History and Biography: Mad bad and dangerous to know.
Historical biography – the narrative recounting of the life of a person considered to be of historical significance or interest - has been around for a long time. The Romans seem to have been the originators of the genre and pretty well mapped out the boundaries. Suetonius’ Twelve Ceasars (from Julius Caesar to Domitian) gives us biography as expose - sex and violence in doses high enough to satisfy the somewhat jaded early second century palate. Plutarch’s Lives (covering famous rulers and generals of the Hellenistic and late Republican eras) on the other hand uses biography as a tool of moral improvement. Then there is eulogy – such as Tacitus’ Agricola (his admiring account of the 1st century Roman general who happened to be his father in law) and propaganda masquerading as biography as in the Augustan History (about the 2nd and 3rd century emperors). To this day the genre exhibits the same split personality: trashy but entertaining versus serious and worthy; hagiography versus hatchet job.
The problem with historical biography is that great men and women demonstrably almost never make history without an awful lot of help. The explanatory power of the genre is questionable. Alexander may have been bisexual with a fraught relationship with his father and a mother from hell but this explains very little about the conquest of Persia. Napoleon was vertically challenged and a Corsican but I doubt this is why he invaded Russia.
Biography may not be the most valid analytical tool for the historian but it is one of the more interesting. As Robert Lane Fox remarks in his tremendous Alexander the Great (which claims not to be biography but quacks and waddles like biography) ‘I am bored by institutions and do not believe in structures.’ The fascination of a life lived elsewhere is irresistible. And the past offers some radically different elsewheres. A well written biography provides an accessible and rewarding entry into a another world.
Approaches however differ, as Suetonius and Plutarch illustrate. If you are not familiar with these authors do yourself a favour; they are available in inexpensive translation (copyright has long lapsed) and provide the source material for much of the contemporary perception of the ancient world. Be warned however that this is strong meat: the products of a pagan culture with a morality superficially familiar but fundamentally different from our own. My favourite Suetonius life is his Caligula which is a blue print for every psychopathic tyrant since. While sensational (and totally uninterested in historical causation) Suetonius is considered fairly reliable.
Modern biographers of the ancients struggle with the scarcity and bias of their sources. Seutonius for example wrote during the rein of Hadrian at least two generations after the last of the lives he documents. By this date it was almost a public service to dump on the Julio-Claudians. The best surviving source on Alexander - Arrian - was written over 400 years after his subject’s death (albeit with access to contemporary accounts that do not survive).
As a result the task of the biographer of ancient lives much resembles a forensic detective, always mindful of the hidden agenda of their informant. Robert Lane Fox in his Alexander the Great manages to overcome these difficulties and produce an utterly plausible picture of an extraordinary individual. Christian Meier’s Caesar on the other hand, while packed with information, remains as dry as his epigraphic evidence.
After the end of Roman world biographical pickings are mainly confined to modern reconstructions of the careers of better known monarchs such as W.L.Warren’s King John (which attempts to rehabilitate the much maligned Plantagenet). Certainly until the late medieval period, exotica such as the Alexiad of Anna Comnena (a biography of a 12th century Byzantine emperor by his daughter) apart, there is a shortage of medieval writers with a real interest in exploring character in biographical form. By the Tudor period however the sources have expanded to provide a choice of subjects as rich as the ancients.
And here the pickings are rich indeed. Henry VIII is the subject of innumerable accounts ranging from the scholarly to the fictional. Alison Weir’s Henry VIII King and Court places Henry’s life in a context that makes him more explicable if not likable. Her account of Henry’s relationship with Anne Boleyn is both dramatic and chilling as she tracks the King’s progress from passionate suitor to loving husband to executioner.
After the Tudors the Stuarts. For mine they provide more interesting biographical material than the Tudors (who in matters other than matrimonial were just too ruthlessly efficient to charm) precisely because they were brilliantly flawed. Antonia Fraser has made a career of writing royal biographies and her King Charles II is a balanced and well researched account of a complex and underrated monarch. She is particularly interested in character and her focus is on the individual subject rather than the historical events in which they figure. Restoration England is sometimes presented as rakes in big wigs but it was also a time of religious turmoil and major scientific and artistic achievement . While paying due regard to Charles’ active social life Fraser also conveys his tolerance and rationality and the disadvantage of having such an outlook in an intolerant age.
At about this time, the field of biography begins to open up. Hitherto only royals, politicians, saints and generals led lives well documented enough to permit a biographical treatment. From about the 16th century however artists, writers and scientists begin to become the subject of biography.
Perhaps the first such work is the Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects by Giorgio Vasari which appeared in about 1550. Vasari’s work remains an indispensable source for the artists of the Italian Renaissance and Counter Reformation. That mere artisans could be considered worthy of biography reflects a major cultural shift and, for the reader, a welcome change in subject matter.
The great artist is almost as problematic as the great man in history, and the connections between life and art are not, thankfully, easily defined. But biographies of artists, of all types, present a particularly fertile field for the biographer with a personal vision. Peter Robb’s M for example is on one level a well researched reconstruction and critique of Caravaggio’s brilliant art and sleazy life. On another level there is obviously a certain identification between the author and subject, which the author draws on to vivify his remote subject matter. The result is arguably misleading: Caravaggio’s sexuality for example, while clearly important to his art, probably cannot be elucidated from a 20th century gay perspective. But so what; sometimes the life under consideration is just as interesting for the speculation it engenders about our own time as it is for what it explains about the past.
The most famous if not greatest biography of all is Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson. I confess to having been satisfied with the abridged version edited by Christopher Hibbert. But this work is undoubtably the best example of the curious symbiosis that can arise between biographer and subject. Boswell’s vision of Johnson as a kind of eccentric secular saint but devastatingly witty withal is compelling. And such is its force that Boswell himself has become a major subject of biography; assisted by the discovery in the early 20th century of his extensive personal journals which detail with unflinching honesty his clinical depression, his addiction to prostitutes and alcohol, and his acute observations of his well connected social circle. Peter Martin’s A Life of James Boswell is a sympathetic account of the life of a man who, like the young Augustine, wanted to be good, but not just yet.
Lord Byron on the other hand never wanted to be good at least as that term was understood by his contemporaries. Fiona MacCarthy’s Byron Life and Legend offers a fresh assessment of Byron’s bizarre life and considerable talent for both poetry and self promotion. This is a scholarly work but its subject matter would catch the interest of Suetonius. As Byron himself put it, ‘I have been more ravished myself than anybody since the Trojan War.’
While Byron was at Harrow, acquiring the vices that would sustain him until his untimely death from excessive application of leaches in the embattled Greek port of Missolonghi twenty years later, the future of Europe was being decided. Byron was an extreme case but this period abounds with striking personalities. Horatio Nelson for example could easily be mistaken for a manic depressive. Christopher Hibbert’s Nelson A Personal history tends to think not but does not offer any alternative explanation apart from extreme patriotism compounded by ambition and genuinely insane personal courage. Nelson is a rare figure: a military man who is yet personally vulnerable; his highly unorthodox relationship with Emma Hamilton, with whom he lived together with her husband when not with the fleet is the focus of Hibbert’s book.
James Cook on the other hand had no time for mistresses. There is no shortage of accounts of Cook’s life but none of them have dug up anything salacious. The fascination of Cook lies in his unremitting dedication to tasks that by today’s standards were unbelievably difficult. Richard Hough’s Captain James Cook is a solid conventional telling of the great sailor’s career.
By the mid 19th century, the number of potential subjects for the historical biographer explodes. We are also approaching the edges of living memory (our grandparents’ grandparents). The relationship between the author and a near contemporary subject (particularly one who is still alive and has access to the law of defamation) changes. The scope for imposing a personal vision without engaging directly in current debates and serving current agendas is diminished. At that point biography ceases to be primarily historical - a way of engaging a past reality - and becomes a way of exploring our contemporary culture. And that is a subject that will be around for ever.