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The Biographer: Artist or Vulture?

An essay by Vivien Allen

Artist or vulture? The answer has to be ‘a bit of both’ but let us define our terms. What do we mean by artist? The restricted meaning of ‘someone who makes a profession of painting’ is relatively modern. In the 17th century it meant ‘one who pursues a practical science’, later limited to a medical practitioner. By the late 18th century it had come to mean ‘a follower of a pursuit in which skill comes by study and practice, hence a practical man as opposed to a theorist.’ I’m quoting that fount of all wisdom, the Complete Oxford English Dictionary, which is splendidly non-pc and one takes it that the male embraces the female – everything is defined as pertaining to the male. By 1849 the word ‘artist’ had begun to mean what I, Humpty Dumpty-fashion, would like it to mean: ‘one who makes his (or her) craft a fine art.’

Writing of any kind is a craft but that is not enough. It is not sufficient for a biographer to do his or her research thoroughly and then put it all down on paper, however lucidly they do it. Without artistry the resulting book will be like a soggy cake that has not risen properly. It will not bring the subject to life and it will be unreadable. An example of this came into my hands a couple of years ago, a biography of my old headmistress. At school I was a bit afraid of her but was also fond of her and admired her enormously so when a great niece, who had access to all the family papers, wrote her biography I bought it eagerly. I have struggled about a third of a way through it but I doubt if I will ever finish it. The subject fascinates me but although the facts are all there the book is entirely without artistry, a wet dumpling of a book that fails to illumine the wonderful figure at its centre.

If one seeks biographers who were great artists one should start with the classics, with Greece and Rome, but let’s stick to English and start in the 17th century with John Aubrey. Not the greatest of biographers, perhaps, his work is scrappy and often inaccurate, but he was a wonderful gossip and his book, Brief Lives, throws up some brilliant thumbnail sketches of the people he encountered, from the reign of Charles I through the Civil War to the Restoration.

Take his sketch of Sir Henry Blount, who lived from 1602 to 1682. He was a widely travelled man who explored the Balkans in 1634: Aubrey says of him, ‘He was pretty wild when young, especially addicted to common wenches. He was a second brother: he was a gentleman pensioner to King Charles I, on whom he waited (as it was his turn) to York when the King deserted parliament; was with him at Edgehill fight; came with him to Oxford and so returned to London; walking into Westminster Hall with his sword by his side; the parliamentarians all stared upon him as a Cavalier, knowing he had been with the king. He was called before the House of Commons, where he remonstrated to them that he only did his duty and so they acquitted him.’ The picture of one of the defeated Cavaliers swaggering into Westminster wearing his sword, confronting the solemn Roundheads and facing them down is splendid.

Or again, take Thomas Hobbes, the philosopher and somewhat amateurish mathematician who died in 1679 aged 92. Aubrey says of him: ‘He was forty years old before he looked on geometry; which happened accidentally. Being in a gentleman’s library Euclid’s Elements lay open, and ’twas the forty-seventh proposition in the first book. He read the proposition. "By God," said he (he would now and then swear by way of emphasis), "this is impossible!" So he reads the demonstration of it, which referred him back to such a proof, which referred him back to another, which he also read, and so forth, that at last he was demonstratively convinced of that truth. This made him in love with geometry.’ So much so that Aubrey says he confessed ‘that he was wont to draw lines on his thigh and on the sheets, abed, and also there multiply and divide.’ One wonders what his wife thought of that, but to my way of thinking these two quotations are examples of high artistry in biography, bringing the characters quite magically to life.

19th century biographers on the whole were staid, reverential, dull – and long. Two or three volumes was the norm. The style is epitomised in the 26 original volumes of the Dictionary of National Biography [DNB], founded in 1882 with Sir Leslie Stephen as its first editor. It deals with subjects from early history up to 1900, but the majority are from the 19th century which makes it an excellent source for historians of the Victorian age. Since 1900 extra volumes have been published covering a decade at a time. Stephen, besides being a former cleric who had renounced his orders on becoming an agnostic, was a noted athlete and mountaineer, an essayist, historian and biographer. At the time of his appointment he was editor of the Cornhill Magazine. He was knighted on his retirement from the DNB and was the father of Virginia Woolf. He wrote many of the best articles himself.

In 1891 he wrote an article on Hobbes. It was far longer than Aubrey’s Brief Life and refers to the philosopher as having ‘the force of a sublimely one-sided thinker.’ Splendid. It is possible to be an artist even within the small scale of a DNB article. By the 1980s the DNB had reached such a massive size and its style had become so dated that the decision was taken to bring out a revised, updated version, the NewDNB. The first step was to put the whole of the existing work onto a computer and publish it on a CD-ROM, which, as a biographer of mainly 19th century figures I find a blessing for quick references. It is well designed and easy to navigate, giving you access to the whole work at the touch of a button.

Style in biography changes. Lytton Strachey, who died of cancer in 1932 aged only 52, broke the mould of 19th century biography with his book, Eminent Victorians, published in 1918. In the preface he expounded his method. His first point was that he would avoid ‘scrupulous narration’ – it was just this that sank the biography of my old headmistress. He covered the lives of Cardinal Manning, Florence Nightingale, Dr Arnold and General Gordon and the book caused a sensation. It’s still in print. Penguin do it in paperback with an excellent introduction by Michael Holroyd. Many people at the time it first appeared were shocked and stunned by it, others were inspired. He was a conscientious objector who had taken no part in the war but stayed comfortably in his country home writing this book, which made him unpopular. He was also a homosexual, and that made him more so. It damned him in the eyes of many people but it made him the leader of the reaction against all things Victorian which followed the war. In 1921 he published a much mellower, even affectionate, life of Queen Victoria which finally established what I suppose we would now call the new biography. In it ‘fact and reflection are fused together into a work of art,’ as Lord David Cecil wrote in 1949 in his DNB article on Strachey.

He – Strachey – was so important in the development of biography that it is worth looking at him in a little more detail. He came from a large upper middle class family. His father was a general in the Army and spent much of his career in India so that the strongest influence on the children was that of their much younger mother. The atmosphere in the home, according to Holroyd, was ‘Cultivated, eccentric, crowded and claustrophobic.’ Lytton was sent to a succession of experimental schools which he hated. It was only when he went up to Cambridge in 1899 at the age of 20 that he made any real friends, including Maynard Keynes, Leonard Woolf and Clive Bell, who were to form the core of the Bloomsbury Group of which Strachey became one of the leading lights in the 1920s. At Cambridge he joined The Apostles. This transformed him from a social misfit into the leader of an intellectual elite which altered our views of homosexuality, among other things. We are still feeling the effects of this today. All Mrs Thatcher’s efforts to restore ‘Victorian values’ – and one can only question whether she was really aware what those were – have not reversed this. In his work Strachey said he aimed ‘to start a process of replacing in the minds of his readers the ambitions of public life with the civilized values of private life.’

In his own preface to the book Strachey says that the wise biographer will be subtle in his approach. ‘He will attack his subject in unexpected places; he will fall upon the flank, or the rear; he will shoot a sudden revealing searchlight into obscure recesses, hitherto undivined. He will row out over that great ocean of material, and lower down into it, here and there. a little bucket, which will bring up to the light of day some characteristic specimen, from those far depths, to be examined with a careful curiosity.’

This was the very antithesis of Victorian biography. That bit about dipping his bucket in here and there is the best advice any budding biographer could have. It should be framed above their beds and they should chant it as a mantra every night before going to sleep. I have certainly never forgotten it in the years since I first read it.

It is with Strachey that we first come upon the biographer as vulture. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that for the first time for over a century we encounter the biographer as vulture. We can all think of examples, including some of the biographers of Princess Diana, who have taken the vulture thing a bit too far, but it is a necessary part of producing a balanced and credible picture of someone, whether alive or dead. The biographer is a historian, after all, dealing with things that have happened. Suppressio veri is as deplorable in historical writing as in a court of law. It is all a matter of taste, discretion and accuracy. Speculation has only a very limited part in the writing of biography and it must be based on known facts. Of course if you are writing of someone still alive you are constrained by the laws of libel but you can’t libel the dead. Hence the recently dead who have been notorious in any way during their lives are ready victims for the vultures. Those who descended on the princess are only restrained by her evident popularity with the broad mass of the people. They fear lynching if they go too far, in Britain at any rate.

Despite Strachey’s good advice about being selective in using the ‘great ocean of material,’ many of my eminent contemporaries have gone in for doorstop-sized biographies. With modern research and less restraint on what is considered suitable for publication the ocean grows ever deeper. Strachey’s 1918 remark about ‘the sudden revealing searchlight’ he would shine into places ‘hitherto undivined’ illustrates the biographer as vulture. In his case not a vicious one but he showed the way for a new generation of writers and finally buried the Victorian style.

It is hardly necessary to define a vulture. We’ve all seen quite enough shots of vultures descending on carcases in TV wildlife films. Some of us have even been lucky enough to see it for real in a game reserve such as the Kruger Park. Vultures are cowardly birds who keep out of the way until the lions have finished and then come waddling in to squabble over the leavings. Some modern biographers, or rather tabloid journalists on the make, fit that picture quite neatly.

It all comes down to a matter of taste. What some would regard as legitimate comment can be distasteful prying to others, particularly if they are related to the subject. In one way it helps a biographer’s work enormously if he or she can get in touch with the family and they on their part are willing to allow the use of family papers and photographs but it can be limiting. If one likes the people concerned, even grows fond of them, the last thing one wants to do is upset them. On the other hand, if one is to give a full and true picture of ones subject all aspects of their life and work have to be taken into consideration. Note that I say ‘taken into consideration’. I don’t mean that every detail has to be published. But if the reader is not to be left puzzled and trying to guess what on earth you mean – and possibly guessing wrong – you have to be fairly explicit. You cannot just go in for innuendo and ‘What I would say an I could.’ To me that would be a lot worse than stating the facts. And I stress facts. If you cannot back up what you are saying with chapter and verse don’t say it. Guesswork or suspicion will not do. But if you detect your subject in double dealing, outright lying or sexual peccadilloes you have to say so because it can explain a lot of the things your subject is publicly known to have done but which nobody has understood.

Just occasionally you come across someone who appears to have led a completely blameless life, successful in their career, a devoted husband who never looked at another woman, demonstrably heterosexual. In fact nothing that could attract the tabloid press. Such a man can be both interesting and delightful but if you describe him according to all the evidence you run the risk of being accused of writing a hagiography. It has happened to me. You also run the risk of simply not being believed or told you have not done your research thoroughly enough. No one, you will be told, could be that perfect or without stain. Gentil parfait knights are neither believable or acceptable these days, it seems.

So – what am we biographers? Artists or vultures? If it is not too much of a cop out – I leave it to you.

Copyright © 1998 Vivien Allen

This text may not be archived or distributed further without the author’s express permission. Please read the license.

This electronic version of The Biographer: Artist or Vulture? by Vivien Allen is published by The Richmond Review by arrangement with the author.

Vivien Allen is a journalist and author. She has published four books, Kruger’s Pretoria – about the early years of the South African city, and three biographies: Lady Trader, A Biography of Mrs Sarah Heckford, Du Val Tonight, The Story of a Showman, and Hall Caine: Portrait of a Victorian Romancer. Vivien Allen also helps maintain a Hall Caine page on the Web.


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