17626631911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 3 — BiographyEdmund William Gosse

BIOGRAPHY (from the Gr. βίος, life, and γράφη, writing), that form of history which is applied, not to races or masses of men, but to an individual. The earliest use of the word βιογραφία is attributed to Damascius, a Greek writer of the beginning of the 6th century, and in Latin biographia was used, but in English no earlier employment of the word, “biography” has been traced than that of Dryden in 1683, who uses it to describe the literary work of Plutarch, “the history of particular men’s lives.” It is obvious that this definition is necessary, for biography is not the record of “life” in general, but of the life of a single person. The idea of the distinction between this and history is a modern thing; we speak of “antique biography,” but it is doubtful whether any writer of antiquity, even Plutarch, clearly perceived its possible existence as an independent branch of literature. All of them, and Plutarch certainly, considered the writing of a man’s life as an opportunity for celebrating, in his person, certain definite moral qualities. It was in these, and not in the individual characteristics of the man, that his interest as a subject of biography resided.

The true conception of biography, therefore, as the faithful portrait of a soul in its adventures through life, is very modern. We may question whether it existed, save in rare and accidental instances, until the 17th century. The personage described was, in earlier times, treated either from the philosophical or from the historical point of view. In the former case, rhetoric inevitably clouded the definiteness of the picture; the object was to produce a grandiose moral effect, to clothe the subject with all the virtues or with all the vices; to make his career a splendid example or else a solemn warning. The consequence is that we have to piece together unconsidered incidents and the accidental record of features in order to obtain an approximate estimate. We may believe, for instance, that a faithful and unprejudiced study of the emperor Julian, from the life, would be a very different thing from the impression left upon us by the passions of Cyril or of Theodoret. In considering what biography, in its pure sense, ought to be, we must insist on what it is not. It is not a philosophical treatise nor a polemical pamphlet. It is not, even, a portion of the human contemporary chronicle. Broad views are entirely out of place in biography, and there is perhaps no greater literary mistake than to attempt what is called the “Life and Times” of a man. In an adequate record of the “times,” the man is bound to sink into significance; even a “Life and Times” of Napoleon I. would be an impossible task. History deals with fragments of the vast roll of events; it must always begin abruptly and close in the middle of affairs; it must always deal, impartially, with a vast number of persons. Biography is a study sharply defined by two definite events, birth and death. It fills its canvas with one figure, and other personages, however great in themselves, must always be subsidiary to the central hero. The only remnant of the old rhetorical purpose of “lives” which clearer modern purpose can afford to retain is the relative light thrown on military or intellectual or social genius by the achievements of the selected subject. Even this must be watched with great care, lest the desire to illuminate that genius, and make it consistent, should lead the biographer to glose over frailties or obscure irregularities. In the old “lives” of great men, this is precisely what was done. If the facts did not lend themselves to the great initial thesis, so much the worse for them. They must be ignored or falsified, since the whole object of the work was to “teach a lesson,” to magnify a certain tendency of conduct. It was very difficult to persuade the literary world that, whatever biography is, it is not an opportunity for panegyric or invective, and the lack of this perception destroys our faith in most of the records of personal life in ancient and medieval times. It is impossible to avoid suspecting that Suetonius loaded his canvas with black in order to excite hatred against the Roman emperors; it is still more difficult to accept more than one page in three of the stories of the professional hagiographers. As long as it was a pious merit to deform the truth, biography could not hope to flourish. It appears to have originally asserted itself when the primitive instinct of sympathy began to have free play, that is to say, not much or often before the 17th century. Moreover, the peculiar curiosity which legitimate biography satisfies is essentially a modern thing; and presupposes our observation of life not unduly clouded by moral passion or prejudice.

Among the ancients, biography was not specifically cultivated until comparatively later times. The lost “Lives” of Critias were probably political pamphlets. We meet first with deliberate biography in Xenophon’s memoirs of Socrates, a work of epoch-making value. Towards the close of the 1st century, Plutarch wrote one of the most fascinating books in the world’s literature, his Parallel Lives of 46 Greeks and Romans. In later Greek, the Life of Apollonius of Tyana was written by Philostratus, who also produced a Lives of the Sophists. In the 3rd century, Diogenes Laertius compiled a Lives of the Philosophers, which is of greater interest than a Lives of the Sophists composed a hundred years later by Eunapius. Finally in the 10th century, Suidas added a biographical section to his celebrated Lexicon. In Latin literature, the earliest biography we meet with is the fragment of the Illustrious Men of Cornelius Nepos. Memoirs began to be largely written at the close of the Augustan age, but these, like the Life of Alexander the Great, by Q. Curtius Rufus, were rather historical than biographical. Tacitus composed a life of his father-in-law, Agricola; this is a work of the most elegant and stately beauty. Suetonius was the author of several biographical compilations, of which the Lives of the Twelve Caesars is the best-known; this was produced in the year 120. Marius Maximus, in the 4th century, continued the series of emperors down to Heliogabalus, but his work has not been preserved. The Augustan History, finished under Constantine, takes its place, and was concluded and edited by Flavius Vopiscus.

Biography hardly begins to exist in English literature until the close of the reign of Henry VIII. William Roper (1496–1578) wrote a touching life of his father-in-law, Sir Thomas More, and George Cavendish (1500–1561?), a memoir of Cardinal Wolsey which is a masterpiece of liveliness and grace. It is with these two works, both of which remained in manuscript until the 17th century, that biography in England begins. The lives of English writers compiled by John Bale (1495–1563) are much more primitive and slight. John Leland (d. 1552) and John Pits (1560–1616) were antiquaries who affected a species of biography. In the early part of the 17th century, the absence of the habit of memoir writing extremely impoverishes our knowledge of the illustrious authors of the age, of none of whom there are preserved such records as our curiosity would delight in. The absence of any such chronicle was felt, and two writers, Thomas Heywood and Sir Aston Cokayne, proposed to write lives of the poets of their time. Unfortunately they never carried their plans into execution. The pioneer of deliberate English biography was Izaak Walton, who, in 1640, published a Life of Donne, followed in 1651 by that of Sir Henry Wotton, in 1665 by that of Richard Hooker, in 1670 by that of George Herbert, and in 1678 by that of Dr Robert Saunderson. These five reprinted, under the title of Walton’s Lives, were not only charming in themselves, but the forerunners of a whole class of English literature. Meanwhile, Fuller was preparing his History of the Worthies of England, which appeared after his death, in 1662, and John Aubrey (1626–1697) was compiling his Minutes of Lives, which show such a perfect comprehension of the personal element that should underlie biography; these have only in our own days been completely given to the public. Edward, Lord Herbert of Cherbury (1583–1648), wrote a brilliant autobiography, first printed in 1764; that of Anne Harrison, Lady Fanshawe (1625–1680), remained unknown until 1829. A very curious essay in biography is the memoir of Colonel John Hutchinson, written by his widow, Lucy, between 1664 and 1671. Margaret Lucas, duchess of Newcastle (1624?–1674), wrote her own life (1656) and that of her duke (1667). The Athenae Oxonienses of Anthony à Wood (1632–1695) was a complicated celebration of the wit, wisdom and learning of Oxford notabilities since the Reformation. In 1668 Thomas Sprat (1635–1713) wrote a Life of Cowley, which was very much admired and which exercised for many years a baneful influence on British biography. Sprat considered that all familiar anecdote and picturesque detail should be omitted in the composition of a memoir, and that moral effect and a solemn vagueness should be aimed at. The celebrated funeral orations of Jeremy Taylor were of the same order of eloquence, and the wind of those grandiose compositions destroyed the young shoot of genuine and simple biography which had budded in Walton and Aubrey.

From this time forth, for more than half a century, English biography became a highly artificial and rhetorical thing, lacking all the salient features of honest portraiture. William Oldys (1696–1761) was the first to speak out boldly; in 1747, in the preface to the Biographia Britannica, he pointed out “the cruelty, we might even say the impiety, of sacrificing the glory of great characters to trivial circumstances and mere conveniency,” and attacked the timid and scrupulous superficiality of those who undertook to write lives of eminent men, while omitting everything which gave definition to the portrait. In 1753 the Lives of the Poets, which bore the name of Theophilus Cibber (1703–1758), but was mainly written by Robert Shiels (d. 1753), gave a great deal of valuable information with regard to the personal adventures of our writers. Dr Johnson’s Life of Savage (1744), though containing some passages of extreme interest, was a work of imperfect form, but Mason’s Life and Letters of Gray (1774) marks a great advance in the art of biography. This was the earliest memoir in which correspondence of a familiar kind was used to illustrate and to expand the narrative, and Mason’s Gray is really the pioneer of almost all modern English biography. For the first time it was now admitted that letters to intimate friends, not written with a view to publication, might be used with advantage to illustrate the real character of the writer. Boswell, it is certain, availed himself of Mason’s example, while improving upon it, and in 1791 he published his Life of Dr Samuel Johnson, which is the most interesting example of biography existing in English, or perhaps in any language.

As soon as the model of Boswell became familiar to biographers, it could no longer be said that any secret in the art was left unknown to them, and the biographies of the 19th century are all more or less founded upon the magnificent type of the Life of Johnson. But few have even approached it in courage, picturesqueness or mastery of portraiture. In the next generation Southey’s lives of Nelson (1813) and John Wesley (1820) at once became classics; but the pre-eminent specimen of early 19-century biography is Lockhart’s superb Life of Sir Walter Scott (1837–1838). The biographies of the 19th century are far too numerous to be mentioned here in detail; in the various articles dedicated to particular men and women in this Encyclopaedia, the date and authorship of the authoritative life of each person will in most cases be found appended. Towards the close of the century there was unquestionably an excess, and even an abuse, in the habit of biography. It became the custom a few years or even months after the decease of an individual who had occupied a passing place in the eyes of the public, to issue a “Life” of him; in many cases such biography was a labour of utter supererogation. But the custom has become general, and it is very unlikely, notwithstanding the ephemeral interest of readers in the majority of the subjects, that it will ever go out of fashion, for it directly indulges both vanity and sentiment. What is true of Great Britain is true, though in less measure, of all other modern nations, and it is not necessary here to deal with more than the early manifestations of biography in the principal European literatures.

To Switzerland appears due the honour of having given birth to the earliest biographical dictionary ever compiled, the Bibliotheca Universalis of Konrad Gesner (1516–1565), published at Zürich in Latin, Greek and Hebrew, from 1545 to 1549. A very rare work, by a writer of the greatest obscurity, the Prosopographia of Verdier de Vauprivas, published at Lyons in 1573, professed to deal with the lives of all illustrious persons who had flourished since the beginning of the world.

In medieval and renaissance France there existed numerous memoirs and histories, such as those of Brantôme, into which the lives of great men were inserted, and in which a biographical character was given to studies of virtue and valour, or of the reverse. But the honour of being the earliest deliberate contribution to biography is generally given to the Acta Sanctorum, compiled by the Bollandists, the first volume of which appeared in 1653. This was the first biographical dictionary compiled in Europe, and its publication produced a great sensation. It was confined to the lives of saints and martyrs, but in 1674 Louis Moréri, in his Grand Dictionnaire, included a biographical section of a general character. But the earliest biographical dictionary which had anything of a modern form was the celebrated Dictionnaire historique et critique of Pierre Bayle, in 1696; the lives in this great work, however, are too often used as mere excuses for developing the philosophical and controversial views of the author; they are nevertheless the result of genuine research and have a true biographical view. The Dictionnaire was translated into English in 1734, and had a wide influence in creating a legitimate interest in biography in England.

In Italian literature, biography does not take a prominent place until the 15th century. The Lives of Illustrious Florentines, in which a valuable memoir of Dante occurs, was written in Latin by Filippo Villani. Vespasiano da Bistrici (1421–1498) compiled a set of biographies of his contemporaries, which are excellent of their kind. The so-called Life of Castruccio Castracani, by Machiavelli, is hardly a biography, but a brilliant essay on the ideals of statecraft. Paolo Giovio (1483–1552) wrote the lives of poets and soldiers whom he had known. All these attempts, however, seem insignificant by the side of the autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini (1501–1571), confessedly one of the most entertaining works of the world’s literature. A great deal of biography is scattered throughout the historical compilations of the Italian renaissance, and the Lives of the Artists, by Giorgio Vasari (1512–1574), is a storehouse of anecdotes admirably told. We find nothing else that requires special mention till we reach the memoir-writers of the 18th century, with the autobiographies of Count Carlo Gozzi and Alfieri; and on the whole, Italy, although adopting in the 19th century the habit of biography, has rarely excelled in it.

In Spanish literature Fernán Pérez de Guzmán (1378–1460), with great originality, enshrined, in his Generations and Likenesses, a series of admirable literary portraits; he has been called the Plutarch of Spain. But, in spite of numerous lives of saints, poets and soldiers, Spanish literature has not excelled in biography, nor has it produced a single work of this class which is universally read. In Germany there is little to record before the close of the 18th century.

In the course of the 19th century a new thing in biography was invented, in the shape of dictionaries of national biography. Of these, the first which was carried to a successful conclusion was the Swedish (1835–1857), which occupied 23 volumes. This dictionary was followed by the Dutch (1852–1878), in 24 volumes; the Austrian (1856–1891), in 35 volumes; the Belgian (which was begun in 1866); the German (1875–1900), in 45 volumes; and others, representing nearly all the countries of Europe. England was behind the competitors named above, but when she joined the ranks a work was produced the value of which can hardly be exaggerated. The project was started in 1882 by the publisher George Smith (1824–1901), who consulted Mr (afterwards Sir) Leslie Stephen. The first volume of the English Dictionary of National Biography was published on the 1st of January 1885, under Stephen’s editorship. A volume was published quarterly, with complete punctuality until Midsummer 1900, when volume 63 closed the work, which was presently extended by the issue of three supplementary volumes. In May 1891 Leslie Stephen resigned the editorship and was succeeded by Mr Sidney Lee, who conducted the work to its prosperous close, bringing it up to the death of Queen Victoria. The Dictionary of National Biography contains the lives of more than 30,000 persons, and has proved of inestimable service in elucidating the private annals of the British people.  (E. G.)