I’ve recently finished reading two books:
- Climbing the Bookshelves - Shirley Williams’s autobiography
- Eden’s Outcasts: the Story of Lousia May Alcott and Her Father by John Matteson
It’s taken me several weeks to read Eden’s Outcasts and at one point I nearly abandoned it because I thought it was too much about Louisa May Alcott’s father. I’m glad I persevered because the second half of the book concentrates much more on Louisa and I realised that the title does convey the subject matter very well as it reveals the relationship between them. Bronson Alcott was a complicated person who appeared to have mellowed as he grew older. Louisa, well known and loved for her children’s books never achieved her ambition to write serious books for mature readers, enduring debilitating illness in her later years.
I learnt a lot from this book about their lives and their relationships with other writers such as Emerson, Thoreau and Hawthorne. It’s a very detailed book and there is no way I can summarise their lives in a few words and a double biography is even more difficult to deal with. In the final paragraph Matteson sums this up very well:
To the extent that a written page permits knowledge of a different time and departed souls, this book has tried to reveal them. However, as Bronson Alcott learned to his amusement, the life written is never the same as the life lived. Journals and letters tell much. Biographers can sift the sands as they think wisest. But the bonds that two persons share consist also of encouraging words, a reassuring hand on a tired shoulder, fleeting smiles, and soon-forgotten quarrels. These contracts, so indispensable to existence, leave no durable trace. As writers, as reformers, and as inspirations, Bronson and Louisa still exist for us. Yet this existence, on whatever terms we may experience it, is no more than a shadow when measured against the way they existed for each other. (page 428)
Turning to Climbing the Bookshelves by Shirley Williams, I thought an autobiography would maybe include more personal recollections and descriptions of events. It starts off very well with her descriptions of her early childhood – her earliest memory from 1933 when she was three and fell on her head from a swing at the Chelsea Babies’ playground. I was very impressed by her memories of the time she spent in America as a young girl during the Second World War and her self-reliance and independence.
However, much of the book consists of her accounts of her political life, making it very much a political history of Britain, rather than a personal account of her life. There are some personal memories and I particularly liked her descriptions of her fellow politicians – Harold Wilson, Jim Callaghan, Roy Jenkins and so one – very little about Margaret Thatcher and a few pertinent comments about Tony Blair. Having said that she comes over as a very honest, genuine person who cares deeply about being a good politician. And maybe it is more personal than I originally thought because in the last chapter she writes these words:
Being an MP is like being a member of an extended family. You learn to love your family with all its knobbliness, perversity, courage and complexity. You learn respect and build up trust. …
To be a good politician in a democracy you have to care for people and be fascinated by what makes them tick. … The politician whose eyes shift constantly to his watch, or to the apparently most important person in the room, feeds the distrust felt by the electorate. It is a distrust born of being manipulated, conned, even decieved and it is fed by a relentlessly cynical national press. (page 389)
A side effect of reading this book is that I’m going to read her mother’s book, a best seller published in 1933 – Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain. Shirley describes it as
… an autobiography of her wartime experience as a nurse and her personal agony in losing all the young men she most loved … (page 13)
In the preface to Testimony of Youth she wrote:
Testimony of Youth is, I think, the only book about the First World War written by a woman, and indeed a woman whose childhood had been a very sheltered one. It is an autobiography and also an elegy for a generation. For many men and women, it described movingly how they themselves felt.
This looks like a much more personal autobiography.