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New Left Review I/215, January-February 1996

Jim McGuigan

Reviewing a Life. Fred Inglis’s Biography of Raymond Williams

The publication of a first biography of Raymond Williams was bound to be a significant event for anyone touched by his work and yet now, in a period of immense uncertainty, doubtful of its enduring value and political resonance. [1] Fred Inglis, Raymond Williams, Routledge, London 1995, isbn 0–415–08960–3, £19.99. Michel Foucault died of aids in 1984 and still seems to speak, however circuitously, to our present condition. Williams, on the other hand, died of premature old age four years later and, to some, has come quite soon to appear passé. It is the fate of the work that is of interest since Williams himself, as Inglis puts it, led an ‘ordinary life’. You can make a good biography, in the literary sense, out of an extraordinary life or at least a larger-than-life personality, as Richard Ellmann demonstrated brilliantly in his life of Oscar Wilde. Williams is a much more intractable figure. A few of us may be intrigued by the details of his life but, to labour the point, not many of us. One is tempted to ask, in the tone of Inglis, from reading this biography, what would ‘a young person’ make of Williams? It is unlikely, I fear, to encourage a fresh engagement with the work. The dangers of hagiography are great in writing biography, especially if the biographer wants to introduce his or her subject to a new readership. Inglis quite rightly is assiduous in avoiding hagiography in his ‘homage’ to Williams. He succeeds in finding much to criticize in Williams both as a man and a writer. The general effect of such scrupulous treatment, however, unbeknownst perhaps to the author and no doubt against his own better wishes, might be a serious disservice to the memory of the man and the work.

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Jim McGuigan, ‘Reviewing a Life. Fred Inglis's Biography of Raymond Williams’, NLR I/215: £3

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