Skip to content

Private Lives, Dying Wishes, and Technological Development

Recently in Portsmouth, a statue of Charles Dickens has been unveiled. While not terribly notable in itself this event is of some interest as it ignores the last wishes of the author it is meant to honour [1].

The problem, in my view, is that this is just one of many cases in which a public figure—authors appear especially vulnerable—has been denied the fulfilment of his or her express wishes regarding post-mortem handling of his or her estate or image. Now, the Dickens case is perhaps the least pernicious of these slights. The commission of a statue, to be on display in the author’s hometown, has nothing to do with the estate or the general treatment of the author’s legacy. There is little at stake here. More troubling is the seeming ease with which other wishes are ignored. For example, last year the selected letters of American author Willa Cather (1873-1947) were published despite her long-stated wish that they be destroyed after her death. Indeed, Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout, the editors of the volume, admit that to publish the letters as they have done is to “flagrantly defy” Cather’s wishes [2]. The letters of Kafka and Woolf have also been published despite the wishes of their authors, and a biography of T.S. Eliot is expected although he forbade it.

I can see how the arguments in favour of this practice might go—at least in the case of letters, or, perhaps, previously unpublished material; someone might say that the contribution to the study of the works of these authors will be so significantly enhanced by the availability of the letters that their publication outweighs other salient concerns. However, the fact that most correspondence is now digital adds to my concern about flagrantly defying long-standing wishes after a person has died. In a recent New Yorker article on the Susan Sontag archives at U.C.L.A the author describes being able to go through all of Sontag’s notes, drafts, and emails. I worry that our increased ability to store emails and other forms of digital correspondence will make it even more likely that requests for privacy will be denied.

Now, I don’t want to say definitely that this practice is wrong; especially in cases of literary figures whose correspondence might be used to shed light on important texts. But, don’t we at least need to have the conversation? It is more worrying for me that we seem not to feel obliged to even argue for violating a person’s wishes and exposing his or her private life.


[1] To wit, “I conjure to my friends on no account to make me the subject of any monument, memorial or testimonial whatsoever. I rest my claims to the remembrance of my country upon my published works.”

[2] Selected Letters of Willa Cather (Random House, 2013), vii. See also Hermione Lee’s review of this volume in the New York Review of Books, here. Lee—a Cather biographer—supports the publication of the letters and fails, intentionally, to provide an argument for such support.


By Luke Davies. Follow Luke on Twitter.

Share on