Essential Nosiness by Sandra Horn

          I’m a Psychologist by trade. Someone once said that Psychologists are all peculiar (that old taunt) because they just can’t fathom other people and they think studying Psychology will help them. Hmph. I’m inclined to think I chose it as a career from simple nosiness – or a fascination with why people do as they do, to put it more kindly.
          We’re all at that, of course – we have to be, and some of us are demonstrably better at working it out than others. I wouldn’t claim that my training or work experience gave me some sort of extra insight or powers of prediction into other peoples’ lives, although it did provide some useful frameworks for clinical interventions. In everyday life, though, the same old questions continue to haunt: ‘Why would somebody do that?’ ‘How could somebody think that?’ ‘I can’t understand why anyone would…’ etc. etc.
          Try as we might, we can never get right inside the heads of others; we either get it right enough to manage relationships or we get it wrong enough to come to grief – in the course of a lifetime, a mixture of both, I guess.  As writers, we don’t always crack it with our own creations, either – it’s amazing how often writers are surprised by their own invented characters as they develop through a story. Or perhaps it isn’t amazing at all, given our part and partial understanding of our own minds.
          Do autobiographies of notable people help us to understand them?  Not in my experience. They are often just sanitized strings of anecdotes; self-conscious attempts to portray a particular facet of the writer. There are exceptions, of course - Rebecca West’s ‘Family Memories’ is a great read, but very much a safe, ‘novelised’ account. She’s in there somewhere, but hiding behind her writer’s persona. Her ‘fictional’ characters, notably Rose, in The Fountain Overflows, are probably the closest we get to a real glimpse into her life. Elizabeth Jane Howard’s  ‘Slipstream’ comes closest, of all those I’ve read, to real candidness, often painfully so. 

          Biographies? Again, usually partial, sometimes even destructive of the vision we have of someone we admire through their work – there’s dreadful one of Hans Christian Andersen which focuses on his sexual immaturity. Why? It tells us nothing about his creative genius.
          I’ve just been reading H is for Hawk, which gives a detailed account of T H White’s sad, strange life, so there goes my comfortable vision of a tweedy, bookish, don contentedly conjuring up his delightful version of the legend of King Arthur.
          There are, of course, many notable exceptions, such as that of Norman Nicholson by Kathleen Jones,  which shed light for me on a much-loved poet. I learned, among much else, that he was treated for TB in the New Forest, just down the road from here, which gave me one of those enjoyably spurious connections with him, and knowing more about his health and the impact of it on his life gave me a new understanding of some of the poems.  Thank you, Kathy.
          Letters? Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters is a powerful and also sometimes painful read, but it is careful. About what you’d expect from someone in the public eye but essentially private; his poetry has the keen observations of a naturalist running through it, not a baring of his soul. Do people keep letters in the expectation of publication later? If they do, they are likely to be guarded and partial.
          This all brings me to diaries. Or one diary in particular. It’s a by-my-bed for re-reading book: A Lewes Diary 1916-1944 by Mrs Henry Dudeney. In my diary, there are dates. That’s it.
          I kept another kind, years ago, mainly to record events around my children’s development, but I’ve never tried to record my thoughts and feelings day after day.  No-one reading any of my jottings would have much of a clue about me beyond ‘doting mother’. Mrs D , on the other hand, doesn’t hold back about anything, from fulminating about her ‘brute’ husband (or ‘dear soul’ on other occasions), servants (‘if only we could do without them!’), her impossible sister, her ex-lover, about whom she blows hot and cold as the wind changes, her beloved Dalmatian dogs, the pacifist parson (despised), neighbours, tradesmen, publishers, Sir Philip Sassoon, with whom she had a close friendship (he sent her presents, including a taffeta coat lined with ermine; sometimes when she stayed at his country place there were Jewish guests, some of whom were ‘touched with the tarbrush’ (!!).  She was unashamedly prejudiced, irascible, snobbish, self-indulgent, acquisitive, histrionic, and altogether fascinating.  I’m astonished  at her unguardedness – although she did destroy the diaries of the years in which she left her husband and went to live with her married lover (she subsequently went back to her husband) and she left instructions about the publication of the rest, so she clearly expected them to be put in the public domain at some time. What a woman. I think I know her…


Bill Kirton said…
This is a fascinating area of investigation, Sandra. The more I read about specific (or even fictional) individuals, the more convinced I become that there's no single truth that can 'explain' them. I kept a diary for about 20 years. Writing up the day's 'events' (which is probably the wrong noun since, so often, nothing much had happened beyond my fingers tapping on a keyboard), was either a chore or a mini-essay about some abstract speculation. I often accused myself of being boring, lazy and various other unattractive things, but I think if I (or anyone else) were to read those entries now, I (they) would form all sorts of different opinions of the writer. Personalities are such fluid things - it's only the judgements of others that appear to stabilise them.
Wendy H. Jones said…
This was a fascinating post and it certainly made me think. I would say I am particularly nosy in that I take a lot of things in any my mind somehow processes this into something I can use in a book. I would agree with you that biographies don't really give you an insight into the individual. Often it will be a glamourised account. The only thing which was a little disappointing for me is that the photographs are not sowing up. I merely have white boxes with HD003.jpg and HD002.jpg. I am wondering if this is because I am on a iMac computer. I don't have any way of checking this as I have no non apple products.
Wendy H. Jones said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kathleen Jones said…
I agree with your comments about 'Slipstream' - it's one of the most 'naked' autobiographies I've ever read. Lovely post Sandra.
Fascinating post and since I'm working on something that is a fictionalised biography or, as I keep saying when asked, a 'novel about ...' right now very relevant to me. Of course the further back in history you go, the easier it ought to become - theoretically, anyway. But I'm not sure that it does. Walking that tightrope between telling the occasionally grim truth and sanitising things when you're writing about somebody who was once a living breathing person - so difficult. Bernard MacLaverty speaks of fiction being 'made up truth' and I feel I should put that on a big notice over my desk at the moment!
Sandra Horn said…
Wendy, I hope you got the message that it was me, not your system, that was at fault.
Thank you for the comments, everyone.
glitter noir said…
It took me far too long to figure out that Byron's published letters and journals are as carefully edited as they are beautifully written. Friends destroyed things they felt would harm the legend. Byron himself kept a tight rein on what seemed un-Byronic. We receive selections that crackle with intelligence, wit, stylistic boring little musings or private nasty moments. The Official Byron is never 'off' and seldom uncinematic. Delightful to read--but misleading and discouraging to anyone caught up in the muddling stream of real life. Great post, Sandra.

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