Lives Revisited: Rambles in Biography. Peter Ustinov and Dorothy L. Sayers.

DSCN1318 - Version 2Ustinov, Peter, Dear Me.  Harmondsworth, Mddx.: Penguin, 1977.

Reynolds, Barbara. Dorothy L. Sayers: Her Life and Soul. 1993. London: Hodder and  Stoughton-Scepter, 1994.

How different is the situation of the biographer in comparison with that of the writer of fiction. What is the plot structure of biographical writing? Yes, life has the conventional plot shape of birth, development and complication followed ultimately by death, but does the death of the subject actually provide a satisfactory denouement? And if one’s subject is still living, then where does one end and why? And where does the autobiographer say, “the end, at least for now”? Churchill ends his My Early Life with the words “I married and lived happily ever afterwards” (Winston S. Churchill, My Early Life. [Scribers 1930] New York: Manor Books, 1972, 372). Given what one knows of Churchill’s life after his marriage in 1908, one suspects he rather misspeaks himself and strains our credulity somewhat. It is nevertheless stylistically a satisfactory ending.

DSCN1318 - Version 13Biography and autobiography are I suppose written for several reasons. What are sometimes called “Celebrity Biographies,” are I imagine written to satisfy the curiosity of fans, and no doubt to make some money. My cynical self chips in here and recalls to mind Samuel Jonson’s comments about “blockheads”, writing, and money, but I continue, nevertheless. Money isn’t necessarily the spur. Most biography is explanatory in some way. Some are even referred to as literary biographies or critical biographies. I’m tempted to use the term apologetic in its original classical form of meaning the defence of a stance (usually religious belief) through the systematic presentation of evidence. Therefore, when reading biography, although I am dealing with a narrative, rather than focussing on what happens, I’m looking for the writer’s conclusions about what happens. I’m looking often for the moral explanation of why someone did what he or she did; or, despite having been educated during a time when biographical criticism was little esteemed, I’m looking for how the life is reflected by the work. If there is no ultimate argument to the biography, then it becomes rather boring, and I find myself asking, “what was the thesis of this book? Why did the writer bother to write it?”

DSCN1318 - Version 18You are probably asking yourself that very question right now. Why is she rambling on about biography? Well, because I have just reread two: Peter Ustinov’s Dear Me [1977] and Barbara Reynolds’ Dorothy L. Sayers: Her Life and Soul [1993]. “Why?” you may ask given that there are so many newer books available to read. And my answer is personal. I am about to move house, downsizing temporarily from a three bedroom house to a one bedroom apartment while we build another house on one of the Gulf Islands between mainland BC and Vancouver Island. And just about all my books are to be packed into storage. Some, heaven forefend, will be donated, given away, sold, and otherwise disposed of. If you are the kind of bibliophile as I am, you will appreciate that this exercise feels something akin to a major amputation. And, then, too, of course, the whole stress of a move left me wanting to engage with something familiar. I reached for Ustinov first because I remembered his book as amusing, even clever.

It did not fail to amuse. Ustinov recalls his life in a mildly self-deprecating way and engages with conversations with himself, hence his title Dear Me. Me will question I’s version of events.

English by birth but not by heritage, his antecedents being German, French, Russian, and DSCN1318 - Version 4Ethiopian, Ustinov grew up in West London. In some ways, his early life appears to be very much that of a middle class London boy of the time (the twenties and thirties), day prep school followed by Westminster. But there is always that something that is a little different about him. He’s better at tennis than at team sports, for example. And then there’s the fact that Ustinov’s father was until the late thirties a German Citizen, a Press Attaché working from the German Embassy until one day he “left the German Embassy for the last time, . . .with a British passport already in his pocket” (101-02), and Ustinov became used to “comings and goings” (104) at his home about which he was sworn to secrecy, though he himself was turned down by MI6 for not having “a face that could be lost in a crowd” (119): a disadvantage for a spy but surely not for an actor.

DSCN1318 - Version 5It is Ustinov the British film actor with whom I was most familiar. What the biography revealed to me was Ustinov the cosmopolitan author and producer/director. Dear Me suggests a man who admits to his own weaknesses but also knows his own strengths. It is more than simply an amusing book—some critics have labelled it “hilarious”; it is at heart quite a serious work about the search for self knowledge and understanding, a book that acknowledges the frailty of humanity while retaining optimism in the future. It falls then very much into that category of autobiography I referred to earlier, the apologia.

The other work I reread was Barbara Reynolds’ 1993 biography Dorothy L. Sayers: Her DSCN1318 - Version 6Life and Soul. I suspect this book began as a kind of introduction to Reynolds’ work on Sayers’ letters, edited by Reynolds into several volumes some of which are now out of print. Reynolds claims in her introduction to her work that “no definitive biography . . . can be written until her letters are published” (11). I wonder if there is ever such a thing as a “definitive” biography, but perhaps I’m too picky. The only other biography I’ve read of Sayers is Janet Hitchman’s 1975 work Such a Strange Lady. Vera Brittain also refers briefly to Sayers in Testament of Youth. What all three writers seem to emphasise is Sayers’ individuality bordering on eccentricity.

DSCN1318 - Version 18Reynolds’ focus is very much on what she believes enspirited Sayers. I can’t think of another way of expressing it. She traces Sayers’ life focusing particularly towards the end on Sayers’ spiritual attitudes and on her Anglo-Catholicism. This is the side of Sayers that I myself have always found somewhat difficult to take, not her beliefs but what those beliefs did to what she wrote. In common with many others of her readers, I suspect, I prefer the Wimsey books to her religious writing, which I find too consciously archaic at times even as one senses the attempt to make the subject matter contemporary. For example, in The Zeal of Thy House (full text available on line (https://archive.org/stream/zealofthyhouse012297mbp/zealofthyhouse012297mbp_djvu.txt) the angels speak a kind of fake middle English while the other characters speak like mid-twentieth century people. Perhaps my distaste also stems from memories of playing one of the monks in a performance of the work put on as the annual school play. Enough said.

Reynolds’ biography of Sayers does not fall into the trap of simply listing what happened DSCN1318 - Version 13and what more happened. It is engaging in its insights and although arranged as one might expect chronologically, her theme of a developing “soul” is well supported. I enjoyed rereading it, though at times I experienced some amusement that I don’t think Reynolds intended. I had forgotten her assertion that “not enough is made in biographies written about women of the dynamic effects of menopause” (347): a comment I find that raises perhaps more questions than otherwise. Is it true that menopause leads to dynamism? In some perhaps. And even if that were the case, does it therefore follow that more about a subject’s menopause should be written about in her biography? Should the effects of the andropause be discussed in biographies? I digress again.

Rereading these two works was worthwhile. It was like meeting old friends or returning to once loved places and finding them unchanged. At first, it might seem that Ustinov and Sayers have little in common other than the fact that their lives overlapped somewhat. However, as I thought about it, I realised that in some ways they share a fair bit. Both are playwrights known now not so much for their plays as for their other work, film in Ustinov’s case, detective fiction and her translation of Dante in Sayers’. Both in their separate ways observed the world they lived in and commented upon it, and both see in that world something worth cherishing. Both are revealed to be compassionate human beings, even as they have little tolerance for hypocrisy or flamboyant emotion.

All in all not unsatisfactory.cropped-dscn1318-version-23.jpg

 

 

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