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The Biographer And His Hero
December 1968 | Volume 20, Issue 1
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.”