Libby Purves was as amused as I was by the Great Betjeman Love Letter Hoax. Do read this story if you haven’t already done so – it is well worth a click. She goes on to argue that it is better to read great writers’ works, rather than their biographies:
In youth I learnt much formative wisdom from Howards End before I ever found out that E. M. Forster was gay, or indeed a bloke at all; I read Evelyn Waugh at 12 in an equal state of uncertainty about the author’s gender, and nonetheless revelled in the acid beauty of the prose.
Later, in long university months of studying Paradise Lost, I dutifully checked up on the politics and religion of the time but felt only a passing interest in the fact that the blind poet dictated it to his daughters (and that interest was mainly because my tutorial partner and I had a theory that the damn thing was meant to be six times as long, only the duty daughter sometimes got bored and sneaked out of the room for a nap leaving Milton orating to the cat). As for Betjeman’s sex life, I find I can read Death in Leamington or In a Bath Teashop without giving a hoot whom he slept with.
So far so unarguable. But what if the poet brings his life experience into his work, and that experience isn’t quite authentic? It appears that Betjeman has been a little economical with the truth. From today’s Times:
JOHN BETJEMAN’S carefully cultivated image of himself as a devil-may-care student who “failed in divinity” at Oxford has been exposed as a myth after the discovery of his examination results.
Far from being unfazed by his failure, as depicted in his biographical poem Summoned by Bells, he resat his compulsory divinity examination twice, passing on the third attempt.
The Poet Laureate fooled the academic community for 40 years by relating only part of his academic record in chapter nine of his poem, published in 1960. “Failed in Divinity! O, towers and spires!/ Could no one help? Was nothing to be done?/ No. No one. Nothing.”
He lamented that his dreams of “Reading old poets in the library,/ Attending chapel in an M.A. gown/ And sipping vintage port by candlelight” had been dashed.
But curators at the Bodleian Library stumbled across his examination results while researching an exhibition to mark the centenary of his birth today.
Judith Priestman, co-curator of the Betjeman exhibition at the library, said that she had argued with the archivist because she could not believe that Betjeman had passed. “That is how he presented himself. He needed myths to keep himself going. But he didn’t leave Oxford as a Byronic figure.
“He was a good boy really. He presented himself as this great outsider, but actually he did jump through the hoops. He wanted to be an aristocrat, and an aristocrat would have said ‘I’ve failed, so what?’ and swanned off. He came back like the good bourgeois that he was.”
Whatever next? Will Philip Larkin’s parents turn out to have been decent sorts after all? I have long suspected they were, and that Larkin was an ungrateful little bastard. But he could hardly say so. In an earlier draft of “This Be The Verse”, Larkin thought about telling the truth:
They’re not so bad, your mum and dad
They try to do their best for you
But he thought better of it.