On Memory and Living with a Long Past
2 April 2013: It must be working in museums that has made me mildly obsessed with questions of time and memory, and where our own lives end and history begins. With these thoughts in mind, I went to interview the biographer Victoria Glendinning – since time, memory and story are all central to the practice of biography. Victoria is a tall, brisk, amused woman in her seventies whose working life has spanned that golden era, which began with the end of the Second World War and which will end with whatever comes next. She has written biographies of Rebecca West, Elizabeth Bowen, Edith Sitwell and Vita Sackville-West. She has also lived in Spain, Yorkshire, London, Ireland and Somerset, and along with numerous books has had three husbands and four children.
So here I am, sitting in her kitchen in Somerset, nursing a cup of coffee and looking out on bare-looking hills and fields. Somerset is cold – we are at the end of a long, cold winter – but the kitchen is warm and there is a husband and a cat going in and out.
I tell her that I am interested in a biographer’s life because of the way it makes you live with history. I am also – though I don’t quite say this – curious to know what it feels like to have such a long life behind you. Victoria seems endlessly self-confident but not much given (by her own account) to introspection so that when my questions get intrusive she gets up to make another pot of coffee, leaning against the stove to get warm, or sweetly turns my questions round and asks them back at me. But still, with many cups of coffee, cigarettes and some prompting, this is what she tells me.
‘You ask me why I chose to write about those women? Well, they were all remarkable in their way. Rebecca was borderline dotty; Vita was deviant; and Elizabeth didn’t know if she was English or Irish. But they were all exceptional, and you see, they weren’t my mother’s generation, they were that bit older, and I think that made them that much more interesting to me. I relate not only to my subjects but to the times they lived in, and I think we are always more interested in our grandparents’, rather than our parent’s, times.
‘And there does seem to be a phenomenon by which we feel that we have a special relationship to certain eras. I think we do the Victorians well; we are fascinated by the eighteenth century although we understand it badly; we can’t begin to get our heads around the seventeenth century – and then there are the Tudors with whom we are obsessed though I don’t know why. And yet I personally have to work very hard to enter into the mind-set of someone living before 1815. That seems to be the cut off point, and before that I think they had different furniture inside their heads. We understand the 19th century because we still live in Victorian houses and own Victorian things. But before 1815, well, the men wore long, curly wigs – which is just a detail but symptomatic of how hard it is to understand them. I once wrote a book about Jonathan Swift and found it very difficult indeed to get inside his head.
‘And so,’ I say, not wishing to disrupt the flow but thinking that I might guide it slightly, ‘I suppose I’m interested in the way that we are always trying to make sense of our lives, to see a shape in them?’
‘Ah,’ she says, ‘that’s the thing about a life, that one is always trying to see a pattern and a shape in it. An old lady I once knew said that life was like being under a huge tapestry and all you could see were the threads that hung down when the colours changed, but if we could see what’s on top there would be a pattern. In fact I am not sure there would be but even so that’s why people read biography, in order to see a shape in it. And perhaps also that’s why people write biographies, because even though I lead an unexamined life – a life unshrunk – even so you do explore yourself through other people, because a bit of you is always saying, ‘Could I have done that? Would I have done that?” And that’s the only way I can look at myself. Indirectly.’
‘But you know,’ she says, settling into her coffee, ‘that’s another thing, because when you write the story of a life it has to include the story of the death as well. I hate writing about my subjects’ deaths – having brought them into life I can’t bear to kill them off – but if you don’t do the death it doesn’t work. When I was finishing my biography of Trollope I tried to finish it before he died, at a time when I knew that he was old but happy, but it was wrong and the readers would have known it, because they would have known that this wasn’t really the ending.
‘Have you even read Derrida’s wonderful book,’ she asks, pouring me more coffee, ‘the one called ‘Archive Fever’? Don’t bother with the rest of what he wrote – it’s quite unreadable – but ‘Archive Fever’ is wonderful. It talks about the public work, the letters, the evidence, the facts and so on, but how there is also an interior archive, which is the inner experience of the subject. What psychoanalysis tries to do, and what biographers do as well, is untangle that inner archive. But the truth about the past, you know, is that you never get there. It’s all constructs and play, but so long as you know it’s play it doesn’t matter.
‘And so,’ I ask her, ‘If someone was writing your biography four generations from now, where would you advise them to look?
‘Ah, she says, ‘they would find that very hard because I cover my traces well. At different stages in my life I’ve kept a diary but I’ve also had various bonfires in which everything’s been burnt, although I kept a diary when my second husband Terence was dying, which I still have, because burning that would have been like burning him. But I keep important letters – don’t you?’
‘I suppose I do,’ I say, ‘because I think our predecessors deserve not to be forgotten, just as I would feel a little sorry if my descendants didn’t know anything about me. I have enough ego to want to be remembered – and I think by the same token those who came before me also deserve to be remembered.’
‘But basically,’ she says, ‘you only live as long as there is someone alive who remembers you or who remembers someone talking about you. After that we’re compost. And probably that’s three or four generations down the line, just as we only remember back for three or four generations, to our grandparents or great-grandparents. It is remarkable how quickly we are all forgotten.’
‘Do you know the Bronte Museum?’ she asks me. ‘So you know the Parsonage and the tombstones? Well, next to it they have built a typical visitor centre but what really haunted me when I went there was a dress of Charlotte’s from when she was grown-up. It makes you realise just how tiny those people were. Nowadays it would fit a slim eleven year old – those tiny shoulders, that little waist – and suddenly you see the physicality, the smallness of her, the scale of the world in which she lived.’
‘But while we are talking about objects,’ she says, ‘I will tell you one thing that gets to me, and that’s the fact that the red plastic bucket in my hall will live longer than anyone I love. Once, on my 40th birthday, I was given a ring that I didn’t really like and never really wore, by a man I loved – by Terence – and sometimes I take it out and look at it and I can see the field in Ireland where he gave it to me. So this ring that I do not really like has this huge significance for me, and yet when I die no one will know this story or how much it mattered to me.’
‘So one last question,’ I say, ’Looking back on it all – the journeys, the marriages, the children, the books – does it feel like one complete life or like many disconnected lives?’
‘I suppose it feels like a book with many chapters. But there are continuities. My houses tend to follow similar patterns – the same choice of colours, that sort of thing – and so do the gardens. So domesticity is the thread that holds them all together. But you know, my life really has just been what happened, and then what happened next. And then and then and then.’
‘And how do you remember your past selves? With affection or impatience?’
‘Oh lord. I think I feel “My god, cor blimey, did I really do that?” But you know, you did what you did because you were that kind of person, and no life is lived without a good deal of trampling on other people. It’s not exactly “je ne regrette rien” but it is acceptance.’
After talking to Victoria, I went and found a copy of Derrida’s ‘Archive Fever’. It’s a dense jungle of a book and so slippery that just as you think you’ve found the heart of it, it slips away into another proposition. It’s one of those books from which each person takes something different and which can accommodate dozens of different interpretations. What I took from it is as follows – that the Archive is not a physical place but that unstable mix of memory, dreams and thoughts, half public and half private, that each of us carries inside our heads. It is the thing that makes us human and the place where psychoanalysis unfolds. And because to understand ourselves we have to understand the Archive, so we all of us suffer from Archive Fever, which is the ‘compulsive, repetitive and nostalgic desire for the Archive, an irrepressible desire to return to the origin, a homesickness, a nostalgia for the return to the most archaic place of absolute commencement.’ Or, to put it another way, to be there at our Beginnings.