After a short and lovely hiatus that included preparations for April’s posts, we return to Anglophile Studios refreshed, reinvigorated and ready to put the kettle back on (the PG Tips and biscuits have officially been replenished).
Over a fortnight ago, after being introduced to her work courtesy of our Chief Executive’s girlfriend, we were honoured to host Ms. Harman, an award-winning biographer, literary critic and poet, in our humble dwellings. Ms. Harman, currently touring in support of her new book “Charlotte Bronte: A Fiery Heart”, was terribly generous and considerate to chat with us as we sat for a cuppa and a few biscuits.
- As you researched Charlotte Bronte’s life, what facts/details surprised you, educated/enlightened you? Did you find that, once the research was done, you thought that you better understood who she was, not just as a writer but as an individual?
Many things struck me afresh in material I thought was familiar: there was so much in Jane Eyre, for instance, that I hadn’t noticed before, particularly the stringency of Jane’s feelings about equality. It’s not just an ideal in her mind, but a pre-existing fact. That was very radical for the time, and threw light on Charlotte’s amazing farsightedness, and also her isolation from her contemporaries. And Charlottes’ own feelings of barely-suppressed anger and frustration were really notable all the way through her early letters. She’s a very striking example of someone who fully understood her own potential and almost saw it wasted.
- What prompted you to write a biography about Charlotte?
I’ve been fascinated by the Bronte story as long as I can remember, but thought that probably everything had been said about them. When the complete edition of Charlotte’s letters was finished in 2004, though, I dropped that notion. There seemed to be many more layers to the story to be explored, and I got drawn into the material as a reader in a very rewarding way. Then, I had a friend who kept saying I should write about her, and after a while I wanted to shut him up!
3. You’re an established, well respected literary critic and author. When you’ve written and when you write your own material, do you view your work with the same critical perspective that you view the writing of others with, or when the author part of your personality is working, does the critic side switch off?
In a way, the critic side is fully integrated with the author side, which is to say, I rarely let anything go without working on it to the best of my ability. And when I’m looking at other people’s writing, I tend to sympathise with the work that has been put in, however successful or not it is. If you write yourself, you can judge very easily how much effort has been made to do as good a job as possible, and how much difference that makes.
4. Being both a poet and prose writer, what do you enjoy most about the creative process? Where do you seek inspiration or does it seek you?
The whole issue of inspiration is extremely elusive, because I feel that I slog away all the time in a very professional manner, and yet stuff emerges that makes you think, ‘Where did that come from?’ Especially with the not-very-many poems I’ve written over the years, some of which express things I didn’t know I thought, perhaps didn’t think, consciously. For me, it’s much easier when I’ve got a lot going on in my head, rather than having a lovely afternoon in a hammock. I need to be whirring. And first thing in the morning is the best time for things slotting into place.
- What makes you proud to be British?
The NHS, which for all its infuriating shortcomings, is still the most humane use of taxpayers’ money imaginable. Our literature. And cheeses.
- You’re on Desert Island Discs and Kirsty has asked you to choose a book and a luxury before she casts you off. What book and luxury do you select and why?
Oh dear, what a difficult question. I think it would have to be the Collected Stories of Vladimir Nabokov, which is one of the books I have multiple copies of, so that I don’t have to be without it either side of the Atlantic. It’s one of those inexhaustible books that you can read over and over again with awe and delight, always finding something new. For a luxury, I’d like the means to make tea, although the milk might be a problem. Perhaps a passing goat or almond would oblige.
7. If you could travel back in time, for 24 hrs, and spend the first half of the day with Charlotte Bronte and the 2nd half with Jane Austen, how would you spend that time with each of them?
I think a walk would be best in both cases. I’d try to get Charlotte Bronte to take me up onto Haworth Moor as she did Mrs. Gaskell and perhaps show me where she buried her letters from Constantin Heger, and I’d ask Miss Austen to perambulate Chawton village and tell me all the neighbourhood secrets and scandals. We could end up at the pub, as I’m sure Jane Austen liked a tipple.
8. As one who enjoys language and watching words come to life, on a page, how do you compare the writing (in terms of content and style) of current day authors and poets compared to those in those in the Regency and Victorian eras?
Well I don’t, really. I’m much more at home with 21st-century style and freedom of expression, naturally, but do think that the Victorians had a more vital sense of vocabulary than we do, on the whole. There’s a terrible narrowness about language these days, and a lot of our new words seem ugly and idiotic, though perhaps that’s because I’m thinking of jargon, which every age has and which rarely survives long.
- What attracts you to a book that provokes you to invest the time to read it all the way through?
I seldom give up on a book, so a lot of pre-judgement must be in play. I don’t like books that look casually written, or that have suspiciously catchy premises. But there are so many titles which I’ve had ardently recommended to me that I can’t think I’ll ever run out of suitable reading.
- What is your dream project in terms of your own writing?
I’d very much like to write about Alice Munro, but whether she’d like it very much is another question.
11. Which do you prefer, pen and paper or computer?
The computer, though I do a lot of pencil note-making in the early stages of composing something and always have pencil and paper in my handbags. I used to think it would never catch on, writing on a computer, but I’ve become very reliant on word processing over the years.
12. What is more challenging; critiquing the work of others or yourself?
Others, definitely, because one is usually critiquing it in public, and it matters much more to be accurate and fair. Self-critique is usually private, and followed by pleasant second thoughts about how you’re not so bad after all.
13. What’s next for Claire Harman?
I’m working on a proposal about another 19th century subject and actually have about three other emerging projects too, but can’t be more specific than that at the moment. I do love writing literary biography and hope I can afford to keep doing it. I envy fiction writers who don’t have to spend years researching each book, and people with childless wealthy great-aunts who want to leave them houses in London.
To find out more about Ms. Harman’s work, please visit her website at http://www.claireharman.com