On the Shoulders of Humphrey Carpenter: Reconsidering Biographical Representation and Scholarly Perception of Edith Tolkien
In his obituary for Carpenter, Douglas A. Anderson reviews Carpenter’s “long and complex” involvement with the subject of his 1977 authorized biography, indicating that “with [Carpenter’s] passing it is time to begin to assess his changing perspectives on Tolkien and on his own Tolkien-related work.” Since its publication, Carpenter’s biography of Tolkien, which Anderson calls “an excellent book. . . unusually accurate more than a quarter of a century after it was written, despite many advances in Tolkien scholarship” remains a largely unquestioned authority, its influence so entrenched as to be virtually invisible. As a result, scholarship on Tolkien, from biography to criticism, remains overwhelmingly influenced by Carpenter’s perspectives and methods, which, by Carpenter’s admission, are not always strictly fact-based.
This influence is particularly pronounced in discussions of Tolkien and gender, which rely heavily on Carpenter’s depiction of Tolkien’s relationships with his mother, and with his wife Edith. In spite of scholarly reluctance to engage in the “biographical criticism” that Tolkien opposed, phrasing from Carpenter’s biography—or very close paraphrase—functions as evidence of dysfunction or sentimentalism, repeated as fact, sometimes without citation. An example is Carpenter’s assertion that “after [his mother] died, his religion took the place in his affections that she previously occupied.” Carpenter’s interpretations of Tolkien and Edith’s relationship dynamic are often used to pass judgement on the author without considering that Carpenter, as the member of a younger generation, was already influenced by the drastic changes in relationships and gender roles of the 1960s and 70s.
This paper will review Carpenter’s vexed relationship with the subject of his biography, offer evidence of the pervasive and often hidden scholarly use of the biography, and review Carpenter’s own negative and misleading depiction of Edith before offering some alternate interpretations of Edith’s character and situation before and during her marriage.
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