This long pursuit, p.5
This Long Pursuit, p.5Richard Holmes
I returned to these questions more urgently: on what grounds could one claim biography as – at least potentially – a genuine humanist discipline? It is certainly a recognisable literary genre, although that is not quite the same thing. Yet its intellectual independence was proclaimed at least as early as Plutarch, writing in Greece around AD 110, and thus at roughly the same period as the later Gospel writers (who had very different ambitions). In the opening of his Life of Alexander, Plutarch distinguished Biography convincingly from History, and gave it both an ethical and a psychological dimension:
It must be borne in mind that my design is not to write Histories, but Lives. And the most glorious exploits do not always furnish us with the clearest discoveries of virtue or vice in men; sometimes a matter of less moment, an expression or a jest, informs us better of the characters and inclinations, than the most famous sieges, the greatest armaments, or the bloodiest battles whatsoever. Therefore as portrait-painters are more exact in the lines and features of the face, in which character is seen, than in the other parts of the body, so I must be allowed to give my more particular attention to the marks and indications of the souls of men, and while I endeavour by these to portray their lives, may be free to leave more weighty matters and great battles to be treated by others.
Roger North, that subtle seventeenth-century memoir writer (not to be confused with Plutarch’s Tudor translator, Thomas North), crisply summarised the argument as follows: ‘What signifies it to us, how many battles Alexander fought. It were more to the purpose to say how often he was drunk.’ Plutarch’s chilling description of Alexander’s drunken rages, or equally of his post-battle gallantry and good humour, fully bears out this claim to peer behind the mask of public behaviour and events, into an individual ‘soul’. Who can forget the wonderfully funny and unexpected description of Alexander (after the bloody defeat of his great Persian enemy) sardonically examining the luxury fittings of Darius’s bathroom, with its ornate and ridiculous ‘waterpots, pans and ointment boxes, all of gold curiously wrought’. And then how Plutarch clinches the scene, with Alexander’s stinging jest: ‘So this, it seems, is royalty!’
John Dryden, while preparing his edition of Plutarch (1683), defined the genre similarly as ‘Biographia, or the histories of Particular Lives’. But he chose to emphasise even further its unique quality of human intimacy:
There [in works of history] you are conducted only into the Rooms of State; but here you are led into the private lodgings of the hero: you see him in his undress, and are made familiar with his most private actions and conversations. You may behold a Scipio and a Lelius gathering cockle-shells on the shore, Augustus playing at bounding-stones with boys, and Agesilaus riding on a hobby-horse among his children. The pageantry of life is taken away; you see the poor reasonable animal, as naked as ever Nature made him; are made acquainted with his passions and his follies, and find the demy-God a man.
This touching vision of ‘the poor reasonable animal’, shorn not only of divine but even of heroic status, ushered in the first great age of English biography. Intimacy is subversive of grandeur and ceremonial, though not necessarily of greatness, or indeed goodness. This notion of a popular, even a subversive discipline, which celebrates and studies a common human nature (shared by criminals as well as kings), would seem to me crucial. It is central to the claim that the English form has become progressively greater than hagiography, formal obituary, modish gossip, or historical propaganda. It suggests a profound humanist ambition, which could indeed provide the basis for true study.
Samuel Johnson gave this theoretical weight and intense personal conviction in his remarkable Rambler No. 60, ‘On Biography’ (1750). Here, arguably, is the first deliberate statement of a biographical poetics:
No species of writing seems more worthy of cultivation than biography, since none can be more delightful or more useful, none can more certainly enchain the heart by irresistible interest, or more widely diffuse instruction to every diversity of condition … I have often thought that there has rarely passed a Life of which a judicious and faithful narrative would not be useful. For, not only every man has, in the mighty mass of the world, great numbers in the same condition with himself, to whom mistakes and miscarriages, escapes and expedients, would be of immediate and apparent use; but there is such an uniformity in the state of man, considered apart from adventitious and separable decorations and disguises, that there is scarce any possibility of good or ill, but is common to human kind … We are all prompted by the same motives, all deceived by the same fallacies, all animated by hope, obstructed by danger, entangled by desire, and seduced by pleasure.
It is no coincidence that, in practice, the first short eighteenth-century masterpieces of English biography were about marginal and disreputable figures, not kings or kaisers. These were Daniel Defoe’s biographical study of the housebreaker and incorrigible escape-artist Jack Sheppard (1724), and Johnson’s own brilliant Life of Mr. Richard Savage (1744), an account of the indigent poet and convicted murderer. Both works turn conventional moral judgements – and traditional social hierarchies – upside down, by insisting on the value and interest of common humanity, the universal ‘possibilities of good or ill’, wherever they are to be found. Johnson wrote: ‘Those are no proper judges of his conduct who have slumber’d away their time on the down of plenty, nor will a wise man presume to say, “Had I been in Savage’s condition, I should have lived, or written, better than Savage.”’
Boswell’s Life of Johnson (1791) gave this notion of common humanity the proportions of an epic – Johnson as Everyman. And the powerful idea of the marginal figure who is still representative of ‘human kind’ (in this case specifically ‘woman kind’) recurs in William Godwin’s strikingly dramatic and candid life of his wife Mary Wollstonecraft, the Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1798).
By the early nineteenth century, the cultural significance of biography’s growing popularity was broadly recognised, and was already receiving some study, though not necessarily favourable. Coleridge wrote about it in his journal The Friend (1810), calling it the product of ‘emphatically an Age of Personality’; and Wordsworth attacked the use of ungentlemanly revelations in a contemporary Life of Burns (1828). But in fact Romanticism embraced the ideas of both ‘personality’ and of personal ‘revelations’. In 1813 Robert Southey clinched his appointment as Poet Laureate by writing a short and wonderfully vivid biography of Nelson, which eventually became by far the most successful work he ever published. It enshrined the dead wartime naval commander as a new kind of national hero, a people’s hero with the common touch, flawed of course (Emma Hamilton), but open-hearted and irresistibly courageous, and above all familiar: ‘The death of Nelson was felt in England as something more than a public calamity; men started at the intelligence, and turned pale, as if they had heard of the loss of a dear friend.’
Similarly, in 1818 Mary Shelley chose to educate Frankenstein’s monster in the complex ways of human civilisation by making him read biography (‘a volume of Plutarch’s Lives’) as well as Goethe’s fashionable novel The Sorrows of Young Werther and Milton’s Paradise Lost. While fiction seems to emphasise the creature’s isolation and sense of exclusion, biography consoles him. Hidden in his woodshed, the monster reflects: ‘I learned from Werther’s imaginations despondency and gloom: but Plutarch taught me high thoughts; he elevated me beyond the wretched sphere of my own reflections, to admire and love the heroes of past ages.’
One cannot help wondering which exemplary biography Mary Shelley would have chosen to give the monster for uplift and study today. Currently some 3,500 new titles are published in Britain a year. (However, this figure includes autobiography, ghosted books, and many pictorial show-business biographies which are surely closer to the older forms of hagiography or demonology.) Virtually all bookshops have a Biography section which is larger than any other non-fiction genre, and is still quite separate from History. This seems to emphasise th
Yet commercially the genre of biography is still regarded as ephemeral and utilitarian, rather than a permanent art form. It is strongly content-orientated, and it is shelved alphabetically by subject, not by author. Even Boswell is shelved under ‘J’, for Johnson. This seems to imply that most biographies are defined crucially by their subject-matter, and don’t really have a significant authorial status for the reading public. Essentially, biographies are understood to write themselves, self-generated (like methane clouds) by their dead subjects. This popular misconception still affects much contemporary newspaper reviewing of new biography, which tends to consist of a lively critical précis of the whole life, with perhaps one brief mention of the actual author of the book, tucked away somewhere in the penultimate paragraph.
Yet, if biography is to provide a genuine academic course, it must surely concern itself primarily with the outstanding biographers, as literary artists, and their place in the changing history of the form. This would imply an agreed canon of classic works, and of classic biographical authors, as it does in the novel. But has such a canon ever been put forward or generally accepted? Does biography have a widely acknowledged Great Tradition, in the same way that the novel does?
There has been a considerable growth in modern biographical theory, especially since Leon Edel’s Writing Lives: Principia Biographica (1984). But surprisingly little has been written about the specific question of a canon, between Harold Nicolson’s The Development of English Biography of 1927 and Paula Backscheider’s Reflections on Biography of 1999. Indeed, Backscheider concludes that the need to establish and teach a canon is a paramount requirement for the future evolution of the genre as a whole: ‘If biography is to come closer to reaching its potential either as an art or a cultural force, then readers must demand art, collect the books, think in terms of canons and schools, and biographers must have the daring to accept the calling.’
But what about the daring to propose a canon? Leaving aside classical and Renaissance precursors, and concentrating on the early modern English tradition only, there are perhaps fewer than half a dozen names which would immediately spring to mind. These might be Johnson’s Lives of the Poets, Boswell’s Johnson, Mrs Gaskell’s Charlotte Brontë, and Strachey’s Eminent Victorians – though technical objections can be made to all of them as ‘impure’ biography. Johnson, it could be argued, was writing critical essays; Boswell a dramatised memoir; Mrs Gaskell a romantic novel; and Strachey a social satire.
However, let me propose for argument’s sake a possible canon of twenty-seven classic English works written between 1670 and 1970, which might form the basis for postgraduate study. I give abbreviated working titles, though the full original versions are often revealing, as when Godwin omits to mention his wife’s name but describes her only as ‘the Author’ of her most controversial book.
Izaak Walton, Lives of John Donne and George Herbert (1640, revised 1670)
John Aubrey, Brief Lives (1670–88, first published selection 1813)
John Dryden, Plutarch’s Parallel Lives (translations edited 1683–86)
Daniel Defoe, The History of John Sheppard (attributed, 1724)
Samuel Johnson, The Life of Mr. Richard Savage (1744)
James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson LL.D. (1791)
William Godwin, Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1798)
Robert Southey, Life of Nelson (1813)
William Hazlitt, The Spirit of the Age (pen portraits, 1825)
Thomas Moore, Life and Letters of Lord Byron (1830)
John Gibson Lockhart, The Life of Sir Walter Scott (1837–38)
Thomas Carlyle, Life of John Sterling (1851)
Elizabeth Gaskell, Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857)
G.H. Lewes, Life of Goethe (1855, revised 1863)
Alexander and Anne Gilchrist, Life of William Blake (1863)
John Forster, Life of Charles Dickens (1872–74)
David Brewster, Life of Sir Isaac Newton (1855, revised 1880)
J.A. Froude, Life of Thomas Carlyle (1882–84)
Lytton Strachey, Eminent Victorians (1918)
Geoffrey Scott, Portrait of Zélide (1925)
A.J.A. Symons, The Quest for Corvo (1934)
Cecil Woodham-Smith, Florence Nightingale (1950)
Leon Edel, Henry James (1953–72)
Richard Ellmann, James Joyce (1959, revised 1982)
George D. Painter, Marcel Proust: A Biography (1959, 1965)
Michael Holroyd, Lytton Strachey (1967–68, revised 1994)
All these books could be justified on grounds of literary quality, the historic pictures they achieve of their subjects, and their significance within the development of the form. Yet one is immediately aware of several objections to their place in a canon for study. First, there is the simple problem of length, upon which Virginia Woolf expatiated with such eloquent irony in Orlando (1928): ‘documents, both private and historical, have made it possible to fulfil the first duty of a biographer, which is to plod, without looking to right or left, in the indelible footprints of truth; unenticed by flowers; regardless of shade; on and on methodically till we fall plump into the grave and write finis on the tombstone above our heads’.
This is particularly evident in the nineteenth-century convention of inflating a chronological narrative with enormous excerpts from original letters and diaries, which by modern scholarly convention would now be published separately. For example, Froude’s Carlyle (though one of the greatest studies of Victorian marriage) is in four volumes; Lockhart’s Scott is in seven. How are these dinosaurs to be recovered? Perhaps by editing?
Next, there are certain obvious biases within the selection. There are few American, Irish or Australian lives. There is the large predominance of literary biography over scientific, political or military. Equally, there is the overwhelming predominance of men over women, either as biographers or as subjects. This seems historically unavoidable. Aubrey included only three women in his Brief Lives, though one was the remarkable Countess of Pembroke; Johnson wrote nothing about his large circle of brilliant bluestocking friends; Hazlitt included no women in The Spirit of the Age. It was only with the late recognition of the mid-Victorian heroine – Caroline Herschel, Charlotte Brontë, Florence Nightingale, Harriet Martineau, Mary Somerville – that the biography of women began to emerge, and only with modern feminism that it began to have serious impact on the form after 1970, with work by Claire Tomalin, Hilary Spurling, Nancy Milford, Judith Thurman, Stacy Schiff and others.
But there is a wholly different level of objection. How can the term ‘classic’ (in the sense of unique and enduring) be applied to even the greatest of these biographies, when their facts and interpretations will always be altered by later research? This crucial question of the superannuating of any biography raises several issues. At the simplest level, it is a matter of factual accuracy. This is an obvious problem in the case of Thomas Moore, who altered and spliced so many of Byron’s letters and journal entries; or Boswell, who could not fully come to terms with Johnson’s early, unsettled years in London; or Mrs Gaskell, who suppressed much of Charlotte Brontë’s amorous life and correspondence with her Belgian mentor Monsieur Héger. (These letters, largely unsent, were published after Brontë’s death, though they had been partly used in her novel Villette.)
This leads on to a larger, almost philosophical question about the apparently ephemeral nature of biographical knowledge itself. If no biography is ever ‘definitive’, if every life story can be endlessly retold and reinterpreted (there are now more than ten lives of Mary Wollstonecraft, thirty lives of Johnson, two hundred lives of Byron, four hundred lives of Hitler, and literally countless lives of Napoleon), how can any one Life ever hope to avoid the relentless process of being superseded, outmoded, and eventually forgotten – a form
This would also seem to imply that as ‘factual content’ grows out of date, the artistic structure is fatally weakened from within. When we learn of the young actress Ellen Ternan and her place in Dickens’s life, from the modern biographies by Peter Ackroyd (1990) and then Claire Tomalin (1991), doesn’t this fatally superannuate John Forster’s Life? (Forster mentioned Ellen Ternan only once – in an Appendix with reference to Dickens’s will.) Or when we discover from Richard Westfall’s magisterial Never at Rest (1980, abridged as The Life of Isaac Newton, 1993) the real extent of Newton’s alchemical and astrological interests, and their impact on his concept of universal gravity, doesn’t this weaken the authority of Sir David Brewster’s great two-volume Life, Writings, and Discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton (1855)?
In fact, one might suggest that precisely here lies one of the greatest arguments in favour of the disciplined, rigorous academic study of biography as a developing form. It is exactly in these shifts and differences – factual, formal, stylistic, ideological, aesthetic – between early and later biographies that students could find an endless source of interest and historical information. They would discover how reputations developed, how fashions changed, how social and moral attitudes moved, how standards of judgement altered, as each generation, one after another, continuously reconsidered and idealised or condemned its forebears in the writing and rewriting of biography.
Here one is considering virtually a new discipline, which might be called comparative biography. It is based on the premise that every biography is one particular interpretation of a life, and that many different interpretations or reassessments are always possible. (If there can be innumerable different interpretations of a fictional character – Hamlet, Moll Flanders, Mr Pickwick, Tess – then surely there can be as many of a historical one.) So, in comparative biography the student examines the handling of one subject by a number of different biographers, and over several different historical periods. In the case of Shelley, for example, one might compare the biographies by his contemporaries Hogg and Peacock (1858) with the late-Victorian one by Professor Edward Dowden (1886), the jazz-age one by André Maurois (1924), and the American New Deal biography by Newman Ivey White (1940). The ‘Shelley’ that we have inherited has grown out of all these versions, and he in turn reflects back a particular picture of each generation which has, alternately, been inspired or bored or scandalised by him.
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