Many years ago, while doing research on the life of the anthropologist Verrier Elwin, I found myself in the library of the great old publishing house of John Murray, on Albemarle Street in central London. Elwin had once been a Murray author; and so had been some far more distinguished people. One such was the poet Lord Byron. Indeed, I sat working in the very room where had occurred one of the most notorious acts of literary vandalism, the burning of Byron’s papers.
When Byron died in 1818, his memoirs were with John Murray, awaiting publication. However, his colleagues now prevailed upon the publisher to abandon the project. The ‘memoirs were fit only for a brothel and damn Lord Byron to certain infamy if published’, said one friend. Another friend urged John Murray to ‘destroy whatever writing of his [that] might be discreditable to his fame’. Eventually, a bonfire was made of Byron’s memoirs and of hundreds of his letters.
A century later, the papers of another great writer were set ablaze. This time the arsonist was the author himself. This was the novelist Henry James who, in the evening of his life, asked his friends and family to return the letters he had written them. Once they had all come back to him, he burnt them in his own garden.
James’s intention was similar to that of Byron’s friends—to forestall a future biographer from excavating the secrets of his life. But, as one could have predicted, the effort was in vain. There were plenty of letters that had escaped his attention, so many in fact that his eventual, and magisterial, biographer, Leon Edel, wrote a five volume biography that tracked James’s life day-by-day and week-by-week, if not quite hour-by-hour. Adding insult to injury, Edel then proceeded to edit a five volume collection of James’s letters in the original.
As for John Murray, later generations of the publisher’s family came to regret and atone for that original act of destruction. They made assiduous attempts to collect letters to, by and about Byron, eventually depositing some 10, 000 of these in the National Library of Scotland where they can be consulted by those who wish to write about Byron’s fame and, if they so wish, his infamy.
Letters are to a biographer what water is to a fish (or spin bowlers to Mahendra Singh Dhoni). Without them he could not live. With them he lives luxuriantly. My own biography of Elwin was only made possible by letters that he had written to others, and which had since been preserved. Elwin came out to India in 1927; and lived here until his death in 1967. In those years he wrote to his mother in England twice a week; and to his sister Eldyth once a week. In the 1980s, Eldyth Elwin lived in a nursing home outside Oxford, where she was visited by Dr Richard Bingle, a archivist of legendary ability (and charm) who worked with the India Office Library and Records in London. Dr Bingle asked whether she had any materials of her brother’s. The old lady signalled to her nurse, who pulled out a black box from under the bed. Inside were thousands of handwritten lettters from her brother. It took Dr Bingle’s legendary charm to persuade her to part with them. Now they constitute the core of the ‘Verrier Elwin Collection’ at the British Library.
I have often wondered—what will happen to the art of biography in this age of email? In the old days, letters were written because there was something to say, and because they was little else to do. In the image-saturated world we now live in, time off from work is so easily spent in a movie theatre, surfing the Net, or watching television. Few people write letters any more. And those that do get written are the terse, uncommunicative mails that seem so depressingly typical of this ‘age of communication’. And even with regard to these emails—what happens to them, finally? Are they ever collected and filed? Where will one look for them in the future?
In retrospect, one might come to look upon the 19th and 20th centuries as the golden age of biography. In these centuries, serious attempts were made to classify and preserve records in archives properly protected from the dust and the monsoon. In these centuries, people of historical importance—politicians, generals, writers et. al.—wrote letters long in length and rich in emotion. Things now are all too different. The great figures of the 21st century will pose special and possibly insurmountable problems for those who choose to write their lives. As one whose own subjects lived in the past, I can have only pity and compassion for the biographers of the future.
Published in The Hindu, 26/3/2006