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The Biographer And His Hero

May 2024
6min read

One should write only about what one loves.” Ernest Renan, the biographer and historian, said it in the last century; and lor this writer at least it is profoundly true, the more impressive because in Renan’s lifetime he withstood prolonged literary attacks. If so tough-fibered an author confessed that he loved his subjects, why might not the rest of us do the same? For a considerable time it was unfashionable to admire one’s biographical hero; the debunking period lasted a full generation. Lytton Strachey started it, and on the whole it was a healthy movement, a reaction against the laudatory familial biography of the nineteenth century. But Strachey was a brilliantly talented writer; his imitators and followers did not have his genius, and the art of biography suffered. We outgrew the fashion, perhaps because debunking is easy and what is too easy does not hold up. Anthony Trollope said, “There is no way of writing well and also of writing easily.” But the stigma remained; a book was not true unless it was malicious.

Since the debunking era, biography has gone through no more literary fashions. Indeed, to the general surprise it has become immensely popular. One of the advantages of being a biographer is this freedom from changing literary modes. People want to read the authentic record of other people’s lives and they do not want the story clothed in fashionable obscurity, imagery, symbolism. The modern biographer, if he chooses, can write as John Aubrey wrote two centuries ago in his Brief Lives , or as Isaac D’Israeli wrote in his The Literary Character; or, The History of Men of Genius —provided that the modern writer is equally talented. He can use facts, dates, explanatory parentheses. He can proceed from point to point, from incident to incident with no apology for being oldfashioned, outmoded. The biographer is not required to declare that life is a cruel and total absurdity, nor to follow his hero inevitably downhill to drugs, casual sex, and a drearily inconspicuous suicide.

This is not to imply that the biographer invariably approaches his work with love in his heart. There are many considerations besides love that may give the biographer his initial inspiration. I asked Hilda Prescott in England why she chose Queen Mary Tudor to write about. No subject could be more difficult. In that ill-starred life, tragedy followed tragedy; Mary’s life was one long defeat. She loved her Spanish husband and was not beloved; she yearned for children to the point of imagining herself pregnant; her deepest in slincts were denied outlet and she ended by earning in history the epithet of Bloody Mary. Miss Prescott looked me in the eye and said, “I chose Mary Tudor because I thought she would make money for me.”

One thinks of the traditional advice given the girl about to choose a husband; “Money first, love will follow.” Surely it had been that way with Miss Prescott; a tragic story has not been more compassionately told. But it is indeed true that the biographer does not lall in love witli his hero at first sight and remain infatuated. Love comes slowly, after deep acquaintance and many arguments back and forth, though one can judge this only by one’s own experience. With Edward Coke, for instance, I had a struggle that could have ended in divorce. Here was a brave man, but he was also stubborn, vain, disagreeable, and capable of cruelty. Contemporaries feared “Mr. Attorney General”; he earned widespread hatred for his bitter, relentless invective as prosecutor. At Sir Walter Ralegh’s trial Coke behaved shamefully. Was this, one asked, the way our freedoms came to pass—in reverse, as it were? Strange, that social progress can be achieved through an instrument so far from perfect! My workbook argued the point. “Coke was brutal beyond any excuse. Must I love him, must I even like him?” “No!” I wrote. “But I must be engaged with him, married to him, at one with him yet independent, rearing back to look at him.”

Thinking back, it seems naïve; one forgets the deep involvement that comes with a five—or six-year book. As a definition of marriage proper, what the workbook said would not do. But as a definition of biographical marriage it is valid enough. Perhaps what the biographer needs is not love so much as identification with the hero. Whether or not one likes one’s subject, it would be fatal to choose a hero with whom one could not identify. “Relate” is the current psychiatric phrase. A biographer can relate to the most diverse and seemingly unsympathetic characters. Something in the subject’s life has touched the biographer’s own experience, coming close to his own ambition or desire.

Biographers approach their books at certain stressful periods in their lives. (The lives of artists are bound to be stressful; without stress they wotdd feel themselves lapsing unconscious.) Tchaikovsky went through his days in a state of neurotic anxiety that at times bordered on madness. “Fear and I were born twins,” said Thomas Hobbes, the English philosopher, in one of the more surprising confessions of history. Perhaps fear, like neurotic anxiety, is to some natures a necessary stimulus. I think no one could write the story of these lives who had not experienced neurotic fear, just as one could not write of Benjamin Disraeli it he had not felt ambition, or of Balzac if he did not himself know the furor scribendi . “The need to express oneself in writing,” said André Maurois, “springs from a maladjustment to life, or from an inner conflict, which the adolescent (or the grown man) cannot resolve in action.”

Maurois goes on to confess that he wrote his first biography, Ariel: The Life, of Shelley , because it was an expression of one of my conflicts. Shelley had come from a family from which he wanted to escape, and so did I. The problem of Shelley was also my problem. My personality was also expressed in Disraeli . He was Jewish. I was Jewish myself. He was for me an example of how to get on witli a Christian society. Proust, Chateaubriand and Balzac I did because I admired them as writers. The choices were guided by my inner feelings, whether I can get on with this man … I couldn’t accept the idea of spending three years of my life with someone I didn’t like.

On the other hand the biographer is himself puzzled at how completely he can identify with diverse and seemingly unsympathetic characters. The surprise comes later, when he reads his published work. While he is writing he is too absorbed to be thinking about such things as identification. When the biographer has chosen his subject and sits down to read, what he is actually doing for the first three or four months is making the acquaintance of his hero. Everything comes as grist to this mill: time, place, climate; the hero’s friends, his enemies, his appetites physical and spiritual. Any least word about the hero’s appearance, how he looked and dressed, is cherished as a lover cherishes the most fugitive news of his beloved.

Yet one can be deceived, at first reading and first study. It may indeed be years before biographer and hero come to terms; it is extraordinary how the material can lead one astray. Theodor Reik, in his book Listening with the Third Ear , lias told how Lytton Strachey changed his mind about Queen Victoria while he was writing her biography: Studying the early life of the young Queen, [Strachey] did not like her very much. He saw her as a spoiled, overly selfassured and level-headed girl. He treated her at first with a certain ironical remoteness and with little sympathy. The more he studied her life and the more lie began to understand her personality and the environment that helped form it the more sympathetic he became. At the end, when he speaks of the Queen in her last years, you feel genuine human warmth, appreciation, and admiration for an impressive personality. He started with little affection for his subject, and ended practically in levé with the old lady.

With Sir Francis Bacon I had somewhat the same experience. I began his biography influenced by immediately previous years of reading for the life of Sir Edward Coke, who was Bacon’s bitter rival both in the law courts and privately. Alexander Pope had called Bacon the wisest, brightest, meanest of mankind, and I was inclined to agree. But when I studied Bacon’s works and his career more deeply I recognized my bias and saw that my hero’s fall from high estate was no matter of smallness or meanness but tragedy in the grand manner, to be approached not with condemnation but with awe.

Even the biographical scene—the time and the place—can enlarge a writer’s horizon. One has sat in the long Parliament with Cromwell, or at the Constitutional Convention with Madison and Washington. One has walked the London streets in a plague year and has seen doors in the houses of the sick black-lettered: “Lord have mercy on us.”

Is all this to have no influence, leave no scar? Can the author put it from him merely by writing finis to a book? Even dreams leave their residue; a day, a week can be colored by a Meeting picture seen in sleep. As to the effect a biographer’s hero can have upon him, there is no way of overemphasizing it. To spend three years or five with a truly great man, reading what he said and wrote, observing him as he errs, stumbles, falls and rises again; to watch his talent grow if he is an artist, his wisdom develop if he is a statesman—this cannot but seize upon a writer, one might almost say transform him. When the book is done the author returns to the outer world, but actually he will not be the same again. The ferment of genius, Holmes said, is quickly imparted, and when a man is great he makes others believe in greatness. By that token one’s life is altered. One has climbed a hill, looked out and over, and the valley of one’s own condition will be forever greener.

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