Biography's History In England Explored

Roundup: Talking About History

James Fenton, The Guardian (London), 04 Sept. 2004

Richard Holmes is editing a new series of classic English biographies. The first titles cover three centuries: there is Defoe on the criminals Jack Sheppard and Jonathan Wild, representing the early 18th century. There is Southey on Nelson. And there is a curious rarity, The Portait of Zelide, by Geoffrey Scott, first published in 1925. This is about a highly educated Dutch woman with whom both Boswell and (later) Benjamin Constant fell in love. The titles to follow are Johnson on Savage (the celebrated life of the hopelessly self-destructive poet, itself the subject of a book by Holmes), Godwin on Wollstonecraft and Gilchrist on Blake. The publisher is Harper Perennial.

Biography in English has a long and rich tradition, much more extensive and interesting than many of the standard accounts would have you believe. The other day I turned to Bishop Burnet's life of the poet Rochester, expecting it to be dull with piety. Read as an account of the last conversations, in his lucid moments, of a man dying of syphilis, it was convincing and vivid.

The word biography dates from the 17th century. It was pioneered by Dryden. The word autobiography is an invention by Robert Southey (Nelson's biographer) in the early 19th century. (Previous terms for the same thing include self-biography and idiography.) The term"life-writing", which has recently been revived in academe, does have its uses, covering popular narratives which have hitherto been somewhat ignored. But it sounds affected to me, rather as if one were to drop the term"portraiture" in favour of the earlier"face-painting".

Still, the fact is that the Greeks and Romans (from whom the art derives) did not write biographies. They wrote lives. They wrote them about good people and about bad people. The distinction - between eulogy or panegyric (that is, a speech in praise of an individual) and a life - is very old. Johnson told Boswell that"a man's intimate friend should mention his faults, if he writes his life". And elsewhere, defending his own work, he said that it was"the duty of a biographer to state all the failings of a respectable character". But there were limits, even for Boswell, who filed some of what he learned about Johnson's sexual arrangements under the heading Tacenda - things to be kept quiet about.

Previous generations of historians paid scant attention to whole classes of biography, such as the slave narratives, believing them to have no evidential value. And if you look at what writers of the Bloomsbury generation said about biography you will discover that a great wealth of material is ignored because it falls outside some narrow or foolish definition. For instance you will find them telling you that English biography flourished in the late 17th century, but then went into abeyance until Boswell. They only say this because they are ignoring the popular genre of short journalistic lives, including notorious figures such as highwaymen, pirates and jailbirds.

No doubt it was for this reason that Holmes took care to include Daniel Defoe early in his series. What you find in the volume called Defoe on Sheppard and Wild is three of these brief and entertaining narratives. Shep pard was an accomplished jail-breaker, whose true story inspired the creation of MacHeath in The Beggar's Opera. Wild was a fence who specialised in a business of returning stolen property, at a price, to its owners. Exactly how the scam worked is explained in vivid detail. The beauty of having Sheppard and Wild in the same volume is that Wild was responsible for the recapture of Sheppard. In The Beggar's Opera , he becomes Peachum.

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