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 nine years after his death. Then there is the fact that the present century invented Donne’s status as an important poet (I dare say that for the past twenty years American colleges have been leading the best of their young to conclude that Donne is in finitely greater than Shelley and Browning); the result of this has been an unprecedented quantity of scholarship and critical appreciation.
Mrs. Vining thus does not lack the crude gold of fact, “the ingot, ere the ring was forged”; neither was too much spelled out for her. Her narrative covers the period from 1597 (the date of Donne’s earliest known letter, by the way; her opening scene is suggested by events it describes) to the death of Ann More Donne in 1617. She is almost invariably dutiful to her sources, modest in her refusal to go hog-wild, and paralyzingly tedious in her inability to imagine. This is accompanied by her almost unbelievable naiveté about the relation of specifics to conventions, both in and out of poems, and, finally, her unsuccessful juxtapositions of nervous, idiosyncratic seventeenth-century English (in the quoted poems and letters) with homely middle flights in the manner of Lloyd C. Douglas. Together they contrive to produce from what might have been merely a dull effort (wanting in period hot-scenes and perplexing to the habitual reader of Norah Lofts because of all that hard poetry) some memorable visions.
My favorite is this one: Mrs. Vining decided that it would be a nice thing for John to show a recent poem to young Ann, with whom he is beginning to fall in love. For this scene, the author chooses “The Ecstasy,” an extremely complex and ironic comment on scholastic and neoplatonist psychology that many modern scholars disagree about. And so, “Scarcely breathing, he stood by her shoulder as she read.” (Then follows a quotation of less than half the poem, so badly mutilated that its dialectic would remain a mystery even to the initiated.) But then—
Her hand trembled as she turned the pages over and came to the last one. At the end—
And if some lover, such as we Have heard this dialogue of one,
Let him still mark us, he shall see Small change, when we’re to bodies gone.
—she looked up at him, her eyes filled with tears.
“But that’s just the way I felt too,” she whispered.
Mrs. Vining loves solving little critical problems in her book: The whole modern controversy over the degree of symbolism Donne employed when writing the Anniversary poems (in which he apostrophized a little dead girl he hardly knew as the passing Renaissance Zeitgeist), even the profound objections of Donne’s own contemporaries to its alleged impropriety, for example. No problem here, though; her hero is composing, and Mrs. Vining quotes: “and she / Being spent, the world must needs decrepit be…” and continues “Strong words; too strong for a girl of fourteen whom he had never seen; but he forgot the girl in the exhilaration of writing, carried away by his own eloquence.” That explains everything.
Mrs. Vining has freighted her book with scholarly detail, seldom to the point. In 1597 her hero has been told by Ben Jonson what he didn’t make up his mind to say, half-dismissively, to the nagging and lionizing Drummond of Hawthornden until 1619. She weaves phrases from the poems (as if from all the songs we know and love) into her prose: thus, after finally getting her married lovers into bed, we are treated to a morning scene in which Anne says “We ought to get up,” but “He pulled her down again. ‘Why? Just because it’s light? Did we go to bed because it was dark?’ ” At the same time, her prose itself ranges from the deadpan use of epithets like “a pert lad” to young John’s answer to the question why he doesn’t bring out a book: “It’s not in shape to print. It’s rough.”
But the real horror is that her Donne descends from a long line of heroes with a calling, like Martin Arrowsmith, while his wife—except that she has too many babies—seems always about to hop into the Microbus for a PTA meeting. Donne’s life is full of darknesses which only a real writer (and a real reader, for that matter) could hope to illumine; his relation to the Countess of Bedford, for example, is something that Mrs. Vining pointedly avoids exploring. Only somebody with a grown-up sense of the way in which literature gets made could try to get behind the poems with interesting results. There isn’t a page in Mrs. Vining’s book that is even potentially more novelistic than the scene in “The Apparition” where the rejected lover threatens, after dying of said rejection, to sneak back to the girl’s bed and find the “fain’d vestall” sleeping “in worse armes” than his own:
Then thy sicke taper will begin to winke,
And he, whose thou art then, be- ing tyr’d before,
Will, if thou stirre, or pinch to wake him, thinke Thou callst for more,
And in false sleepe will from these shrinke,
And then poore Aspen wretch, neglected thou
Bath’d in a cold quicksilver sweat
wilt lye A veryer ghost than I…
But to imagine a world in which this was merely art would take a Laclos, I suppose. Which Mrs. Vining is not.
April 2, 1964