So Near and Yet So Far: What Would You Do to Acquire a Favorite Writer’s Papers?

One of the highlights of a trip to London was staring at the manuscript of Jane Eyre at the British Museum. I could hardly see it in the dimly-lit glass case, but it was there. So near and yet so far. That was my first inkling of what scholars must feel when they get their (gloved) hands on a manuscript.

I was thinking of this the other day when I read Henry James’s The Aspern Papers, a strange comical novella about a besotted scholar who will do anything to acquire the papers of Jeffrey Aspern, his favorite dead Romantic poet. The papers are reputed to be in the hands of the dead Aspern’s ancient mistress, Juliana, who has already refused the request of another scholar. So how can he get his hands on the papers?

The artful narrator daringly pretends an interest in Juliana’s garden so he can persuade her to rent him an apartment in her dilapidated Venetian villa. And Juliana’s niece, Tina, inadvertently becomes his collaborator: she innocently reveals that Juliana still has the papers in her bedroom. Let me just say that the narrator can’t resist searching for the papers even when Juliana is on her deathbed. Is such bad behavior rewarded? Read the book.

Barbara Pym is well-known for her charming novels about witty spinsters, indexers, librarians, and much-sought-after vicars. In her posthumously-published novel, An Academic Question, the narrator, Carol, is a bored faculty wife. Her husband thinks she should get a job, but she does not want to join the band of frowsy faculty wives who file things in the library to get out of the house. Instead, Caro volunteers at a nursing home, where she finds herself reading aloud to an elderly anthropologist who has not written up all his research. Her anthropologist husband and the chairman of his department want to get their hands on these papers. How far will they go?

In Doris Langley Moore’s hilarious novel, My Caravaggio Style, a bookseller and impecunious biographer decides to forge a manuscript of Byron’s alleged “lost” memoirs. He plans to “find” themanuscript in his aunt’s attic so he can sell it to an irritating American collector. Let us just say that things get out of hand.

Doris Lessing is one of my favorite writers, but let me be clear: I have no desire to go through her papers. Let the biographers go through her papers! When she announced she would not publish a third volume of her autobiography because she did not want to hurt people who were still alive, I respected that decision. But, ironically, Lessing was barely in the ground before Jenny Diski, an excellent writer who sometimes went too far, published her memoirs of Lessing, who took her in when she was a homeless teenager. I was appalled by Diski’s hatred of Lessing.

Anyway, I eagerly await a biography of Lessing. Shouldn’t one be coming out soon?