The development of biography as an art form is a recent one. The credit for first using the term biography goes to John Dryden who defined it as “the history of particular men’s lives.” The Oxford Dictionary defines it as, “the history of the lives of individual men as a branch of literature.” Harold Nicolson simply echoes this definition when he says that “the biography is a truthful record of an individual, presented as a work of art.”
Distinguished from History
Biography should be distinguished from history with which it is sometimes confused. History deals with the life on nations while biography deals with the life of an individual. History studies the movements affecting a nation or an age, whereas biography studies the personality of a man. Biography seeks to isolate the individual from his age, and unfold the charm of his distinctive personality. Biography is a study sharply defined by two definite events, birth and death. It fills its canvas with one figure, and other characters, however great in themselves, must always be subsidiary to the central hero” (Edmund Gosse). Again biography deals with a man both from within and without. It exhibits the external life of the subject, gives a vivid picture of his character, and unfolds the growth of his mind.
A Very Difficult Art
The art of a biographer is a very difficult one. A.C. Benson in his admirable essay. The Art of the Biographer has examined these difficulties in detail. According to the learned critic, “The biographer writes in the hope, that the memory of some one fine and beautiful and beloved should be so recorded, that it may stand as living witness to his life and beauty, and his problem is how to do this, how to concentrate in a few pages of a printed book a true and faithful impression of a person, exquisite and lovable, interesting salient and striking. The question is, if it can be done fairly and sincerely at all, because it is not single attractive aspect, but a presentment of the whole of a nature and character that is desired. Then, too, we have to consider the enormous amount the material that has to be selected from, in the case of a man, let us say, who has lived an active life, the affairs in which he has been engaged, the interviews, the conversations, the personalities he has affected, or been affected by, the letters he has received and written. The biographer has to give an impression, of all this, if he can, and to preserve the real proportion, not merely to show his hero in brilliant glimpses and in triumphant moments, but to show when he was in trouble, in anger, in grief, in exhaustion. It cannot be done in any sort of completeness; it must be a miracle of selection and balance. It is by far the greatest of all artistic problems.”
Sentimental Glorification of the Dead
The first and by far the greatest difficulty of the biographer lies in the way in which humanity at present regards death. The sudden arrival of bodily death to an active and vivid personality is so stunning and bewildering a thing to his immediate circle, that it seems to change their whole view of the departed. The result too often is that the character of the departed is instantly transformed and glorified. It seems irreverent to remember anything absurd or amusing about him; his very gaiety and cheerfulness is as fuel to sorrow. Then the biographer begins his work, and the moment that he writes freely and naturally, touches upon faults or frailties or foibles, or above all, absurdities, there is a chorus of disapproval. The piety of relatives, which is a real and true thing and must be presented, fires up at the bare idea of the hero being represented in an unjust or perverse or ridiculous light. Then, too, the light of romance begins to shed its glow over their admiring memories. Further, the choice has to be made as to whether the thing is to be done at once, while memories are fresh and interest vivid, or whether it is all to be deferred to some future date, when the glowing picture has faded into something dim and stately. It ends as a rule in the thing being done soon and then everything is smoothed out, the salient features softened down, the contrast sacrificed, the proportion lost. This is the great, initial and supreme difficulty of the biography i.e. the fact that biographer is confronted with passionate emotion and intense hero-worship. It is the old conflict between realism and romance. Most human beings are deeply in love with romance, and prefer a figure to be idealized; and until people learn that if a man is great enough to be written about, he is also great enough to be described clearly, accurately, and with relentless fidelity, biography must continue to be a tame, reticent, sentimental and insincere art. Sentimental admirers do not desire either truth or proporation; they desire a glowing and glorified figure moving on from strength to strength, when the interchange of strength and weakness, of lofty beauty and childish pettiness, are often the chief interest of a man’s career (A.C. Benson).
Concentration on Noble Achievements
Again there is another great problem of biography with which hardly anyone has as yet attempted to grapple. Biographies are, as a rule, confined to persons of notable performance. But there are also a good many vivid and charming people, who have given themselves freely in all directions, but have not displayed high technical accomplishment in any field. “Such men and women have inspired deep emotions, have loved intensely, have cast a glow upon the lives of a large circle, have said delicate, sympathetic, perceptive and suggestive things, have given meaning and joy to life, have radiated interest and charm. But such as these are hardly ever written about, simply because the difficulties are so great. Their talk with all its quick and inspiring effects has never been recorded, their glances and gestures, so unforgettably beautiful, can hardly be rendered in words.”
Qualifications of a Biographer
The perfect biographer must see his subject vividly, audibly and tangibly; he must paint, not what he thinks he sees, but what he actually does see. The biographer must have a relentless and microscopic faculty of observation; he must have patience, energy and research; he must have power of omission and selection; and lastly he must have an extreme veraciousness, which does not pay any particular heed to decorum or sentiment or romance. He need not violate privacy or sacredness, any more than a portrait painter need insist on always painting from the nude; but he must have no deference for the kind of hero-worship which requires that a man should be exhibited in flawless, stainless and radiant perfection, while its sympathy and reverence will save him from mere caricature and from undue emphasis on what was merely occasional, exaggerated or sensational. Proportion is the true difficulty, how to balance what is lofty, noble and awe-inspiring with what is minute, whimsical, humorous. The best biographer must know by a kind of inspired tact what inessential; he must not love fondly but truly; and then if he works both faithfully and skilfully, he may do what is perhaps the greatest service a man can do for his fellows, and persuade them to believe in life and show them that life itself finely lived, with all its shadows and features, is a more beautiful and engrossing thing than any romantic or imaginative presentment of it.
Some Remarkable Biographies
Despite the innumerable difficulties which a biographer has to face, English language is particularly rich in this field. Izzac Walten’s English Worthies contains the admirable biography of John Donne, and this is a source book for all those who want to make a first hand acquaintance with one of the greatest of poets in the English language. Dr. Johnson’s Lives of the Poets, though sometimes marred by the great Khans literary, political and personal prejudices, is remarkable for its combination of biography with literary criticism. The learned Doctor’s sound commonsense and his inimitable style make this collection of the lives of a number of great English writers, interesting and illuminating reading. Another work standing in the first rank of English biography is Boswell’s Life of Johnson. The great literary dictator lives once again in the pages of this very intimate and very minute account of his life. Indeed, the credit for creating Dr. Johnson legend must go to Boswell. J.C. Lokhart’s Life of Scott, Thomas Moor’s Life of Byron, G.C. Travelyan’s Life of Macaulay, Mrs. Gaskells Life of Charlotte Bronte are a few other remarkable biographies.
Lytton Strachey – His Contribution
It was Lytton Strachey who gave a new direction to English biography with the publication of his Eminent Victorians in 1918. Says A.C. Ward, “The preface to Eminent Victorians is the manifesto of the method, arguing that it is a disadvantage for any biographer to know too much about his human subject. “Not accumulation of material, but scrupulous selection and ruthless rejection should be (according to Strachey) the primary aim”. He himself chose to work upon a period already encumbered with the result of too much and too detailed research. Yet, as he looked through the mass, he saw that much available material had remained unused, and this (perversely, perhaps, but naturally) seemed to him more important than the rest. Nothing makes English people more uneasy than irony and irony was Lytton Strachey’s most intoxicating draught. “For a while biography got briskly drunk upon Lytton Strachey’s irony, but the less mature irony of his followers quickly made biography fatuous.”
Strachey’s Followers and Imitators
In short, Lytton Strachey broke away from the Victorian convention of praising sky-high the heroes of the biographies, as if they were gods. He examined them critically and impartially, and did not hesitate to point out their weaknesses, follies and foibles. As A.S. Collins puts it, “He saw them instead, as very human figures, with amusing weaknesses, with comedy in their grandeur. He focussed a strong searchlight on them, which caught them off their guard and revealed details that the sober, conventional biographers had thought unworthy of notice or had omitted.” Eminent Victorians proved very popular and several editions were sold out within no time. Strachey was widely imitated.
Edmund Gosse “Father and Son”
Though most of the credit for giving a new turn to biography deservedly goes to Lytton Strachey, the importance in a similar connexion of Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son (1907) was emphasized by Sir Harold Nicolson in The Development of English Biography (1927) Father and Son is a precise account of the upbringing of Edmund Gosse in an environment, which at an early age he found spiritually stiffling, and of the differences on fundamental matters which developed between himself and his father after the death of his mother. The book, Gosse’s one masterpiece, gave offence to the many who in 1907, still clung to the view that parents were sacrosanct and beyond criticism by their children. When that dogma disintegrated, the sensitive affection displayed in Father and Son and its literary excellence received general recognition, and its place in literature is assured on its high merit as a piece of writing and on its significance as a pioneer work demonstrating that a love of truth concerning men and women does not imply any lack of love for the men and women themselves.
A.G. Gardiner – His Contribution
Another great 20th century pioneer in the field of biography is A.G. Gardiner with Prophets, Priests and Kings in 1908, and Pillars of Society in 1918. A.G. Gardiner ushered in a new era in English biography. These little and interesting sketches of eminent Englishmen are written without any edifying or reverential motive. Their principal aim is to delight rather than to instruct. The author does not suffer from any awe in the presence of the greatest figures of that age – all characters from Lloyd George to Charlie Chaplin are viewed with a remarkable freedom and familiarity which is refreshing to us but must have shocked the Victorians. Apart from this new approach, the biographical sketches are remarkable for their literary grace and their author’s command of the pictorial word and phrase.
Andre Maurois; Fictional Biography
Andre Maurois’ works include Disraeli; King Edward VII and His Times; Ariel; and The Life of Byron. He has created what has been rightly termed fictional biography or biographical novel, divested of the weight of dates, names and places and yet presenting the essential truth about his characters. His most notable achievement in this kind of biography is Ariel, a Life of Shelley, light, graceful and true. In the pages of this remarkable book Shelley appears as a simple, lovable human being, without the aura of his luminous poetry.