In search of the “good” writer, Elspeth Sandys

Growing up, as I did, in a bookish and quietly religious household, I concluded at an early age that a “good’” book – and that meant the classics, the reading of which was assumed to make you a better person – had to have been written by a “good “ – ie morally sound – person. Though I no longer believe this, I still hanker after a world in which such a truth would be self-evident. When I think of the time I wasted trying to prove the connection between “good” book and “good” person, both in my own writing and in my reaction to other writers, I feel an exasperated impatience with my earlier, naïve self. But I’m not prepared to dismiss her entirely.

My father, a printer-publisher, whose ghostly presence I feel every time I walk into Whitcoulls, changeling child of his modest Dunedin business, published books on the settlement of Otago, the Presbyterian Church, and the Royal Family. Given that his library reflected his views, I grew up reading the great and good books of the Victorian and earlier eras. The companions of my somewhat isolated and eccentric childhood were characters from Dickens, Thackeray, Trollope, Arnold Bennett, George Eliot, Jane Austen, Mrs Gaskell, the Brontes, and – one of the books my father read aloud to my brother and me – Pilgrim’s Progress.

Perhaps my father thought the “good” in literature had come to an end with World War I because anything published after 1920 was hard to find. Katherine Mansfield was one of the exceptions. Her complete works, bound in leather, were favourites of mine, as much for the addictive smell of the leather bindings, as for the stories themselves. But there was no Virginia Woolf and no D H Lawrence, though Robert Graves put in an appearance, and Thomas Hardy had a whole shelf to himself.

Presumably my father had not read the reviews of Jude the Obscure and Tess of the d’Urbervilles, novels universally condemned at the time of publication as “immoral”.

One whole bookcase was given over to poetry. Only years later did it strike me that the poets represented there were all pre-World War I. Presumably the voices of modernism, of T S Eliot et al, were too disturbing to be allowed houseroom in my father’s gallery of “good” books.

My conviction that “good” books and “good” people were somehow synonymous lasted until well into my 20s. Not even the discovery by my brother of a picture book of nudes, concealed behind Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, dented my faith. My father would never have purchased such a book. Someone must have given it to him, and he was too polite to throw it away. Which didn’t, of course, stop my brother and me from studying the book as if it were a map that would lead us to buried treasure. Buxom Victorian nudes and their moustachioed gentlemen will forever take precedence in my imagination over the stick-thin beauties of our later, anorexic age.

It was only when I got to university that my faith began seriously to waver. The first thing I realised was that novels were not about escaping reality but about living in it. This was a shocking revelation! Who was I to identify with? Cathy Earnshaw? Jane Eyre? Becky Sharp? Tess? Maggie in Mill on the Floss? Sue in Jude the Obscure? Clarissa in Richardson’s interminable tale of good versus evil?

Almost overnight the very act of reading became fraught with danger. My sense of the “good” began to fray around the edges. I still believed that Thackeray had “good” intentions, was in fact a “good” man when he wrote Vanity Fair. But what about Katherine Mansfield? She was on our course list. We were turning our half-formed minds to the study of her world. Where did her stories come from? How relevant was her life with the Bloomsbury set? With Middleton Murry? How relevant was the fact (well-documented: shock horror!) of her abortion? How much should we extrapolate from the known facts of her exile and her illness? How seriously should we take her literary competitiveness; even (shock horror again!) her literary bitchiness?

My response to these challenges was to cite the one writer, surely the greatest in the world, about whose life we know almost nothing – Shakespeare. Since his plays and poetry were universally acknowledged to be “good” in the most inclusive sense of that word, and since his life was more or less a closed book, shouldn’t we show the same respect to Katherine Mansfield and leave her poor sad life alone?

It goes without saying that in arguing for some kind of separation of the writer and the work I was going  (and have continued to go) against the tide.

Since World War II literary biographies have virtually displaced novels as the first choice of the reading public. It seems we cannot be expected to understand Coleridge or James Joyce or Janet Frame (to name but three from the vast tribe of writers whose lives have been put under the microscope) unless we know the most intimate details of their lives. Very few writers survive this scrutiny. Only the greatest emerge with their work still intact.

Julian Barnes, a fine, unpredictable novelist, once described writers as “not nice”. He then went on to detail the ways in which they were “not nice”, condemning them most especially for their arrogant conviction that they alone possess the skills necessary to decide what is true. His conclusion – that sooner or later the people close to them (could he have meant their biographers?) would stand up and fight back – should strike a chill in the heart of every fiction writer.

What Barnes was addressing in this particular essay was the age-old argument that writers are engaged in a quest for truth (Truth!). He doesn’t deny the validity of the quest, but he does deplore the effect such a lofty ambition can have on a less than “good” writer. There are too many variations on this theme to take up here, but I think Barnes would agree with A N Wilson that fiction writers are men and women who “tell lies in order to arrive at the truth”.

Can liars be “good” people? Yes, is the implication, if what they are doing constitutes a genuine search for the truth. This paradox is, for me, best expressed in the stories of Jean Rhys. Rhys spent most of her writing life portraying women (like herself, admittedly) as victims of the mendacity and heartlessness of men. But deep down she knew this wasn’t true, or at least not the whole truth. Eventually, over a painful nine-year period, she wrote The Wide Sargasso Sea, her masterpiece, in which the man and the woman (Rochester and Antoinette) both play games, lie, fall in love, fall out of love, suffer and are betrayed. Rhys has been described as a “monster” in her treatment of her husbands and her daughter, but with this book she truly “earned her death” (her phrase). What do the sordid details of her life matter alongside her courage in writing The Wide Sargasso Sea?

Doris Lessing has written perceptively about what happens to language when a writer is not telling the truth: when he or she is engaged in special pleading or false polemics. One of the reasons I don’t read autobiography (though I have read Lessing’s) is that I suspect the author of going in for special pleading. I’ve yet to hear of a writer confessing to cheating his employers or the Inland Revenue, though I know one author of an acclaimed autobiography who did both.

These days writers are identified with their work in ways that would have astounded and alarmed those eminent Victorians whose fictional characters were my childhood companions. Does it help in our reading of Moll Flanders to know that Defoe spent time in prison for seditious libel? Are Tolstoy’s novels enriched by the knowledge that he was often unkind to his wife? What are we to make of Philip Larkin’s poems now we have such shocking evidence of his bigotry? Can we even read them knowing him to be a racist and a misogynist?

Yet I would be the last to deny that biographical facts influence the way we react to the work. I once sat next to Vidia Naipaul at a lunch party and had the audacity to comment on his portrayal of women in his novels. He was relatively unknown at the time or no doubt I wouldn’t have dared. “You don’t seem to like women very much” was more or less what I said. His answer, delivered in the coldest of voices, was, “It’s not a question of not liking women, I just don’t think they’re very important.”

Is it any wonder it took me 20 years to read anything else by him?

Perhaps the last word should go to one of the best (I hope my father would agree) novelists of the last 50 years – Margaret Atwood. Surely no one could argue with the suggestion that her novels, in addition to being well-written, extend the range of our humanity. That the world of contemporary literature is often muddied by bitchiness and rivalry is no secret. Stories of Atwood’s “difficulty” and “arrogance” are legion. The response to these accusations can be found in her excellent book about the writing life, Negotiating with  the Dead: “Wanting to meet the author because you like her book is like wanting to meet the duck because you like pâté.” My sentiments exactly.


Elspeth Sandys is a Wellington novelist and playwright. 


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