Rupert Christiansen

A good man among ambiguities

The second volume of this superb biography opens in 1939, as William Empson returns to London after two years of high adventure and real privation in a China up against Japanese invasion. Resolved to do his bit against Hitler, he drops poetry and literary criticism to join the BBC’s propaganda operation, where he put his expert knowledge of the Far East to subtle use. George Orwell became a colleague and friend — both of them liberal leftists, albeit of profoundly different literary bents.

At the BBC, Empson encountered the Amazonian figure of Hetta Crouse, a splendidly forthright and fearless South African sculptor, whom Haffenden aptly describes as a ‘seminal hippie’. Living in a large and filthy but welcoming house in Hampstead, they established a madly Bohemian ménage, and took in a succession of lodgers that included the Chinese chef Kenneth Lo and DJ ‘Whispering’ Bob Harris. Their marriage was left radically and dangerously open: Empson enjoyed brief encounters with both men and women, while Hetta had violently passionate relationships with longer-term lovers that seemed to have turned Empson on — he liked the notion of the complaisant cuckold, and used it as a key to the interpretation of Joyce’s Ulysses.

In 1947, accompanied by Hetta and their sons Jacob and Mogador, Empson returned to China, where he taught English at the National Peking University. He remained there throughout the Communist revolution, which his disgust at the corruption of Chiang Kai-shek’s regime led him to support. He missed the early signs that Mao would prove to be even worse. ‘I really think the thing has been going well so far, and feel very pro-Chinese about it,’ he wrote home in characteristically airy fashion, and even the advent of classes in re-education and indoctrination didn’t seem to bother him.

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