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2 January 2019

Bitter feuds, buried scandal: the contested world of literary estates

When an author dies, literary estates take over – bringing disputes, fraud and conflagrations.

By Leo Robson

Hallam Tennyson was in many ways a traditional literary executor. He saw his duty as guarding privacy, sustaining an image. When his father – Poet Laureate, peer of the realm, favourite of Queen Victoria – died in 1892, he wrote a cagey two-volume biographical memoir, after destroying many of its source materials, including the journal kept by his mother, Emily. As John Batchelor explains, in an essay in the new Companion to Literary Biography, no reference was made to Alfred Tennyson’s chaotic upbringing, his sexual passion for his Lincolnshire neighbour Rosa Baring, the scruffy friends he cultivated during his nomadic years in the 1830s and 1840s. “Any stories which deviated from Emily Tennyson’s own pious view of her husband and her family had to be pushed to one side.”

But for all the extremity of the whitewash, this was a fairly typical move. Passages of Shelley’s work had been bowdlerised by his widow; Cassandra Austen had burned most of her sister’s letters. It was also prudent: tell-all accounts – expressions of what the novelist Margaret Oliphant called the “cynic principle” – had overshadowed the posthumous careers of Robert Burns and Thomas Carlyle. (The “new biography”, anti-Victorian in style and spirit, of Lytton Strachey, Edmund Gosse, Harold Nicolson and Virginia Woolf, would only vindicate Hallam’s tendency towards censorship.)

It was Hallam’s later actions that mark him out as the first modern executor. Having produced a popular edition, The Works of Tennyson, for Macmillan, he donated Tennyson’s manuscripts and notebooks to Trinity College, Cambridge, with an accompanying ban on all quotation and the copying of anything but “short notes”. Editions listing textual variants – draft versions etc – had “spoilt Wordsworth” for his father, he explained. Yet the reasons were not exclusively literary. Hallam was the beneficiary of his father’s possessions and also of his intellectual property. By producing his own edition while preventing others, he extended his family’s sole claim to royalties, an effort aided in 1911, when the term of copyright was extended to 50 years after an author’s death.

In a preference repeated down the decades, Hallam Tennyson suppressed factual accuracy and scholarly completism in favour of commerce and the common reader. It was a divide that only broadened as the century progressed: the unsolicited biographer and tireless “bibliomaniac” – Hallam’s term of disapproval – didn’t stand a chance against Broadway and TV, the multiplex and the paperback. Peter Ackroyd, writing his 1984 biography of TS Eliot, was prevented from quoting his subject’s unpublished writing and even his published work “except for purposes of fair comment in a critical context”, on the ground that Eliot asked his executors not “to facilitate or countenance” a project of this kind. Meanwhile, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats played at the New London Theatre and New York’s Winter Garden, in the face of Eliot’s desire not to have his poems set to music.

At the height of “Brideshead fever”, sparked by the 1981 Granada TV production of Brideshead Revisited, the academic and would-be biographer Martin Stannard battled with Evelyn Waugh’s spiteful and forgetful son Auberon. As Stannard recalls in his superb essay “Estate Management”, also collected in the Companion, the younger Waugh charged extortionate permission fees for quoting from Waugh’s writing and papers, and then blocked Stannard from writing an introduction to The Loved One. “Do I take it that I shall never be allowed to ‘edit’ or to quote extensively from his writings?” Stannard asked at one point. “As a scholar who has devoted his entire professional life to the study of Evelyn Waugh, this would come as a mortal blow.”

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Stannard is keen to emphasise the sheer vulnerability of anyone seeking the favour of a literary estate: “It remains, whatever anyone might proclaim about free speech and open scholarship, a relation between one in power and a supplicant. The privileges can be withdrawn at any moment, ‘access’ denied.”(Although archives are purchased for vast sums by institutions such as the Harry Ransom Center in Texas, there’s no guarantee that visiting scholars will receive clearance to quote their findings.)

In most cases where a biographer has butted heads with an executor or living subject, there is some kind of response from the losing side: Ackroyd has stuck to the long-dead (Dickens, Blake, Shakespeare) and non-living (London, Venice, the Thames); Stannard, following a second bruising experience – that time with Muriel Spark – retreated into academic life. The American writer Lee Israel was more boisterous. The author of a well-regarded book on Tallulah Bankhead, Israel – who died in 2014 – found her reputation in tatters when a biography of Estée Lauder, commissioned in the early 1980s, became a horrible rush job following Lauder’s announcement that she would be writing a book of her own.

Having plummeted “from best-sellerdom to welfare” – as she puts it, in the jaunty memoir Can You Ever Forgive Me? – Israel resolved to make ends meet with what looks like a form of symbolic thwarted-biographer’s revenge: using stolen or specially commissioned hotel stationery and second-hand vintage typewriters, she began forging dozens of literary letters, which she sold to unscholarly or unscrupulous New York book dealers.

Israel’s forgeries drew heavily on someone who had previously stymied biographers’ efforts – the playwright Lillian Hellman, a fierce executor of her husband, Dashiell Hammett, and of her friend Dorothy Parker. Israel’s source for the Hellman imitations was a letter she had herself received refusing to grant an interview for the Bankhead book (“she was a difficult woman: happily, her signature was easy”). But it wasn’t only an example of the biographer biting back, it was also an exercise in imaginative biographical homage. One of the fake Hellman letters renders with sympathy behaviour that Israel herself considered “possessive and proprietary”: “Dottie Parker… did not wish to allow a biography… I gave a promise when she was ill. I have, of course, even as the executrix, no legal right to forbid such an endeavour, but I have a moral obligation to tell you her wish.”


The 1980s were the high-water mark of the biographer’s travails. Life-writing was at its most popular, thanks mainly to books such as Michael Holroyd’s Lytton Strachey (1967) that had delivered their revelations after suffering little interference. But estates and living subjects were also at their most aggressively territorial.

As Ackroyd, Stannard and Israel suffered their setbacks, the poet Ian Hamilton was in the process of turning himself into a cautionary tale and a legal precedent. Having been predictably denied co-operation by the eremitic JD Salinger (“Don’t do this to me,” he pleaded), Hamilton was then prohibited from quoting three caches of correspondence that he had discovered. “Fair use” – the doctrine governing unpermitted quotation of copyrighted material – “had taken a bad knock”, Hamilton later wrote of a case that reached the US Appeals Court in 1987. “So too had paraphrase. Copyright law might never be the same again.” (One of the things that keeps biographers such as Stannard, Israel and Hamilton ploughing on is the fact of having received, and partly spent, an advance.)

“It’s as if he’s pronounced himself dead and then appointed himself literary executor,” Hamilton said. Stung but not cowed, he recounted his troubles in the final pages of his book, In Search of JD Salinger (1988), bemoaning the injustice, and then published Keepers of the Flame (1992), a survey of literary estates that formed part of a new discipline, still unnamed in English (the Germans call it nachlebenstudien), which considers what happens to dead writers, either at the hands of executors or exegetes.

At first, afterlife study was a kind of scholarly solipsism, a reflection on the theory and genealogy of the author’s own professional activities. Michael Millgate, the author of the case studies in Testamentary Acts (1992), published the same year as Hamilton’s book, had written a study of Thomas Hardy’s career and a biography as well as presiding over his collected letters.

The adventures of William Shakespeare since 1616 (the First Folio, David Garrick’s “Jubilee” celebrations in 1769, the Romantic cult, the authorship debate, the futile attacks on “Bardolatry”) were treated by specialists such as Jonathan Bate, in Shakespearean Constitutions (1989) and The Genius of Shakespeare (1997), and Gary Taylor, in Reinventing Shakespeare (1989), and by “cultural materialist” critics eager to expose Shakespeare as a “sponge” of meanings, and a “tool” of power.

Since then, there have been book-length inquiries on virtually all the English (or Anglo-American) writers who have led notably active critical and biographical afterlives: the Brontës, CS Lewis, DH Lawrence, George Orwell, Henry James – a writer himself preoccupied, in stories such as “The Aspern Papers” (1888), with the subject of literary estates – and in particular Jane Austen, whose fame, cults, textual lives, the ways she was “made”, “used” and “recreated” have been the subject of a series of studies since the beginning of the century, a whole discipline shifting from from the study of “Jane” to the study of earlier “Janeites”.

Most of these books were written by academics and published by university presses, but popular forms such as narrative history and long-form journalism are well-placed to deal with afterlives that have played out in public – on stage and in courtrooms as opposed to, say, the correspondence columns of the Times Literary Supplement or the corridors of the Oxford University Press.

Michael Holroyd, writing in the same year as Hamilton and Millgate, added a whole volume to his biography of George Bernard Shaw. Janet Malcolm, in her magisterial non-fiction novella In the Freud Archives (1984), investigated a case that she likened to “The Aspern Papers”, and then, in The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes (1994), explored perhaps the most notorious of all literary estates through two further beleaguered 1980s biographies: Linda Wagner-Martin’s Sylvia Plath: a Biography (1987), which was completed in spite of objections from Hughes and his sister Olwyn, who served as Plath’s executor, and Anne Stevenson’s Bitter Fame (1989), which was deemed too deferential to an estate whose help the author freely acknowledged.

Emily Dickinson left nearly 2,000 poems​

Now Benjamin Balint, in the gripping and knotty Kafka’s Last Trial, and Julie Dobrow, in the angering but finally inspiring After Emily, lay bare the relationship between estate management, archival avarice, popular renown, and inheritance law. Both books consider bodies of work that were constituted posthumously. Franz Kafka asked for his unpublished papers to be burnt, a request ignored by his friend Max Brod, who spent the rest of his life, in Balint’s words, “canonising Kafka as the most prescient – and most disquieting – chronicler of the 20th century”. Brod himself called his actions: “the helping of a friend even against the wish of the friend”. (Gratitude for these efforts hasn’t always been forthcoming: JM Coetzee noted that Brod “utterly failed to understand” Kafka’s work; Milan Kundera called his behaviour “the model for disobedience to dead friends”.) Emily Dickinson’s sister, meanwhile, burned a lot of personal correspondence (that’s what sisters are for) but all of the nearly 2,000 poems discovered in Emily’s bedroom, many of them bound by twine into fascicles, eventually found their way into book form.

The editing of Dickinson’s poetry occurred in two distinct periods. First, during the 1890s, Mabel Loomis Todd, the lover of Dickinson’s brother, edited two volumes that sold well (the publisher invoked “Hot Cakes”). Decades later, Todd unlocked a camphorwood chest full of poems she withheld after falling out with the Dickinson family. In the process, she set her ambitious daughter, Millicent Todd Bingham, on a lifetime of deciphering what Mabel called “the strangest hand ever seen” and of fighting with the next Dickinson generation about who owned the original manuscripts and which institution should buy them. Throughout it all, Millicent remembered her priorities: “This thing is bigger than a dispute between Amherst and Harvard over legal technicalities. It is a question of a correct text for the standard edition – the permanent form in which the poems of Emily Dickinson will be known from now on.”

A similar story is played out in Balint’s book. Esther Hoffe, Max Brod’s secretary, had been a daughter figure to him and, after he died in 1968, his heir. Brod left her his papers and seems to have asked for them to be given on her death to the National Library of Israel. Esther, believing them to be her personal property, decided to sell them instead to the German Literary Archives, in Marbach. The question of whether Esther was an executor or beneficiary has been the subject of a succession of court cases held in Israel. Should her daughter, Eva, have inherited things that Brod had left to her mother or should they have “reverted” to something that might be more neutrally recognised as “the Brod estate”? Did Brod even have a right to the manuscripts in the first place, at any rate the one he had taken from Kafka’s desk?

Other subjects of debate included Kafka’s attitude to Judaism and Zionism, Israel’s attitude to Kafka, Brod, and German-language literature, and Kafka’s attitude to Germany. Kafka’s biographer, Reiner Stach, pointed out that in Israel there is neither a complete edition of Kafka’s works – even the German edition wasn’t held by the library seeking to house the original manuscripts – nor a single street named after him. But then had Esther’s use of her veto over Brod’s archive – 20,000 pages in all – been responsible for the comparative lack of Kafka scholarship? One judge suggested that the relevant question was not whether the library employed the relevant experts but if it had the requisite space and resources. Clearly, whatever Kafka’s misgivings about the German nation, he loved German literature and language. But the case was being heard in Israel – and the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the National Library in 2016.

During the trials, the indeterminacy of Kafka’s writing – central to his reputation, the reason why anyone would want to own his papers – was transformed by archive fever into a source of legal frustration.

But then estates have always been a liberal breeder of paradox and peripeteia. JD Salinger, by imposing his copyright on the letters found by Ian Hamilton, rendered them available for public inspection, as well as quotation by newspapers covering the trial, and also subjected himself to more scrutiny and attention than Hamilton’s book could ever have generated on its own. A biography of Hamilton himself was abandoned after his widow refused to cooperate. Jonathan Bate, one of the masters of nachlebenstudien, fell foul of the Ted Hughes estate, after his authorised biography was deemed too prurient, more concerned with Hughes’s libido than with his “imagination”. Two of Lee Israel’s Noël Coward fakes made it into in a 2007 edition of his letters, 15 years after her arrest. Martin Stannard is currently overseeing a complete critical edition of Evelyn Waugh’s work. History moves in improbable directions, outwitting efforts at plotting and planning, as developments in the Hallam Tennyson story show.


Michael Millgate, in Testamentary Acts, wrote that Hallam was seeking to propel his father’s reputation “securely forward into an infinite future”. In reality, the Memoir was motivated by a Victorian vision of piety and politesse, and the Trinity bequest was based on the recognition that popular poets were able to thrive in popular editions, unburdened by scholarly apparatus. But what if piety fell out of fashion and every poet had a scholarly edition of his or her own? What if the general reader craved biographical scandal and academic attention – far from spoiling the reader’s experience – became a writer’s best chance of survival?

For a long time, Hallam’s desire to stymie scholarship prevailed. Christopher Ricks’s 1969 Longman edition of Tennyson’s poems contained repeated reference to “Trinity MS, which may not be quoted”. But later in 1969, the 3rd Baron Tennyson, Hallam’s son, lifted the restriction. Ricks’s revised Longman edition (1987) expanded to three volumes; “Trinity MS, released from interdiction” made frequent appearances. Ricks’s edition did more than anything else to bolster the revival of interest in Tennyson’s poems, revealing the care that had gone into their rewriting. This came at a time of greater interest in literary revision, as displayed in ongoing editing projects at Yale concerning the recently discovered papers of James Boswell; at Cornell concerning the manuscripts of Wordsworth – which had been microfilmed and distributed in case the Lake District suffered a nuclear attack; and in the publication of the original drafts of Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land”.

Valerie Eliot was, for many years, an executor in the Hallam Tennyson mould – restricting access to correspondence, dooming biographers to digest. Apart from “The Waste Land” manuscript, a book of lectures, and a collection of the letters Eliot had written until the age of 34, nothing had appeared in the three decades following the poet’s death in 1965. Then, in 1996, at Valerie’s invitation, Christopher Ricks brought out Inventions of the March Hare, based on a notebook of early unpublished poems.

In his second edition of Tennyson’s poems, Ricks had explained the shift in policy by saying that the third Lord Tennyson had wisely chosen “one form of piety over another” – respect for the poems over respect for the wishes of the poet as construed by his son. The Eliot case was harder. Eliot had insisted that no “academic critic” should edit his work. Ricks’s reply was that notes had become more necessary with time, and that Eliot “sometimes applauded an annotated edition”. It’s not a strong argument: Eliot was himself aware, when he set down his request, that a poem’s context tends to fade and that he had himself applauded, for example, FL Lucas’s four-volume edition of Webster. Sensing perhaps the element of illogic, Ricks produced the trump card, the all-powerful claim that Valerie Eliot must be accounted “the best judge of what her husband would have wished in changed cultural circumstances” – not, he was careful to say, what her husband really meant, but what he would have wanted were he alive.

Had circumstances changed so much in the 15 years after Eliot’s death to allow for Cats, despite his ban on rendering his poem as songs, or in 30 years to make poems he considered “unpublishable” worthy of a hardback of their own? A more honest and convincing justification might be that live interests and living readers and students – not to mention untapped royalties – carry more weight than the desires expressed by dead authors.

Ricks would have seemed an unlikely favourite of the Eliot estate. Writing in this magazine in 1963, he had quipped that Eliot defending Wyndham Lewis against the charge of fascist sympathies was like the pot calling the kettle white. But it wasn’t Ricks’s subsequent apology that redeemed him. It was his scholarship, the work he did as an “academic critic”. After a lecture, Valerie Eliot approached Ricks and said: “Tom would have loved your edition of Tennyson.”

The stories of literary estates testify for the most part to the futility of legislating for posterity – of seeking to determine, from a fixed point in time and single point of view, what will prove to be “best” for a writer’s personal or critical reputation.

It is pleasingly ironic that activities conducted in opposition to the original desires of one executor (Hallam Tennyson) helped to loosen the strictures of another (Valerie Eliot). But even more typical of the ways in which literary history punishes hubris and undermines prophecy is that an edition so at odds with how Hallam Tennyson believed his father’s work should be preserved could have led so directly to the publication, in 2015, of Ricks’s next commission, The Poems of TS Eliot: The Annotated Text. Edited with Jim McCue, the two-volume edition carries note after note concerning Eliot’s debts to the poetry of Tennyson, to “Maud” and “The Princess” and “In Memoriam”, thereby helping to affirm his position as the dominant and most influential English poet of the later 19th century well into the 21st.

A Companion to Literary Biography
Edited by Richard Bradford
Wiley-Blackwell, 600pp, £120

Can You Ever Forgive Me? Memoirs of a Literary Forger
Lee Israel
Simon & Schuster, 144pp, £7.99

Kafka’s Last Trial: The Case of a Literary Legacy
Benjamin Balint
Picador, 304pp, £14.99

After Emily: Two Remarkable Women and the Legacy of America’s Greatest Poet
Julie Dobrow
Norton, 384pp, £19.99

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