‘Most biographers have an infantile fixation on their hero/subjects, and want to idealise them and turn them into their fathers.’ - Hermione Lee on why Freud thinks people write biographies.
Was I seeking an ideal father? I have been pondering my relationship to Colenso, this quirky, difficult man, wondering if I have over-invested in resuscitating Colenso’s historical reputation. Why, I wondered, did I feel a companionship with this strange, isolated man? Or does this answer the query?
Was this search for an alternative father the Freudian basis of my interest in him however? It was a disturbing thought. My own father was nothing like Colenso - in fact I think Colenso would have been a nightmare of a father in some ways - overbearing, impossible, too opinionated, too needy - and too generous. Both his sons - Latimer, the legitimate one and Wiremu - the illegitimate son - both became English gentleman, living on the money William endlessly gave them. He spoiled them. Literally, perhaps. Latimer always strikes me as a rather narrow-hearted man, a shard of a person. Wiremu - well, there is another story there, probably an entire novel....or work of nonfiction. (I understand a Canadian relative, a female academic, is writing a book on Wiremu Colenso, a fascinating enigma of a character.)
So - am I seeking a substitute father? I can’t answer that. What I can say is what I value in William Colenso: that is a hot witness, an agitated voice, an almost impure subject - someone who is not slow to speak, have an opinion. He also saw and thought and wrote at a key time in New Zealand’s history. He changed his opinions over his life time. He was versatile. He was, I suppose, when you get down to it, an eye witness.This for me - a person who loves the smell and density and darkness and strangely shaped corriders and underground tunnels of history - is what I really like about William Colenso. He leads me into the past, shines a torch over things which might have otherwise remained unseen, unknown - even unthought of.
And finally, his own moral complexity - his ‘fall from grace’ - makes him a good companion. A man uneasy in his own skin is an interesting person, a contemporary person. He was vivid, gabby, opinionated, often wrong, often right. But he was never neutral, cautious, prim. He was an individual. So probably I’m not so much seeking a father as a guide/companion as I walk backwards - or is it forwards? - into the past.
Oh, and a rather nice daddy wouldn’t hurt....thanks, Mr Freud.