Monday, 24 January 2011

Political Fictions

One of the reasons I first took up blogging was a need to celebrate and clarify the serendipitous connections that seem to turn up in my life on an almost daily basis, so you'll have to excuse me if I let the latest in the series take me off on a ramble round my always rather chaotic mind.

Last week, quite by chance, I happened upon the writings of Michael Dirda, a book critic who really thinks about what he has to say and who, as far as I can discover (you have to remember he is a new discovery) writes mainly for The Washington Post.  Having ordered every collection of his that I could find, I then decided to see if there was any of his work to be had by mining the paper's archives and what was he writing about last week?  He was writing about the very book on Andrew Marvell that I posted about two or three days ago, Andrew Marvell: The Chameleon, by Nigel Smith.

Dirda has obviously got further through the book than I have.  He writes:

While most of us think of Marvell as the author of the best seduction poem in the English language, he was known to his contemporaries as private tutor, a hardworking civil servant and an occasional diplomatic emissary (to Holland and Russia).  He was also quite probably a secret agent.

Serendipity Number One.

Yesterday evening I settled down with a pot of good tea (someday I'll tell you about me and tea, but not today) to listen to the Sunday Evening drama slot on Radio 3.  It turned out to be a play by Stephen Wakelam entitled Living with Princes and was about the essayist Michel de Montaigne.  Last week I was fortunate enough to win a copy of Sarah Bakewell's new book on Montaigne from Dorothy at Of Books and Bicycles.

Serendipity Number Two and Number Three.

Serendipity Number Three because the play was not about Montaigne's writing career but about his role as a diplomat, specifically about the part he played in the struggle for the succession to the throne of France.

This set me thinking about the number of writers who have had their fingers in diplomatic pies, whether overtly, like Marvell, or, as Wakelam's play suggested, rather more covertly like Montaigne.  It is pretty much accepted now that Christopher Marlowe was recruited to Walsingham's spy network while he was at Cambridge and that it was this, rather than a tavern brawl over who was to pay the bill, that led to his death.  Pepys, of course, seventy odd years later, was Secretary for the Affairs of the Admiralty, which is simply a fancy way of saying he was an important bod in navy matters.

Of course, it wasn't just writers who were engaged in affairs of state.  It was common practice in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to recruit composers and musicians to act as couriers between various monarchs and their men of state because such people had easy access to the courts of Europe and could carry messages without their activities being remarked upon.  There is some evidence, for example, that the composer and lutenist, John Dowland was involved in this way.

Then there are those people who we think of first and foremost as statesmen, but who have also had careers as writers of fiction.  Benjamin Disraeli comes to mind straight away, his best known novel probably being Sybil, but more recently there has been the Conservative Peer, Lord Archer, whose books I can't abide, but who nevertheless fits the pattern.

I'm sure there must be others that haven't yet crawled out of the darker recesses of my mind, but you will rectify that for me, I know.  And this, of course, is before we even start on the current crop of memoir writers from every conceivable corner of the political spectrum.  To what extent their writing might be classed as fiction I wouldn't even dream of speculating.


  1. Fascinating post Annie ... We do have, down under, some diplomats who've written memoirs and novels. One is Richard Broinowski (Driven), but I haven't read it. Another is Ric Throssell (son of Australian communist and novelist, Katharine Susannah Prichard) who wrote plays, a biogrpahy of his mother, an autobiography. Just two ... and I haven't read either of them ... but I think there are more.

  2. WG I wonder if there is some sort of urge to justify the actions that they've taken in their writing? Especially those who opt for the memoir genre. In a way it would be more interesting, I suppose, to analyse the fiction texts to see if there is a subtextual justification going on there.

  3. I love book serendipity! So glad you have found Dirda too. I have most of his books and have liked them all.

  4. Two more in the post, today, Stefanie. Now I just have to find time to read them all. I have a librarian friend who is convinced that books talk to each other and edge their way into our view. I'm beginning to think she's right.

  5. I've enjoyed Dirda's writing as well. I'm very glad to be a part of all the serendipity!

  6. Well, that's another good recommendation, Dorothy. I just hope I don't come across anything else he's written for the moment, because the shelves are beginning to heave again.

  7. Oh dear, my response got lost ... I'm sure there are many reasons but self-justification is surely a main one.

    BTW As a wordpress user I don't get email notification of comments on posts I comment on, so if I don't respond to a response of yours, I'm not ignoring you but just don't always remember which blogger blogs I commented on so I can go looking for them.

  8. Don't worry WG. I know you're out there reading away and the number of different blog formats does make things difficult.