When Stephen Spender's son Matthew was ten years old, he caught his hand in a car door. 'The event,' John Sutherland writes, 'recalled other tragedies in the boy's little life; the running over, for example, of his dog Bobby - a "rather lugubrious looking spaniel" and a present from his godmother, Edith Sitwell. Six-year-old Matthew had been disappointed by the hound's demise not being reported in the obituary columns of next day's Times.'
This cute narrative bagatelle turns out to epitomise something both about Spender and about the problems of writing his biography. To begin with, the past tense of 'recalled' indicates that it is not Sutherland who is reminded of the earlier incident. The passage, a rather spare endnote informs us, draws on an entry in Spender's journals: the one accident 'recalled' the other to Spender, who took a certain pride in his elder child's grave precocity. So Sutherland's version is written in what one might call the biographer's equivalent of free indirect style; only the description of the dog is given as a quotation (I'm not quite sure why; I suppose there may be spaniels who don't look lugubrious). However, when I pursued the incident to its source in the published version of Spender's journals, I found none of the detail of the earlier accident, merely a mention that the car-door incident 'brought to mind so many past episodes - his dog being run over, his canary being eaten by the cat in front of his eyes'. One has to infer from Sutherland's general practice that the detail of the earlier accident comes from material in the Spender archive, 'currently administered by the author's estate', perhaps from an unpublished section of the journals, perhaps from correspondence, perhaps from some other reminiscence. But this in turn starts to make one wonder how much the 'source' was a writerly composition intended for the public eye in the first place. Was it Spender who added the identification of his son's famous godparent as donor of the dog, and if so, to whom was the account addressed, implicitly or explicitly?
LRB 22 July 2004 | PDF Download