William Empson may have been the greatest English literary critic of the mid twentieth century. He was certainly one of the most provocative. These days, he might well be labelled a contrarian: he was fiercely opposed to what he saw as two of the dominant strands in literary criticism of the time: the antiintentionalism of the New Criticism and the neochristian moralism that he saw as, in part, the damaging legacy of T S Eliot.
The last book that he prepared for publication before his death was Using Biography (1984), in which he set out “to collect the essays which I hope to preserve” (p. vii). Of the 11 essays in the volume, 8 had previously been published. The most substantial of the new pieces was “The Marriage of Marvell”, a 51-page attack on the argument of Fred S Tupper purporting to show that the woman who had published Marvell’s Miscellaneous Poems three years after the poet’s death, had not been (as she had sworn) the poet’s widow, but an imposter attempting to cheat his estate. Tupper’s argument had been published in 1938, and was based on records of the Court of Chancery which he had discovered in the Public Records Office.
Empson was sure that there was something wrong with Tupper’s conclusion. On the one hand, he felt strongly enough about the question of Marvell’s marriage to devote the longest and most substantial essay in his final volume to that subject; but, on the other, he waited more than 40 years before delivering his considered riposte to Tupper. It’s as if he didn’t want to die leaving Tupper’s claims uncorrected but he knew that showing them to be wrong would be a difficult and complicated task, one he postponed for as long as he dared.
I’ve written recently about the difference between literary criticism and literary scholarship. Empson was the most brilliant of critics, but “The Marriage of Marvell” contains hardly any criticism. His essay is the work of a critic gingerly dipping his toe into scholarship. Indeed, Empson suggests that the reason he waited so long to answer Tupper is that he was hoping that some “reasearch man” would undertake the task first:
I hope very much that some research man will at last go into these documents thoroughly … I was surprised by how much turned up in my timid peep. This was intended only to explode Tupper, a hope that was readily achieved. I asked at the Record Office for a selected few of the documents whose code-numbers are given in his foot-notes. (p. 43)
He seems dissatisfied that nobody had done this (or, at any rate, nobody had published the results) in the 40-odd years since Tupper had published.
I first read Using Biography a few years before I began a doctoral thesis on the subject of justice in Marvell’s work. I was beguiled by Empson’s essay, and not least because I found it so hard to follow. Having read it through, I was still unsure whether Marvell had been married, but I knew I wanted to find out. I photocopied Tupper’s 1938 article and read it, more than once. Now, I was even less sure what I believed about the poet’s marital status, but utterly convinced that I wanted to know more.
According to Tupper, after Marvell’s death in 1678, his estate (not that he left much) became embroiled in lengthy litigation which included allegations of fraud, perjury, a run on a bank, creditors evading arrest and a possibly false claim that the poet had been party to a clandestine marriage. To make any sense of this, I was going to have to go to the Public Record Office and other archives, and read for myself the records that Tupper had cited and quoted from.
The story can be found, in more detail than I have room for here, in the fifth chapter of my thesis, “Andrew Marvell’s ambivalence about justice”. The passage dealing particularly with the clandestine marriage is at pages 255–266.
Almost the first thing I learned was that Tupper was badly mistaken as to the nature (and evidentiary value) of the documents he’d found. This is unfortunate, but to be fair it wasn’t all his fault. Tools and guides to the interpretation of such documents exist now, but weren’t available in 1938. Tupper was presented with an apparently undifferentiated collection of documents in which he read allegations of unconscionable behaviour couched in tones of outrage and met with sworn denials, and often counterallegations. What could these be but testimony?
In fact, they were pleadings. The Court of Chancery was a court of conscience, not of law. Its jurisdiction was invoked by a complainant who “exhibited” a bill of complaint alleging that the defendant had been doing something that s|he ought not (in conscience) to be allowed to get away with, even if it might be legal. To this, the defendant was required to make an answer on oath. Though the answer was a sworn document, it was not evidence against anyone other than the defendant. If the case proceeded, evidence would eventually be taken in the form of depositions. Depositions were in fact taken in the main case that Tupper relies on, but he did not find them.
Tupper’s other big mistake was to misinterpret two dates appearing on the grants of administration in the estates of Marvell and his friend and relative Edward Nelthorpe. The two men died within a short time of each other. Tupper surmised (following Marvell’s editor, H M Margoliouth) that a date shown in the margin of the grant was its date of issue. In fact it was the last day of the month 6 months later, by which the administrator was to file an inventory of the estate. Tupper therefore concluded that the administrators of both estates had acted “tardily”. His speculative explanation of the supposed delays was one of the main props of his case against Mrs Marvell.
Empson not only accepted Tupper’s mistakes at face value, but he constructed elaborate (and largely fanciful) explanations to account for them. Almost immediately, he describes the documents as “depositons”:
… a series of statements made by each of those concerned, taken down for the attention of the court; they are altered by the clerk into legal jargon intended to guard against contradiction or ambiguity, but that does not prevent them from being characteristic of the speakers. The voice of the housekeeper comes out particularly clearly … I think she sounds very plain and true, as well as astonished and indignant. I can hear her panting. (pp. 44–5)
In fact, this is from Mary Marvell’s answer to a complaint made by Farrington (Nelthorpe’s former partner in the failed bank, and the administrator of his estate) and would most likely have been settled by counsel before she swore it.
Throughout his essay, Empson creates elaborate and unnecessary, but often vivid, explanations and accounts that are based on nothing but speculation. This is most obvious in his account of “the annuity”. The critic is keen to defend Marvell from the imputation that he behaved badly towards his wife by leaving her unprovided for. He concludes that Marvell must have bought an annuity to benefit his widow after his death. There is no evidence at all for the existence of such an annuity.
Empson is unwilling to accept the notion that Marvell was an impoverished writer, parliamentary representative for a cause that was long out of favour, a once-promising clever young man whose career had taken a wrong turning. Marvell “would have” been cagey about letting his wealth be known (as he was about much else, including his marriage) but he must have had investments, a nest-egg, something to fall back on. Empson was surely wrong about this — as (ironically) the subsequently discovered depositions in the Farrington case tend to show — but the critic refers to the annuity as if it were an established fact rather than his own baseless conjecture. Indeed, he uses it in a wholly unnecessary defence of Mrs Marvell against the imputation of perjury.
In her reply of Farrington’s major attack, when he denies the marriage, she accuses him of robbing Marvell’s study in Maiden Lane, and describes with eager excitement how she had seen it stuffed with “hampers trunks bonds bills and other goods”, also “money jewels bonds bills and otherwise to a good value” (Tupper, p. 374). It might be the cave of Aladdin or the dragon Fafner. She is obviously lying and the mere thought of so much money seems to go to her head. Just so a false widow might behave. (p. 75)
But Empson is happy to come to her rescue.
All the same, I expect she was remembering something real … Obviously he did not as a rule keep bags of gold in his lock-up; he was in close touch with the emergence of modern banking. But there was one occasion when he could have such things there without serious inconvenience; when he was collecting his various assets to buy the joint annuity for himself and his wife. This was in 1675, probably, and he would feel it rather a sacrifice, because playing the markets was fun, but also a dedication, or a private declaration of war on the King; he was now going to take serious risks, and must make sure his wife was safe. … The capital now to be devoted to the annuity would be spread out in an eye-catching form, and great scripts in legal handwriting would alternate with actual piles of gold.
This would be almost magnificent if there were the slightest scrap of fact or evidence to back it up. As it is, it seems rather a waste of imaginative effort. What both Tupper and Empson are missing is that Mary Marvell does not claim to have seen hampers, trunks, bonds, bills or jewels in Marvell’s room at Maiden Lane. Empson is unwittingly misleading his readers by saying that this passage is to be found in her “reply” to Farrington’s complaint, in which Farrington (late in the day) alleged that she had not in fact been married to Marvell. He is overlooking the fact that Mrs Marvell issued two separate pleadings at about the same time: her answer to Farrington’s complaint and a cross-complaint of her own.
The claim about hampers and trunks full of valuables, bills, bonds and jewels is to be found in her complaint, a document in which she made allegations against Farrington, in order to have him examined on oath as to what he had removed from Marvell’s room. The answer, in contrast, is her sworn response to Farrington’s allegations against her. Those allegations were contained in his complaint, the aim of which was to get her to disclose (on oath) what had become of Nelthorpe’s personal property. In her answer, when she is on oath, Mrs Marvell does not say that there were hampers, bonds or other riches at Maiden Lane, but only that she believed and had been informed that there were. She says:
But true it is that shee believeth [illegible interlineation] were goods hampers and other things of great value as she has been informed at Mr Marvells Lodgings at Mayden Lane which the said Mr ffarrington or his order took away after Mr Marvells death but whether all or what part thereof did belong to Mr Marvell her husband shee knoweth not but noe parte thereof that she knoweth to the said Mr [deletion] ffarrington (C6/242/13)
She is not claiming to have seen these “things of great value” for herself. She might be lying as to the state of her belief; but why would she have gone to the trouble and expense of fighting the case unless she had at least thought there was something to fight over?
So, Empson’s ingenious effort to show that she might, after all, have seen Marvell’s display of riches is all for nothing. His whole essay about “The Marriage of Marvell” is perhaps the strangest piece of writing about literature that I’ve ever read. The facts, details, inferences and conjectures that it includes are nearly all wrong. Yet, Empson’s instincts pointed him towards the truth. Tupper had misinterpreted the documents that he had done so well to discover. They didn’t support the story that he extracted from them. In particular, they didn’t show that the woman responsible for publication of some of Marvell’s best poetry was a fraud, just trying to get her hands on whatever of value he might have left behind.
The essay on Marvell’s marriage is probably the most striking instance of Empson’s intuition or instinct leading him by the right path to the wrong destination, but it’s not the only one. I’ve subtitled this issue “Empson’s insightful errors, no. 1” and I hope to follow it up (not immediately) with two further discussions. In the first of these, I’ll look at his highly idiosyncratic and controversial reading of Joyce’s Ulysses (also contained in Using Biography). And, finally, I want to take a close look at what he has to say about Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus in Faustus and the Censor, which was edited and published posthumously.
But that will take a while. Next time, in two weeks, I’m going to be writing about Tana French.
Originally posted on Substack (Talk about books), 17-Jan-2021.