A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Janet Todd is the author (among many other books) of Death and the Maidens: Fanny Wollstonecraft and the Shelley Circle – one of the best books I’ve read in a long time, and which I raved about here – as well as the general editor of the new Cambridge editions of Jane Austen, and, as of next week, the President of Lucy Cavendish College at Cambridge.
She was kind enough to answer some questions for us about biography-writing, historical fiction, the Shelley circle and Austen – and we’ve also got a copy of Death and the Maidens to give away. Read on…
Firstly, this is something that has always fascinated me: how are you drawn, as a biographer, to a particular subject? You must have found Fanny through her mother, but you could easily have written about Mary Shelley instead. What was it that made you notice Fanny on the sidelines and think, ‘there’s a story that needs to be told’?
I was very involved in the feminist movement in the US, both as an activist and then as a scholar excavating early women writers (this work culminated in The Sign of Angellica from Virago). Over the years I became more and more drawn both to biography and to reflections on the feminist movement. Mary Wollstonecraft combined the two concerns. She always interested me with her extraordinary mix of selflessness and egoisim, and I came to wonder if, to be a revolutionary, a person had to be egotistical–had to believe in herself to the extent that she could avoid the encroachments of others and be a little blinded to their needs.
Self-absorbed people exert a sort of fascination and Fanny felt this-for her mother in reality and idea, for her step father William Godwin and for the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. For my book I was keen not to see Fanny-as some commentators had seen her when they mentioned her at all-through modern terms such as ‘depressive’ or ‘masochistic’. I don’t think she enjoyed suffering; she simply suffered towards the end of her life and circumstances were against her. I also saw her as someone who had the capacity to put other people’s needs before her own-with all the repercussions that such a capacity entailed. I am interested in the isolated individual, someone who has none of the supports of family, religion and community. Mary Shelley was far less isolated than Fanny and so less interesting in this respect. Also she has been well served by biographers.
When I wrote the Wollstonecraft biography I dealt with a person who was in part her own autobiographer and largely made the terms on which she wanted to be received (where I moved away from these I met hostility from some reviewers-well, one in particular). I then wanted to write about a person influenced by her but whose inner life was not so publicly given. At that point I was keen to write on Fanny but the publishers to whom I suggested her steered me towards my other possible subject, Lady Mount Cashell (Rebel Daughters). I don’t think this book quite worked, mainly because there was no way to get very close to the subject and because I found it more difficult to imagine the inner life of an aristocratic lady than that of a struggling middle class woman. After finishing that book I was determined to write on Fanny, whether anyone wanted the work or not.
The publishers I approached insisted that the book be on all the Godwin girls. But I knew it had to have Fanny centre stage, even if so much less was known about her than of Mary and Claire Clairmont. That in the way was the point-though you are right in your review: she does tend to disappear at times even in my narrative, and of course those who covered up her death meant her to do so. But I wanted to give her as loud a voice as I could. I was always haunted by the travels of Mary Wollstonecraft in Scandinavia with her lively, spirited little girl. When I saw the coroner’s list of unclaimed bodies, which included this once spirited girl, I really did feel her story had to be told.
The Romantics made it very hard to divorce the art from the artist’s personality. Does this kind of intellectual detachment become impossible after you’ve spent a certain amount of time delving into these people’s lives? For example, can you read and appreciate Shelley’s poetry without being reminded of his unpleasantness as a person? Or do you feel, as a feminist, that it’s the reader’s responsibility to be aware of the implications of everything he stood for?
Personally I think you can separate aesthetics and ethics. In biography you usually sees the world with one central figure but there are obviously other views and in the end I would hope to illustrate and suggest but not really judge. So, yes, to answer your question, l love some of Shelley’s poetry but not all. I much prefer the occasional lyrics to the big mythological works. In the latter I don’t think he has the stature of Keats or Wordsworth.
In the summer of 1818 when he saw the death of his daughter he thought almost entirely of himself not Mary and I found him repellent; and yet he wrote two of his finest poems, ‘Lines written among the Euganean Hills’ and ‘Julian and Maddalo’. I guess I come back to my point that genius is usually egocentric and takes its toll on others. For later readers, if not for the immediate sufferers, it may be worth the price…. I think I could forgive Shelley a lot if he weren’t so self-righteous; in that respect a straightforward anti-feminist like Byron is more appealing.
Are you writing another biography at the moment, or thinking of starting one?
My present work is finishing off my Jane Austen edition-the last volume is just in but not proofed. But I have been collecting material for something on the Shelleys and Byron in Venice in 1818 when the baby Clara Shelley dies. So much mystery surrounds the event. Various Italians declare they have documents but it is an uphill struggle to get them to let me see them. Venice seems to keep no records of Protestant deaths.
You’re an Austen scholar, but you’ve also worked on other early women novelists. What in your opinion makes Jane Austen so special? Does she really dwarf all her contemporary competition, or do you think some of these contemporaries deserve to be much better known than they currently are?
I do think Austen is ‘greater’ than the other writers of her time, including Walter Scott, Maria Edgeworth, and Frances Burney, the main rivals. Of these I find Burney the most interesting. Austen has skills quite beyond Burney-her experiments with free indirect speech, her depiction of inner lives. At the same time Burney has a wider range: she shows people in emotional crises and she has a more extensive canvas in terms of class. So it is irritating when she is just seen as a poor relation of Jane Austen.
After enjoying the narrative of Death and the Maidens so much, I’m not at all surprised you’re also writing novels… As a biographer and historian, you have obvious advantages as an historical novelist – but are there any disadvantages to knowing your time period too well from an academic perspective? Also, knowing Austen’s works as well as you do – and in such meticulous detail – does it make it easier or harder for you to give your own imaginative slant to them?
I have to admit that I have just written a novel, loosely based on Jane Austen-not another sequel I hear you say – not quite, but a retelling. I see it as a way into historical fiction, which is what I want to write in future.
Whether or not my spinoff is published , I enjoyed writing it. My historical knowledge was useful I think: I liked the fact that I knew what street led into what in the London of about 1814. The influence of Jane Austen herself is more complicated. While she is inimitable in the broad sense, there are tricks of style it is very easy to echo; indeed it is pleasurable to seem to be echoing her-but probably for others it is as irritating as I find the ‘prythees’ of students dressed up as Elizabethans in English stately homes during wet summers. As Austen on the web indicates, it is agreeable to slip into Austenland and hard to leave; it’s always an interactive world, only a little beholden to Jane Austen the great novelist.
Lastly, please recommend five books…
Aphra Behn’s The Fair Jilt. This is a novella written in the Restoration. Despite being so early it has not been bettered in its depiction of the complex psychology of sex and self-gratification. It is also cunning in its use of a narrator who undercuts many of the clichés she seems to be delivering to the reader: such as the repentance of the wickedly energetic central character. It catches, too, the huge influence of fickle public opinion on our individual attitudes.
Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite francaise, an unfinished work about the German invasion of France in 1940. This is a wonderful work full of startling details of human nature under pressure. Considering the author’s own precarious position, it is also remarkably full of humanity and tolerance. One of the great novels of the 20th century.
William Boyd The New Confessions. I have friends who struggled with this and didn’t like the use of an 18th century work to illuminate the 20th century film industry, but I found it an amazing achievement. It ranges from Rousseau to the trenches of the First World War to Hollywood. All are well realized and the whole is more enjoyable than I am making it sound.
Penelope Fitzgerald The Gate of Angels . I was first attracted to this because it was yet another novel partly set in Cambridge, which, like Venice, is perhaps too thickly overlaid with fiction. I soon saw that this was quite different from the others, spare, taut, shrewd and brilliant. The story, set in the early 20th century, brings together across class and education a Cambridge fellow and a poor and spirited London nurse; it economically pits ideologies of religion and science, metaphysical speculation and human discomfort. The style is clipped and the narrator wastes no words
Anita Desai’s Clear Light of Day. I must confess at once that I count Anita as a friend but even without this bonus I would find this a wonderful book. Set in Old Delhi, it is slow, beautifully written, reminding me of Chekhov in its sense of historical change outside the frame of the work. It is a picture of delicate emotions and of minds filled with cultures and languages that sometimes cohere, sometimes clash and often make both character and reader uneasy.
The winner of the giveaway copy will be drawn this Sunday, 31 August, so don’t forget to leave a comment! (As usual, my vulpine fellows are ineligible…)
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