Who was the author, anyway?

Can a writer be unravelled from her writing? I’ve been discussing Elizabeth Taylor short stories again, this week, and as she was getting published at a time when another Elizabeth Taylor was regularly in the headlines, this has involved some investigation into the writer’s life.

The role of the author was one of the questions we examined when I was at University. I’m remembering in particular, the 1967 essay, Death of the Author, by the French critic and theorist Roland Barthes.

Barthes argued that reading with an awareness of the experiences and biases of the author, limits our experience of the text. He suggested that it is only when the text is anonymous, that we can see multiple layers of meaning drawn from “innumerable centres of culture”.

He went on to propose that the reader was more important than the writer. It’s a useful thought for a reading group, from an essay that was intended to raise debate.

If ever there was an author who seems perfectly fitted to this warning to read the text without expectations, it’s surely Elizabeth Taylor. Here was a woman who looked middle-class, was married to a successful businessman, had two children and lived in a large country house. A lot of her stories involve just such women, and a lot more don’t. Yet somehow she came to be seen as a writer who was always looking back. Worse, she wrote about domestic situations, so in Britain, she became known as a woman’s writer.

One way to counter this narrow approach might be to read Nicola Beauman’s biography, The Other Elizabeth Taylor. It contains some surprising revelations about the life of the woman who in 1953, told The New York Herald Tribune:

I am always disconcerted when asked for my life story, for nothing sensational, thank heavens, has ever happened.

Our idea about how this statement works depends on the definition we assign to that word sensational. But put that aside, because even if you decide that Elizabeth Taylor was being evasive with her answer, reading the biography still returns us to the question of ‘so what?’, in terms of how we read her fiction. Do the unexpected aspects of her life mean her writing should be read in a specific way?

Perhaps we should turn to another author to think about this. In 1986, her friend Robert Liddell published a memoir about his friendship with Elizabeth Taylor and Ivy Compton-Burnett.

“Later we were  both shocked (as Ivy was) by the betrayal of Rose Macaulay by her literary executor, who published some of her intimate correspondence, and Elizabeth remarked how coy and silly letters could look when seen out of context.  We both detested Katherine Mansfield and her whining, coarse letters, and we were aware that our private jokes and Ivyisms would look no better to outsiders than her Dickensianism and her ‘my strikes!’ […] in the course of the years, there were some letters that were painful, and meant for no other eyes: and no other eyes will see them.

Elizabeth and Ivy by R Liddell

How tricky it is to hold true to the wishes of the dead. I might condemn John Middleton Murray for going against his wife’s bar on publishing her private letters and diaries, but I’ve read them. I claim it was background for my reading groups, as I do all the material I’ve looked at for Elizabeth Taylor, Elizabeth Gaskell, Somerset Maugham, T.H. White, Kate Atkinson…

I’m left with the question that I keep taking to my reading groups: does knowing more about the lives of writers inform us as readers, and/or writers, or is story enough?

17 thoughts on “Who was the author, anyway?

  1. An interesting question. One way of dealing with it might be to read the story first then read about the author. Does the new knowledge alter one’s perspective of elements in the story. For example, if a story contains a life threatening illness for a character which changes his/her actions and subsequently one discovers the author or a loved one had the self same illness. Does that plot element now seem more poignant, more truthful, more believable?
    On a minor scale, I read a recent Sherlock Holmes ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ by a modern author. I loved it and the language was excellent. On two occasions, however, the sentence was American English. It didn’t spoil my overall joy with the story but when I read the author’s background and to my gratification learned he was American.

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    • Hmm, this sounds like a recommendation. I’ll have to look the Sherlock Holmes story up. I’m always interested to see what writers do with characters who’ve been created and established by other writers.

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  2. I haven’t heard of Elizabeth Taylor (well, not this one). I am disappointed to see behind the curtain that these people I had an image of, as someone I would love a cuppa with, aren’t. Actors/Actresses are busily driving me away from all movies because they can’t “shut up and act” (a variance on a different quote).

    Sigh. Good and interesting question.

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    • Thanks, Jacqui.
      I know what you mean about discovering the real personalities of actors – I suppose the personas they present in interview are so surprising because they’re so convincing when acting, which therefore proves they’re good at what they do. I’ve stopped watching chat shows, to save my disappointment.

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  3. A thought-provoking question, Cath. I’m reading Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley at the moment and the cover blurb suggests that two of the protagonists may be based on–even a tribute to–Charlotte’s recently deceased sisters, Emily and Anne. Makes it hard not to read autobiographical nuances into the storyline, even though some distance is gained by the novel being set before any of them were born.

    The ‘innocent’ reader may be an ideal for Barthes and others, but I find that I appreciate a work more (and read it more closely perhaps) when I know the context of its composition or historical setting. A tricky, almost slippery, notion!

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    • I think it’s because it’s such a tricky question that I like it so much. When it suits me, I’m incapable of ignoring snippets of information about inspiration. For me, that’s the kind of information that opens a text to new ways of reading. 🙂

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  4. It’s a thorny question. Does our knowledge that Dickens sentimentalised Christmas at home at the same time as cold-shouldering his wife affect our enjoyment of ‘A Christmas Carol’? In the end, I suspect artistic criteria which include intrinsic ‘truth’ will always win the day. Biographical details are significant but only one consideration. In that sense, I suppose, the Barthes theory ‘that reading with an awareness of the experiences and biases of the author, limits our experience of the text’ could be amended – with care, perhaps, could such awareness enhance that experience?

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  5. Interesting to read this. I taught a WEA course on Elizabeth Taylor to a very receptive class a few years ago and used Nicola Beauman’s excellent biography as part of it. I visited the village of Penn in Buckinghamshire where she lived an had lunch at The Crown. She is a much underrated writer and both her novels and short stories are well worth reading and discussing at length. Anyone who wants a course about her life and work, let me know.

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    • How nice to meet a fellow fan. Yes, definitely underrated. I think she was an exceptional writer, and am always recommending her. Like you, I’ve found her short stories are great for reading-group discussions. If I lived in your district I’d certainly sign up.

      I’ve just looked you up, and notice you were doing Canadian literature last term, with some of my favourite authors. Bet that was interesting, too.

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  6. Lots to ponder here. On the one hand, I can’t help but let the author’s life (what I know of it, anyway) influence my interpretation of the text; on the other hand, I don’t want my interpretation to be dictated to me. That takes the fun out of assessing it myself. Hmmm. Thoughtful post, my friend!

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  7. I almost prefer not to even consider the question and to follow my own intuition and curiosity, because for many novels the question never arises and yet there are others where I often find myself wondering about the writer and their inspiration and so I will go looking to try and answer my personal question. Most recently it was after reading Sandrine Collette’s excellent Nothing But Dust set in the arid plateau of Patagonia, Argtentina. I checked to see if there any interviews with the author in an attempt to understand whether her writing was inspired by having been there or was it pure imagination?
    One of my favourite authors Maryse Condé, I started out reading essays of her childhood, which in my mind contribute to understanding the path through fiction she then followed and even when I writes reviews when I have these insights I share them, I find them interesting and they certainly enrich my reading experience, but not every work sets me off on such personal adventures of literary discovery.

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