When a great writer breathes his last, his literary life ends – there will be no more works from his pen. However, in many cases, it is at that moment of death that the legend begins. The posthumous life and reputation of an author can sometimes be as fascinating as the life itself.
I have just very much enjoyed reading Oscar’s Ghost: The Battle for Oscar Wilde’s Legacy by Laura Lee, an account of the battles between Oscar’s lover Lord Alfred Douglas and Oscar’s friend and literary executor, Robert Ross, over the blame for his downfall, the publication of Wilde’s prison letter De Profundis, and the truth of his friendships and loves. Most biographies of Wilde end with his death in Paris, but this book focuses on the feuds, machinations and even law suits that continued for many years afterwards. The book has been highly recommended by Colm Tóibín, but should come with a warning – it has tiny print which makes it hard to read – perhaps best ordered on an e-reader where you can enlarge the size.
Another excellent book on the topic of literary reputations is Keepers of the Flame – Literary Estates and the Rise of Biography by Ian Hamilton. It tells an absorbing range of stories about the posthumous treatment of authors, from the burning of Byron’s memoir (which probably told his version of what happened in his scandalous marriage), to Henry James’ attempts to ‘fix’ his own posthumous reputation, to Kipling’s dragonish wife Carrie who saw off any putative biographer who failed to please her, to the controversies surrounding Sylvia Plath’s estate.
It is a book that makes you think about the moral issues of biography, about what should and should not be destroyed (was it right that Kafka’s literary executor, Max Brod, refused to carry out Kafka’s wishes and burn all his unpublished works? Was Cassandra Austen right to burn her sister Jane’s more private correspondence?), and about how a writer’s life can be shaped for posterity.
Do you love to read biographies of writers? If so, have you thought much about the impartiality of the biographer and what agenda they might have? How impartial can a biography ever really be, when any writer will bring his own prejudices, tastes and preconceptions to the task before him? And if you knew that someone would write about your life once you are gone, what would you set about destroying immediately? Let me know by leaving a comment.