Norman Page

Norman Page is a professor of modern English literature at the University of Nottingham. His books include a critical biography of A.E. Housman.


Norman Page, 16 March 1989

Inside most collections of letters is another ghostly volume we are unable to read, for it contains all those letters that have been lost or destroyed. Hence a scholarly enterprise such as the Purdy/Millgate edition, now complete, of Hardy’s letters, handsomely produced and impeccably edited though it is – or perhaps precisely because it has such a finished and monumental look – can inadvertently create a false impression. ‘Collected letters’ means, after all, ‘surviving letters’, and even though so much is here one is bound to wonder what is missing. Consider the case of Hardy’s mother. Jemima Hardy died in her famous son’s 64th year, and it is surely inconceivable that he did not write to her from time to time during the years he spent in London, or that she did not preserve at least some of his letters. Yet all that turns up in these seven volumes is a single three-line postcard. Probably the famous Max Gate bonfires consumed the rest. These collected letters constitute, therefore, a text quite different from that of a novel or an autobiography, even though they may offer some of the same satisfactions. They are less a Greek urn than a heap of shards.’

Ejected Gentleman

Norman Page, 7 May 1987

The Life and Letters of John Galsworthy by H.V. Marrot appeared at the end of 1935, not quite three years after its subject’s death, and must be one of the very last examples of what was by that time a gravely endangered species. In the preface to Eminent Victorians Strachey had wittily mocked the solemn pretensions of the Victorian and Edwardian monumental biography, ponderously discreet as an old-fashioned manservant: but 17 years later Marrot found it still possible to produce a work of unblushing hagiography. To be fair, he makes no secret of his hero-worship, or of the fact that his work, in accordance with Victorian ground-rules, has been closely overseen by the great man’s widow. The significant thing, though, is that Marrot’s generation (his book was widely read and instantly reprinted) retained a faith in the writer not just as hero but as a kind of secular saint. Recalling the mild furore a few years ago over Robert Gittings’s life of Hardy, with its intimations that the great advocate of loving-kindness could be snobbish and mean-spirited, severe with his servants and a brute to his wife, one is bound to reflect that even today the faith is not quite extinguished, and that there are readers who still expect the lives of great men to remind us, if not that we can make our own sublime, at any rate that sublimity is possible.


Norman Page, 8 January 1987

One might say that the problem with Emma Hamilton is knowing quite how to take her. Near the end of her book, Flora Fraser quotes a startlingly vivid account of Emma’s behaviour just after receiving news of Nelson’s death: it was, an eye-witness concluded, ‘a very serio-comic performance’. Is Emma’s story a tragedy or a comedy? Certainly it begins according to the approved model of classical comedy: from early adversity, and in the face of immense difficulties, she moves triumphantly towards marriage, a title, and happiness. But the latter part of her life, played out partly on the world’s stage, reverses the pattern according to the tragic prescription: the ecstatic affair with Nelson is followed by a train of losses and misfortunes, and she ends wretchedly. Legend has cast her as a Great Lover or seductress-extraordinary (Alexander Korda’s 1941 film-biography, which Winston Churchill is reported to have seen over a hundred times, is titled, distressingly, That Hamilton Woman), but there are elements of low comedy in her story: she became stupendously fat even before she met Nelson, and her letters strongly recall Fanny Squeers. Role-playing was Emma’s modus vivendi, even her means of survival, and her histrionic talents were of no mean order. (She also had a fine singing voice, but played cards while Haydn was performing – which led one noble youth to describe her as ‘without exception the most coarse, ill-mannered, disagreeable woman I ever met with’.)’


Great Reviews

15 September 1988

Mary-Kay Wilmers is excessively gloomy, or excessively modest, in declaring that ‘there are few great book reviews’ and that ‘the best one can hope for is that some will prove memorable over the lifetime of an editor or his magazine’ (LRB, 15 September). Has she forgotten that a not insignificant proportion of the canon of non-fictional prose consists of books reviews –...


Donald Davie, 5 May 1983

At the end of a recent and refreshingly untypical poem R.S. Thomas, recalling his sea-captain father, addresses him where he lies in his grave: ...

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