This Is Your Life, John Donne

Take Heed of Loving Me

by Elizabeth Gray Vining
Lippincott, 352 pp., $5.95

There are several reasons, I suppose, for writing fictionalized biographies of writers. The most common and most benign is that the well-documented history of a writer’s life and times can easily be melted down and poured into the popular historical-novel mold. Then there is the biographer’s attempt to make coherent sense out of problematical data, to take an imaginative leap over the confines of meager evidence. Finally, there is the authentic aim of criticism: to talk more effectively about a writer’s work, for example, by trying to imagine what it was like to produce it. The first of these intentions results mostly in high-toned junk; Robert Graves’s Wife to Mr. Milton may belong to this group, but it is a brilliant—albeit in a way hateful—book, inspired as much by personal venom as anything else. Thornton Wilder’s portrait of Catullus in The Ides of March is a fine example of what the second motive can produce. And the brief characterization of William Shakespeare and some of the circumstances surrounding the composition of Hamlet, delivered orally to an interested group in a Dublin library by Mr. Stephen Dedalus, is (among other things) a case of the third.

The trouble with this is that unless the novelist is at least as clever, if not so intelligent, as his subject, he must be prepared to take grave risks in giving his man actual things to say. Language is the difficulty, of course; particularly when the period is the eighteenth century or before, being colloquial, stylized, or even “natural” is a much more complicated matter. And when the words of the writer himself—letters, journals, or whatever—are encapsulated in the text the complications increase. Elizabeth Gray Vining has taken arms, in her novel about John Donne’s marriage, against a sea of such troubles. She obviously intended to write something more lofty than a piece of historical fiction of the she-adjusted-her-wimple school. But between Thomas B. Costain and Hermann Broch lie many abysses, and although Take Heed of Loving Me is a work surely more like the novels of the former than the latter, it vanishes, overreaching itself, into a pit of mediocrity. Gazing after it, one wonders who needed such a book in the first place.

Donne’s life as a costume-drama is certainly devoid of incident. After his embryonic career as a bureaucrat was aborted by an unwise (but unspectacular) elopement with a caughter of influence, he spent most of the first decade of the seventeenth century by scrounging unsuccessfully at Court. His wife meanwhile produced twelve children in sixteen years; she died two years after he had given up all hope of a diplomatic post and taken holy orders at the suggestion of James I. He became a renowned and brilliant preacher, and died in 1631. All this is fairly well documented. Donne left a total of over two hundred letters, for one thing, and there is Izaak Walton’s succinct biography written only …

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