Robert Fulford's column about People on People: Oxford's Biographical Quotations

(The National Post, January 8, 2002)

The careful reader of an anthology or an encyclopedia usually learns something about it that even the editor who created it doesn't know. A reader can feel the effect of a book, which is what matters, whereas the editor knows only the conscious intent.

Given a world of material to choose from, editors will naturally express their obsessions through their choices. No hint of an editor's real concerns will be mentioned in the introduction, since an unwritten law decrees that introductions to such books must be blandly pointless. But eventually an obsession discloses itself to the attentive reader. Certainly that's true of the latest quotation book, People on People: The Oxford Dictionary of Biographical Quotations, edited by Susan Ratcliffe.

Ratcliffe has organized 4,000 quotations under the names of notable men and women, reporting what they said about themselves and what others said about them. She's produced a breezier version of Richard Kenin's and Justin Wintle's Dictionary of Biographical Quotation (1978), one of my favourites. But while Kenin and Wintle limit themselves to British and American subjects, all of them dead, Ratcliffe reaches into many countries and also includes the living.

Like every editor, she finds the examples her sensibility tells her to look for, and comes back from every country or era with much the same report: Famous people say really nasty things about other famous people. Malice delights her; clearly she thinks a good retrospective insult brings a figure from history alive. She visits the 17th century and finds El Greco on Michelangelo: "He was a good man, but did not know how to paint." She moves to the 18th and reads Mozart, in a letter, passing on happy news about a famous contemporary: "That godless arch-rascal, Voltaire, has died like a dog."

In the 20th century we find Albert Einstein calling Marie Curie "cold as a herring" and Cecil Beaton analyzing Waugh: "Evelyn's abiding complex and source of his misery was that he was not a six-foot-tall, extremely handsome and rich duke." Billy Wilder does what he can to destroy the myth of sweet, vulnerable Marilyn Monroe, victimized by Hollywood ("the meanest woman I have ever known in this town") and Glenda Jackson gives her reaction to Laurence Olivier: "Olivier always shows you what a marvellous actor he is by showing you how difficult it is. And I despise that."

Writers, of course, are the worst, or (as this book sees it) the best. Virginia Woolf remembers D.H. Lawrence: "Like an express train running through a tunnel -- one shriek, sparks, smoke and gone." Gore Vidal exhibits disdain for a certified American hero ("What other culture could have produced someone like Hemingway and not seen the joke") and Norman Mailer shakes his head over our own dear Robertson Davies ("I couldn't believe that anybody that pompous could be that good a writer").

The connoisseur of quote books will also notice what the editor has omitted -- in this case consciously, I imagine. Sex makes few appearances in Ratcliffe's selections, which suggests she had her eye on the family and school markets. A mild bawdiness peeks through when Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, says that "the Duke returned from the wars today and did pleasure me in his top-boots," but love usually manifests itself in wistful sentiment. Dying, Charles II uses his last breath to urge that his mistress Nell Gwyn be looked after: "Let not poor Nelly starve." We get no closer to the aberrant than Ellen Terry's remark about Lewis Carroll: "He was as fond of me as he could be of anyone over the age of ten."

Perhaps out of a similar desire to skirt dangerous territory, Ratcliffe generally omits quotations touching on race or religion. She also avoids repeating some famous errors, like having Mark Twain say that rumours of his death were exaggerated. It's fairly certain that he said, "Of course, I am dying. But I do not know that I am doing it any faster than anybody else." The erroneous line that's been quoted thousands of times, and is probably being employed at this moment by someone whose business is on the brink of bankruptcy, seems to have been concocted by a posthumous biographer.

Having always followed Churchill's advice ("It's a good thing for an uneducated man to read books of quotations"), I expect to page through People on People on many occasions. I don't consult quote books so much as meander through them. As a journalist I'm conscious that the best quotes are those you find for yourself. (I keep a private stash, actually.)

Familiar quotations fell into bad odour several decades ago, after too many politicians and Rotary Club speakers leaned heavily on the compilations of John Bartlett (1820-1905), the inventor of the quotations book, and his many imitators. Nobody wanted to be regarded as a quotation-monger.

Among contemporary journalists, George Will has long been the international freestyle quoting champion, in print or TV. He has his favourites. He likes nothing better than telling us that some political statement is, "as Mark Twain said of Wagner's music, better than it sounds."

In the last 20 years, postmodernists have revived the quotation as a way of giving a high-toned air to their writings. Today the typical academic essay moves gracelessly from Benjamin to Foucault to Adorno to Derrida and then around again, eventually taking on the look of a midget anthology. The quotes drown out the voice of the ostensible author, demonstrating nothing but an ability to look things up. Common-garden-variety postmodernists tend not to be critics but quotationists (a word Milton used, with scorn).

People on People delighted me at many places, but most of all in an anecdote, absolutely fresh to me, that comes from the Queen Mother. She's speaking of an evening at Windsor Castle during the Second World War: "Then we had this rather lugubrious man in a suit, and he read a poem ... I think it was called The Desert. And first the girls got the giggles and then I did and then even the King." The lugubrious man insulted by royal giggles was T.S. Eliot. He was reading The Waste Land.

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