lynne Reid Banks’ The L-Shaped Room (1960) and Edna O’Brien, The Country Girls (1960), dealing explicitly with sex and the single girl. Certainly there had been women writers before, but never such a ‘ground-breaking exploration of taboo subjects’, according to Jane Stevenson in her survey of Women Writers in English Literature. And what else was happening in 1960? It is no coincidence that the Pill hit the pharmacists’ shelves, or more likely the underside of the counter, in 1960, the answer to all the excessive pregnancies described for instance in Penelope Mortimer’s The Pumpkin Eater (1962).

As the 1960s unrolled, so did the demand for new feminist fiction, with Margaret Drabble’s The Summer Birdcage in 1962 and Muriel Spark’s The Girls of Slender Means in 1963. The future of the genre was assured. This was not the ‘escapist’ fiction of Mills and Boon that had flourished between the wars; this was social realism in graphic detail. One spin-off effect of its popularity was to open the door to more female editors, like the big names of Liz Calder and Carmen Callil (both aged 22 in 1960), who could confidently publish yet more female fiction as the century wore on.

Also, and most significantly of all, the increase in output created a huge increase in female readers, in reading groups and at literary festivals, to the point where 80% of all fiction is now bought by women. Read Helen Taylor, Why Women Read Fiction: The stories of our lives to find out more; and to ponder how this whole revolution in writing and reading has happened in just the last 60 years!

‘Sid and Nancy do Sainsburys’ by Bill Dring

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‘A Real Lockdown’ – by Philip Gooden

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CORONA DAYS – by Merryn Williams

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