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elegant, erudite, but also disappointing
on 31 December 2011
This biography draws into the story of Ben Jonson new documents not hitherto known or considered. Its phrasing is often sensitive and elegant, and it's rich with apt and even surprising illustrations. Written over an extended time-span, it is not a quick read, but it offers much to ponder.
The excellent opening chapters discuss most interestingly what can a biography ask and learn about a subject so complex and so distant from us in time? To help weigh up what the sources do and don't offer, it examines early on Jonson's famous walk to Scotland, and his conversations there that were put on the record by Drummond of Hawthornden, a poet and man of letters with whom Jonson stayed for some months, and whose style of reportage was itself idiosyncratic. Then begins Jonson's own story, and we're taken, thoughtfully and absorbingly, through his schooling, his military escapades, and his early years in the theatre during the final years of Elizabeth I.
All this is fascinatingly told, until we reach the arrival in London of Elizabeth's successor, James VI of Scotland, James I of England, and the start of Jonson's long involvement with the Jacobean court as a writer of masques, an art form of that era. At this point, so it seemed to me, the biography goes off the rails, is sometimes boringly over-detailed about court intrigues, and in its strange silences even comes close to dodgy.
Modern historians confirm that James's court was camp, dandified, extravagant, and very notably gay - as had been widely noted too in the seventeenth century. Jonson's entry to the court seems to have come through his closeness with Esme Stuart, a flamboyant courtier under James's protection. who was the son of the first man to have loved James. Himself a Catholic at this period, Jonson lived for a time in Esme Stuart's house in Blackfriars, perhaps - as Donaldson suggests - to benefit from the protection of a Catholic nobleman's mansion. To begin with, Jonson wrote for Queen Anne, James's wife, who had struggled lengthily to retain some custody of their eldest son, Prince Henry. However Donaldson gives but the very briefest hint of the fierceness of these domestic battles, of which Jonson could not have been unaware.
Court faction divided and intrigued around the King's "favorites", handsome lads who were tagged "Gentlemen of the Bed-Chamber". While Donaldson remarks that Jonson's first collection of Epigrams made no mention of either James Hay or Robert Carr, he himself makes no mention as to how both these young men were then generally observed to be foremost in James's affections. Later, after Carr had been married to Frances Howard and was tried with her for complicity in the murder of Sir Thomas Overbury, a new favorite arrived, George Villiers, who became Duke of Buckingham. For Villiers, as we now know, there was a secret passage between his bedroom and the King's . And we know too that Villiers was generous with his favours and also slept with Francis Bacon, much to Bacon's delight. Jonson was vigorous in writing in praise of George Villiers from the first moment he arrived at court. But these details from the historical record and their possible significance all pass unmentioned in this biography,which is largely oblique on the gay dimension.
Does it matter there's such silence about the considerable gay life at Court? Well, yes. One reason to say it does matter is that Jonson's friends and contemporaries such as John Donne were well aware of gay culture in the city, which features openly in some of Donne's poems; it's implict in various of Shakespeare's plays, and is apparent to in Jonson's play "The Silent Woman". If neither Jonson nor writers close to him were unaware, indifferent, or unamused, and their imaginations were enlivened, what is the point in refraining from comment today, as if no one was in any way gay way back then? Surely the kiss-but-don't-tell policy is now outmoded in academic studies, and not just in the armed forces?
Another strange silence is the absence of any mention of the very long delay between the death of Queen Anne and her state funeral, which it is well known resulted from the emptiness of the court coffers and some unwillingness on the part of the state to provide the necessary funding for lavish ceremonials. Jonson would appear to have returned to London from his Scottish expedition at some point while Anne's body was still laying in State. We learn Jonson may have written a commemorative poem that's now lost, but there's not a word of comment whatsoever on the highly unusual pause before the Queen's funeral took place, although it's a circumstance highly pertinent to the tale of a writer who was then earning much of his living from Court coffers for flattering members of the Court. Economics are, in the last instance, determinant.
Such silences are highly peculiar in a book which otherwise is not only filled with dense information and dissection of far more speculative suggestions, but is also one in which the same anecdotes get repeated and repeated over and over. It's as if much of the biography was composed as separate lectures, with understandable overlaps, but that no editor at Oxford bothered to read through the whole manuscript and edit out the repetitions. I got tired of hearing about Jonson's mother's mock threat to feed him poison in gaol and take some of it herself. I got even more weary hearing over and over how commentators in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries peddled a pointless and baseless contrast between Jonson and Shakespeare, which derives from their taste and fantasies and not from seventeenth century realities. Why clean again a window you've already cleaned, and scrubbed, and cleaned, and polished? Did an Oxford editor doze off too often?
Perhaps the difficulty is that the bar was set too high initially? That early on we're promised more than could be delivered? Missing is not only a vivid grasp on Jonson's "personality" but also any developed discussion of his artistic imagination - which Ian Donaldson has however elaborated on elsewhere quite wonderfully. As biographical sources he draws from time to time on the intermissions and inductions which surround Jonson's plays, and which modern producers tend to excise. Bringing these to our notice is a stirring reminder that Jonson's stage-craft often trafficed in switching levels, loosely speaking to an extent that rivals Pirandello, reminding the audience it is in a theatre, then appearing to forget it is so, only to turn back again to exposing performance and illusion in new twists and turns. There's a brief - too brief - hint of this in the few - far too few - pages given to Bartholomew Fair, and how the line between life and art slips and slides in that extraordinary play. It's a real pity the medium of biography wasn't here deemed to allow for a more developed account of Jonson and the baroque to which Ian Donaldson could bring real enlightenment..