1. G. E. Bentley, Jr. Blake Records. Oxford: The
Clarendon Press, 1969. 678
/ xxviii pp. / 60 plates. £8.
In an earlier age of scholarship, this book would have been called “Materials Toward a Biography” of William Blake, or something of that sort. Our tighter-lipped times must be content with Blake Records. Anyone who works on Blake will be grateful to Professor Bentley for this compendious labor, which comprises not only contemporary references and documents, but also four invaluable appendices: “Early Essays on Blake,” “Blake Residences,” “Blake Accounts,” and “Engravings by and after Blake.” There is also a superbly comprehensive index. If one puts down Blake Records at last with a certain feeling of frustration, this is not owing to any dissatisfaction with the book itself; it is, rather, a reflection of the present state of our knowledge about Blake. If even this enormous, rich, plum pudding of a book does not solve any of the major biographical problems about Blake, does this mean they will never be solved at all?
This is not at all to say that no important biographical data emerges from Blake Records. On the contrary, Professor Bentley has substantially increased our knowledge of Blake’s life, sometimes by single discoveries, sometimes by the accumulation of detail. The possibility that Blake’s father was converted to Baptism in about 1769 (pp. 7-8) is certainly a very interesting one, to say the least. The curious claim of Charles Henry Bellenden Ker that Blake had him arrested for nonpayment for two drawings must give us all pause. (See pp. 227-228). Does this indicate a hitherto unsuspected aspect of Blake’s character? But how could a man be arrested for debt as a result of a verbal offer made three years previously, and why should Ker have ended up paying ten guineas more begin page 91 | ↑ back to top than he had originally promised? On firmer ground, the detailed exposure of Cromek’s dealing with Blake leaves no room for doubt that Blake was swindled; previously we have tended to side with Blake on emotional or intuitive grounds, but Blake Records exposes Cromek’s double-dealing very nicely. The Blake-Linnell accounts leave a much different impression: here one can see that Linnell was accused unjustly by Palmer and others. Linnell emerges as a hard-headed man, one who would not scruple to dun a nobleman, for example; more of an entrepreneur than a Maecenas. But he did not pretend to be Blake’s benefactor (and would Blake have enjoyed it if he had?), and his dealings with Blake were dignified and straightforward. Frederick Tatham, it must be said, remains about as understandable as Antonio in The Tempest.
At times in reading Blake Records one feels very close to Blake indeed, seeing him through the eyes of his contemporaries. Professor Bentley has wisely not interfered with this feeling of contemporaneity, providing only short, lucid expository links where they are needed. The result is a sort of do-it-yourself Blake biography kit, which at this stage of Blake studies, is more useful than - in the absence of new major discoveries - a new biography.