Humphrey Carpenter with Dame Antonia Fraser (1988)
Alan Bennett's 2009 play The Habit of Art, a curious work devoted almost wholly (it would seem) to denigrating the late great W. H. Auden (cf. the Guardian article on Bennett entitled "why Auden the bore almost turned me off writing") was broadcast as a "live theatre" performance to cinemas all over the world in 2010.
One of those locations was the Bridgeway theatre in Northcote, Auckland. As an Auden fanatic - unaware at the time of Bennett's views on the poet - I duly turned up to watch the strange farrago unfold.
Alan Bennett: The Habit of Art (2009)
Reading between the lines, it seems probable to me that Bennett set out to write a play about Auden's unhappy last days domiciled in Christ Church, Oxford. It must have got away from him somehow - perhaps it seemed too nakedly spiteful, even to him? - so he decided to turn it instead into a play-within-a-play. "The Habit of Art," then, actually consists of a dress rehearsal for another play called "Caliban's Day". As Bennett explained to the author of the article mentioned above:
in order to address the many queries and notes on the text ("do we need this?"; "too much information") from the play's director, Nicholas Hytner, he invented a framing device: the play would be set in a rehearsal room.In other words, any crappy writing in the Auden play could then be explained away by someone in the cast exclaiming: "what crappy writing!" - one of the many reasons (I speak as one who knows) why such metafictional structures tend to appeal so much to authors and so little to their audiences.
"Queries about the text could then be put in the mouths of the actors who (along with the audience) could have their questions answered in the course of the rehearsal."
The device also allowed Bennett to introduce the character of the author – himself – who complains about real cuts that Hytner suggested to the play.
Alan Bennett: The Habit of Art (2009)
[l-to-r: Richard Griffiths as Auden; Adrian Scarborough as Carpenter; Alex Jennings as Britten]
The tone of the whole was set early on, when one of the other characters makes a remark about the latest book by Auden's old friend and teacher, Professor J. R. R. Tolkien. "More fucking elves," quips Richard Griffiths (standing in for Michael Gambon at this particular performance).
This may very well encapsulate Alan Bennett's views on Tolkien's Middle-earth, but it seems most unlikely to represent Auden's, given that the poet praised The Lord of the Rings so fulsomely, in so many places, over the years.
Who knows, though? Maybe the worm had turned by the early 70s, when the play is set. There was, after all, a famous controversy between the two over Auden's alleged "denigration" of the house Tolkien lived in (he was quoted in the New Yorker in 1966 as having called it as “a hideous house — I can’t tell you how awful it is — with hideous pictures on the wall.”)
Another less forgivable dig in Bennett's ill-natured play is what seems a weirdly unmotivated assault on the memory and reputation of Tolkien's first biographer, Humphrey Carpenter. As the wikipedia summary puts it:
Auden has hired a rent boy, Stuart (Tim) and when Humphrey Carpenter (Donald) - who will write biographies of both Auden and Britten after their deaths - arrives to interview him, Auden mistakes him for Stuart.It isn't quite so simply as that, in context, though. In the actual play as broadcast, the actor playing Carpenter comes on in drag, screeching like a lunatic, and generally embodying some of the "research" the former has been doing on him - as he explains to the director when the latter objects to this rather over-the-top impersonation.
And, yes, apparently Carpenter was a keen amateur musician, who occasionally performed in drag, and generally came across as somewhat larger than life. It's only after that exchange that the play limps on into the long, unfunny and unbelievable scene of Auden's mistaking Carpenter for the teenage rent boy he has "ordered."
To add insult to injury, Bennett tries to undo the rather spiteful impression given by this awful set of caricatures of Auden, Britten and Carpenter by giving his own alter-ego, the author, a long pompous monologue about the "value" he places on each of these lives - the rentboy as much as the poet, the bit-player as much as the star - towards the end of his melodrama.
I guess the reason this rings so false is that the actual nature of these walk-on parts is so stereotyped and perfunctory that one would never know from internal evidence that the writer placed the slightest importance on any of them. If Bennett had made them strong characters in the first place, he wouldn't have needed the face-saving soliloquy.
Why do I dwell so much on this rather forgettable play of Alan Bennett's? I guess because it should remind us all of how fickle is literary fame and reputation. No-one's really in much danger of forgetting the fact of Humphrey Carpenter's remarkable series of trail-blazing biographies, but at the same time their author seems to be receding more and more into oblivion. His wikipedia page doesn't even contain a partial bibliography, though there are a couple of paragraphs describing his books, some not even with their correct titles.
Here's my own attempt at a list (most - though not all of them - from my own collection):
Humphrey Carpenter: J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biography (1977)
Humphrey William Bouverie Carpenter
- J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biography. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1977.
- The Inklings: C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and Their Friends. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1978.
- Jesus. Past Masters Series. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980.
- W. H. Auden: A Biography. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1981.
- O.U.D.S.: A Centenary History of the Oxford University Dramatic Society 1885–1985. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985.
- Secret Gardens: A Study of the Golden Age of Children’s Literature. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1985.
- Geniuses Together: American Writers in Paris in the 1920s. London: Unwin Hyman Limited, 1987.
- A Serious Character: The Life of Ezra Pound. London: Faber, 1988.
- The Brideshead Generation: Evelyn Waugh and His Friends. London: Faber, 1989.
- Benjamin Britten: A Biography. London: Faber, 1992.
- The Envy of the World: Fifty Years of the BBC Third Programme and Radio 3, 1946–1996. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1996.
- Robert Runcie: The Reluctant Archbishop. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1996.
- Dennis Potter: A Biography. London: Faber, 1998.
- That Was Satire That Was: The Satire Boom of the 1960s. London: Victor Gollancz, 2000.
- The Angry Young Men: A Literary Comedy of the 1950s. London: Allen Lane, 2002.
- Spike Milligan: The Biography. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2004.
- The Seven Lives of John Murray: The Story of a Publishing Dynasty. London: John Murray, 2008.
- [with Mari Prichard]. A Thames Companion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975.
- [with Christopher Tolkien]. Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1981.
- [with Mari Prichard]. The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984.
- Shakespeare Without the Boring Bits. London: Viking, 1994.
Humphrey Carpenter: The Angry Young Men (2002)
Humphrey Carpenter & Mari Prichard, ed.: The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature (1984)
Of course, that's only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Carpenter. His interest in children's literature manifested itself in a strong desire to make a lasting contribution to the field. After a few ranging shots with such works as The Joshers: Or London to Birmingham with Albert and Victoria (1977) and The Captain Hook Affair (1979), he eventually arrived at Mr Majeika. Long before Harry Potter made the whole idea of wizards as school-teachers a commonplace, the former gave rise to a dizzying variety of titles:
Humphrey Carpenter: Mr Majeika Collection (1984-98)
- Mr Majeika
- Mr Majeika and the School Trip
- Mr Majeika and the Lost Spell Book
- Mr Majeika and the Ghost Train
- Mr Majeika and the Dinner Lady
- Mr Majeika and the School Caretaker
- Mr Majeika and the Music Teacher
- Mr Majeika and the Haunted Hotel
- Mr Majeika and the School Book Week
- Mr Majeika and the Internet
- Mr Majeika and the School Inspector
- Mr Majeika joins the Circus
- Mr Majeika and the School Play
- Mr Majeika Vanishes
But who exactly was Humphrey Carpenter, and why has his star gone into (at least partial) eclipse? When you add to the works listed above a punishing schedule as a radio presenter and interviewer - not to mention his regular gigs as a jazz musician (the double-bass was his instrument) - the answer must surely include the words "a workaholic."
One of the last of the great English eccentrics, Humphrey Carpenter was brought up in the Warden's Lodgings at Keble College, Oxford, where his father worked until his appointment as Bishop of Oxford. He lived virtually all of his life in Oxford, though his work as a biographer took him all over the world. There's an interesting aside in the acknowledgements at the end of his monumental life of Ezra Pound (p. 973):
my American hosts in the spring of 1985 ... coped with me on my whirlwind research trip when I was at least as mad as Ezra Pound was ever supposed to have been.What exactly is that supposed to mean? Ample evidence for eccentric behaviour on Pound's part has been given in the 900-odd pages preceding this disclaimer - for Carpenter to describe himself in similar terms is really saying something, therefore.
Perhaps, then, the grotesque caricature who comes flouncing out in Bennett's play is not so far from the reality of Carpenter's ebullient personality as might have been thought from the thorough-to-the-point-of-sober-sidedness nature of (at least) his scholarly books. Who knows? Certainly I don't.
There's room, I would have thought, for a life of Carpenter himself. He must have been a fascinating, many-sided man. Some at least of his biographies can never be superseded, given their priority in setting the terms of the discourse on such authors as Tolkien and Auden. Some of the others (the Pound, the Waugh, for instance) are already receding from view as a result of the ever-increasing outpouring of writing on certain mid-century literary figures.
The sheer range of his interests: not just literary but musical, not just theatrical but theological, too, may have perversely worked to his disadvantage. Only a reader interested in all of these things is likely to notice the solid work done by him in virtually all of the fields he touched.
Carpenter's life of Tolkien was read by all the Lord of the Rings obsessives in my family - which was most of us - the moment it appeared in 1977 (as a double-bill with the first edition of The Silmarillion). We hated it. The lack of empathy he seemed to show with his subject (whom he only actually met once) contrasted greatly with Roger Lancelyn Green and Walter Hooper's life of C. S. Lewis, which preceded it by three years.
Over time, though, I came to appreciate the distanced, nuanced nature of Carpenter's approach to biography. he didn't really major on scandal, but he never ignored it, either. His pioneering life of Benjamin Britten, for instance, examines in detail all the sexual innuendos alleged against the composer at various points in his life (and afterwards) with admirable balance and finesse. He isn't so much concerned to make you like his subjects, as to understand them better.
Having a Humphrey Carpenter biography about you guarantees a certain standard of scholarly documentation and research. Far from the grotesque figure of fun of Bennett's play, he shines as a man of protean talents who applied them cannily to create a major and lasting body of work.
Humphrey Carpenter: The Inklings (1978)
Closer examination of his otherwise prodigious rate of production reveals certain recurrent patterns. There is, for instance, his tendency to produce at least two books rather than one from the same approximate area of research. His work on J. R. R. Tolkien (1977) led to a 1978 book on his circle of friends, the Inklings (C. S. Lewis, Charles Williams, Owen Barfield, et al.) - as well as an edition of Tolkien's Letters (1981), co-edited with Christopher Tolkien. His 1981 biography of w. H. Auden must have helped immensely with his later work on Auden's early friend and collaborator Benjamin Britten a decade later, in 1992. His 1988 biography of Ezra Pound is closely shadowed by Geniuses Together (1987), a book on American writers in Paris in the 1920s.
Need I go on? Work on Spike Milligan also informs his work on British satire in the 1960s (not to mention the OUDS). Secret Gardens (1985), his book on classic children's writing, comes hot on the heels of his magisterial Oxford Companion to Children's Literature (1984).
I guess that everyone works like that to some extent: one project motivating and informing the next. In aggregate, though, it does have the effect of making Carpenter seem like a kind of octopus, with a finger in every cultural pie.
Efficient workers work efficiently. It would be different if Carpenter had produced a series of slipshod, perfunctory, ill-researched books. In fact the opposite is the case. There's nothing belletristic in his approach to his craft. If anything, at times one could wish him to be a bit less self-effacing.
Humphrey Carpenter: Quotes