Year of death: 2021
Author of Obituary: Frances Wilson
William St Clair held trenchant views on the afterlife. As an atheist he did not believe in the progress of the soul, and as a biographer he was committed to the resurrection of the dead. But as a proud Scot he loathed the flattery, condescension and roll-call of achievements he found embedded in his discipline. William had little time for biography as what he called ‘CV’ or ‘obituary’ (he would spit the words out). Biographies were not, he snarled, ‘soft journalism’, and nor was the biographer ‘a courtier’ or other form of paid sycophant whose job it was to reflect his subject back to the world at twice his natural size. The biographer was there to interrogate the archives, and William – endowed with a brilliantly muscular brain – was an instinctive interrogator. His seminar interventions were lethal and the comments he scrawled on his friends’ manuscripts were, I can attest, equally devastating. A biography, he believed, was a battleground on which all earlier studies should lie slain. The persona he liked to adopt, he said, was one of ‘effortless superiority’ and this is what he achieved.
Like most of us, William was composed of contradictions. Educated at Edinburgh Academy and St John’s College, Oxford, he lived in Belgravia, was employed by the Treasury, clubbed at the Athenaeum and held fellowships at All Souls College, Oxford, and Trinity College, Cambridge. He belonged to the elite, but considered himself anti-establishment. I humoured him on this, but he was adamant: William St Clair was an outsider who spoke truth to power.
He is best described as a late Romantic. His collection of Romantic-era first editions was so immense that it spilled out into the homes of his friends. The only books in his flat that were not bound in brown leather and piled to the ceiling were those on Marilyn Monroe which he kept in the spare bedroom in preparation for the life of Arthur Miller he had planned since introducing himself to the playwright in the 1990s. He first wrote to Miller, he said, in the manner of the young Shelley writing to Godwin, and was rightly furious when Miller’s agent, Andrew Wylie, put a stop to the project.
His one-man battle with the British Museum over their treatment of the Elgin Marbles made him, like Byron, whose portrait was above his bed, a hero in Greece. Beneath his bed, meanwhile, William kept the original Turkish warrant, known as the firman, permitting Lord Elgin to remove the marbles from the Parthenon.
His lodestar, however, was not Lord Byron but William Godwin. Having lost his father when he was a teenager, William looked to his heroes for moral guidance and he adopted a Godwinian approach to life. Anti-government and anti-marriage (despite working in the civil service and having a wife he never quite divorced), he believed in the power of reason while being at times, as Godwin was himself, fabulously unreasonable.
The table talk was Coleridgean. Those who dined with him (at home, William served up M&S ready meals which he pretended to have cooked himself ) will remember how, his bear-like body crowding the table, his food growing cold, his fork piled high and poised in mid air, he would embark on one of his epic anecdotes. His friends were lighting their cigarettes by the time the fork found its way to his mouth.
William was a man with tremendous energy. Generous, sentimental and very funny, he laughed and cried more easily than anyone else I have known. He died in the presence of the woman he loved, after dining with friends in Oxford, having completed his final book. He was 83.
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