- Historic Sites
The Biographer And His Hero
December 1968 | Volume 20, Issue 1
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.