The Fine Art of Biography


The extant portraits of Samuel Johnson, no less than five of which were executed by Sir Joshua Reynolds, have created a familiar compound image of the scholar with intense and serious gaze, deeply preoccupied or deeply troubled by some inner vision. More circumstantial detail is supplied by contemporaries who have remarked that “his immense structure of bones was hideously striking to the eye, and the scars of the scrofula were deeply visible.” At a later date “down from his bedchamber, about noon, came, as newly risen, a huge uncouth figure, with a little dark wig which scarcely covered his head, and his clothes hanging loosely about him.” His clothing was often dirty, his shirt collar and sleeves unbuttoned, his stockings around his ankles. James Boswell noted that “he is very slovenly in his dress, and speaks with a most uncouth voice.” Fanny Burney has left the most interesting account, however, with her observations that “He is tall and stout; but stoops terribly; he is almost bent double. His mouth is almost constantly opening and shutting as if he was chewing. He has a strange method of frequently twirling his fingers, and twisting his hands. His body is in continual agitation, see-sawing up and down; his feet are never a moment quiet; and, in short, his whole person is in perpetual motion.” His curious gait meant that he was a constant object of amusement to children or to the “mob.” He would “zigzag” across the London streets, often colliding with people without realising that he had done so, and he had an obsessive habit of knocking every post with a stick; if he missed one, he would retrace his steps and give it a tap. He would suddenly come to a halt in the middle of these thoroughfares, and raise his arms above his head in a spasmodic movement; before crossing any threshold he would whirl about, twisting his body before making a sudden stride or leap. He enjoyed rolling down hills and climbing trees.

This is not a diversion but, rather, an example of biographical description in the English manner. Here is Samuel Johnson, for example, upon the life of Jonathan Swift:

He thought exercise of great necessity, and used to run half a mile up and down a hill every two hours. . . . He was always careful of his money, and was therefore no liberal entertainer, but was less frugal of his wine than of his meat. When his friends of either sex came to him in expectation of a dinner, his custom was to give everyone a shilling that they might please themselves with their provision. At last his avarice grew too powerful for his kindness; he would refuse a bottle of wine, and in Ireland no man visits where he cannot drink.

Johnson himself believed that biography, the history of character in the world, was a noble and salutary pursuit. “I have often thought,” he once wrote, “that there has rarely passed a life of which a judicious and faithful narrative would not be useful.” Whether he would have praised Boswell’sLife of him in these terms is an open question; but his own Lives of the English Poets amply fulfils his principles. “Biography,” he wrote, “is of the various kinds of narrative writing, that which is most eagerly read, and most easily applied to the purposes of life.” He told a gathering of friends in the Mitre public-house “that he loved the biographical part of literature most,”1 and once explained to Boswell that “I esteem biography, as giving us what comes near to ourselves, what we can turn to use.” This emphasis upon usefulness partakes of the English spirit, but Johnson’s preoccupation with individual life and character is also of English provenance.

In an essay for The Rambler he proposed that biography was an extension of imaginative literature since “all joy or sorrow for the happiness or calamities of others is produced by an act of imagination, that realises the event, however fictitious, or approximates it, however remote, by placing us, for a time, in the condition of him whose fortune we contemplate.” The biographer will “conceive the pains and pleasures of other minds” but must also “excite” them in the act of imaginative re-creation. This dictum has profoundly affected the course of the English imagination, even as it arises naturally out of it. The novel and the biography are aspects of the same creative process. In fact it might be suggested that the greatest writers are those, like Johnson, who effortlessly transcend the limitations of genre; their writing, whatever temporary form it takes, is of a piece. If his poetry becomes a “just representation of general nature,” then so must his life of Milton or of Dryden.

But there is a further refinement to Johnson’s art, in those passages where he fashions his prose in the image of his subjects. When in his life of Milton he exclaims upon “these bursts of light and involutions of darkness; these transient and involuntary excursions and retrocessions of invention,” he is translating within his own style the idiom and cadence of Milton’s verse. In a less elevated mode he notes that “the death of Pope was imputed by some of his friends to a silver sauce-pan, in which it was his delight to eat potted lampreys”; he employs here the delicate and familiar imagery of Pope’s satires to make his own point. The collusion of style is also evidence of further intimacy, since Johnson is drawn into autobiography by the pressure of biography. He re-creates himself in passages ostensibly dedicated to others. He identifies himself with Richard Savage, the destitute young dramatist and poet with whom he walked the streets of London at night in endless conversation. When he writes of the wild and penniless Savage that “His mind was in an uncommon degree vigorous and active. His judgement was accurate, his apprehension quick and his memory so tenacious that he was frequently observed to know what he had learned from others in a short time, better than those by whom he was informed,” he is also limning a self-portrait. When he wrote of the scientist Boerhaave, he was also engaged in an act of self-definition. “There was, in his air and motion, something rough and artless, but so majestic and great at the same time, that no man ever looked upon him without veneration.” There were less happy resemblances, however, and in his account of William Collins’s mental decline there is a suggestion of his own incipient madness. Collins “languished some years under that depression of mind which enchains the faculties without destroying them, and leaves reason the knowledge of right without the power of pursuing it”; this is the composition of one who desired to be tied and whipped, and whose own depression of spirits was heavier than many other men could bear.

All the pity and sympathy of his nature, therefore, went out to the bereft Savage. Indeed his entire description of the young outcast, this uncommon writer thrown away destitute into the alleys and doorways of London, is an image of Johnson as he might have been or might one day become. He wrote his friend’s life when he was himself an impoverished hack in the employment of the Gentleman’s Magazine, often forced to wander the streets at night for want of settled lodgings. And so when Johnson writes of Savage that “when he left his company, he was frequently to spend the remaining part of the night in the street, or at least was abandoned to gloomy reflections,” he writes about himself as eloquently as he writes about Savage. The associations and affiliations are formed. When in the same life-story he declares that Savage was “disowned by his mother, doomed to poverty and obscurity, and launched upon the ocean of life only that he might be swallowed by its quick-sands or dashed upon its rocks,” he is outlining the entire plot of Smollett’s Peregrine Pickle with more than a little seasoning of Tom Jones. A common language creates a common vision of the world; this is the English imagination at its primary and pre-eminent work.

In his absorbing study of Johnson and Savage Dr. Johnson and Mr. Savage, Richard Holmes noted that literary biography is a hybrid art and amplified the argument by suggesting that this mixed and mingled form—this essentially English form—helped to create the romantic sensibility. He surmised that Johnson’s naïve romanticismseized upon Savage as an outcast poet, and that he had “glimpsed in the back streets the first stirrings of the new Romantic age.”It is only another step then to claim, as Mr. Holmes does, that biography itself “is essentially a Romantic form”4which, in the eighteenth century, “became a rival to the novel.” It is perhaps more appropriate to suggest that it incorporated the novel, just as it manifested certain tendencies which come under the rubric of “romanticism.” Like the language, and the culture, it assimilates anything.

In truth English biography was, from the beginning, a collection of fictional or dramatic episodes united by a commentary of a didactic or homiletic nature. The twin deities of “Fortune” and “Fate” were invoked in medieval narratives, while North’s preface to his translation of Plutarch’s “Lives”— one of the key influences upon the development of the native tradition—reveals the moral aspect of biography in the typically English injunction that “it is better to see learning in noble mens lives than to reade it in Philosophers writings.” The perception was extended by Fielding in his novel Joseph Andrews, in which he remarked that “examples work more forcibly on the mind than precepts.” The pragmatic dimension of biographical study is here made explicit, and that practicality helps to explain the love of biography among English rather than French or Italian readers. With its approximation to fact it is considered to be an instructive and useful art, implicitly opposed to the fanciful and useless—if entertaining—allurements of fiction.

There has never been any distinction between “fiction” and “fact,” however. Just as early biographies followed the tragic pattern of the drama’s “wheel of fortune,” so the early novelists insisted upon the basis of their fictions in true sources and authentic reports. It is appropriate that a dramatist, Thomas Heywood, proposed to write “the Lives of all the Poets, foreign and modern,” while Thomas Fuller’s Worthies of England (1662) promised a narrative “interlaced with many delightful stories.” Izaak Walton’s Lives maintain the hagiographical tradition of medieval biography; his accounts of Donne and Herbert, Hooker and Wotton, resemble threnodies or laments, and he did not scruple to invent lengthy conversations in order to transmit the nobility or sanctity of his subjects. More’s Richard III reverses the equation by constructing an almost wholly inaccurate report of that monarch as false and malevolent. More’s son-in-law, William Roper, in turn fashions a biography of More which proposes him as a secular saint and martyr. Cavendish’s biography The Life and Death of Cardinal Wolsey is filled with imprecations to Fortune—“O madness! O foolish desire! O fond hope!”—while Foxe’s Book of Martyrs thoroughly exemplifies the English tradition in its combination of improbable anecdote and broad theatricality.

If the eighteenth century witnessed the first flowering of the novel, it was wholly appropriate that it should also have nurtured the more extensive development of prose biography. They grew up together in an act of symbiosis. There were volumes entitled The History of the lives of the most noted highway-men, footpads, house-breakers, shop-lifts and cheats as well as The lives of the most eminent persons who died in the year 17——; the Biographica Britannicawas begun, and the seventeen volumes of John Nichols’s Literary Anecdotes of the Seventeenth Century were completed. It is also highly appropriate—indeed it is fitting and significant—that Samuel Johnson himself has been made more generally known to posterity through Boswell’s biography rather than through any of his own books or essays.

Yet we must pause before we cross the threshold of this great work, and examine Boswell’s practice of mingling representative fact and selective fiction. In his advertisement to the second edition of the Life of Johnson Boswell compares his narrative with that of Homer’s Odyssey: “Amidst a thousand entertaining and instructive episodes the HERO is never long out of sight; for they are all in some degree connected with him; and HE, in the whole course of the History, is exhibited by the Author for the best advantage of his readers.” Boswell less resembles the writer of the verse epic, however, than the novelist. He is concerned with his subject’s important actions but also with “what he privately wrote, and said, and thought”; he wishes to display “the progress of his mind and fortunes,” like any fictional hero, principally by dwelling upon “innumerable detached particulars.” Boswell admired Rembrandt and Vermeer in this respect, noting “with what a small speck does the painter give life to an eye!” He quotes Johnson himself to the effect that the biographer must examine “domestick privacies and display the minute details of daily life.” The biographer thereby congratulates himself that Samuel Johnson “will be seen in this work more completely than any man who has ever yet lived.” But when he states that “I have spared no pains to ascertain with a scrupulous authenticity” the facts of the matter, and that “I have sometimes been obliged to run half over London, in order to fix a date correctly,” we may recall Daniel Defoe’s similar protestations in the prefaces to his fictional accounts. There are indeed scholars who have dismissed Boswell’s Life as a work of the imagination, but of course it is only in the imagination that writing lives. The imagination is the secret of Boswell’s art.

He informed one acquaintance that he wished to cast Johnson’s biography “in scenes,” as if he were somehow impelled by the theatrical nature of London life to proceed upon a dramatic model; then Johnson might become the chief actor surrounded by secondary players. If it is the business of the biographer to create drama, however, he must introduce pace or tempo into various confrontations. He must rehearse moments of significant action, such as that of Johnson kicking a stone in refutation of Bishop Berkeley’s theories. Most importantly he must create, or shall we say fabricate, memorable dialogue. Since Boswell himself was engaged in many of these conversations, he was also obliged to enter his own narrative with all the attendant problems of repression and revision.

There is a very interesting account of Boswell’s procedures in Adam Sisman’s Boswell’s Presumptuous Task, in which he suggests that Boswell subjected his narrative “to every type of revision: summary, paraphrase, expansion, contraction, conflation, interpolation, and so forth.” 5 Stories were abbreviated, and anecdotes transposed; short notes were amplified and, significantly, “details that did not fit were altered or discarded.”That this is also the practice of most other biographers underlines its suggestiveness. The radical reshaping of a life is primarily the imperative of the artist who must fashion the narrative to accord with his or her own personal vision; it is also necessary to alter or discard facts and details in order to create a coherent character out of the raw materials lying all around. When Mr. Sisman goes on to suggest that Boswell was to some extent “forced to rely on his imagination to elaborate stories of Johnson’s early years,”all the formal boundaries of discourse are dissolved. The overriding concern is with the creation of character.

Certainly Boswell did not scruple to invent facts, or omit inconvenient ones. He made only a few notes at dinner in May 1776 when Johnson and Wilkes, the radical London politician, were introduced; but out of these random jottings a fully prepared and described scene, of some four thousand words, was produced twelve years later. Boswell also engaged in what he described as “nice correction,” by which characters and scenes were omitted or refined for the sake of the narrative argument.

One of his more obvious procedures was to render originally short Anglo-Saxon words into their Anglo-Latin equivalents, thus adding sonority to Johnson’s stated opinions. Yet this was also a device which Johnson himself employed. On hearing himself say, of a drama, “It has not wit enough to keep it sweet,” he corrected himself and continued, “it has not vitality enough to preserve it from putrefaction.” There may have been an element of irony or self-parody here, but it may also have been a genuine attempt by Samuel Johnson to preserve a respectable mien for the benefit of his biographer; both men were involved in a process of artistic collusion.

Boswell also believed it to be necessary to bowdlerise or boswellise Johnson’s correspondence, so that no trace of grossness or vulgarity remained. But Boswell’s desire to maintain a stable identity for Johnson was designed to reassure himself as well as his readers. As one critic has suggested, “the impulse to create or construct a Johnson answering his private needs is overwhelmingly visible.”There is often some consonance between the biographer and the subject of the biography, as if the biographer were ineluctably drawn toward certain destinies. In the act of inspection or observation, there is also an element of self-examination. It might account for Mrs. Gaskell’s biographical interest in Charlotte Brontë, for example, or for that of Carlyle in Frederick the Great.

There is another way of conveying biographical identity in a covert or factitious manner. Boswell admitted that, while composing his narrative out of notes or stray anecdotes, “he had rewritten some of these sayings of Johnson’s into what he considered the authentic Johnsonian style.” 9 It is once more a question of artistry, and has nothing to do with factual or historical concerns. That is why the “Johnsonian” style, as invented or embellished by Boswell, was powerfully influential. The biographer relates how, after publication of the Life, an acquaintance spoke of its success “in the circles of fashion and elegance.” He informed Boswell that “you have made them all talk Johnson,” to which remark Boswell appends: “I have Johnsonised the land.” The conversations invented by Boswell were anthologised as “Johnsoniana,” and in subsequent years his biography became the only official or extant source of Johnson’s life. This was his success as an artist—to have created a character who over the intervening years has become as recognisable and as familiar as Mr. Pickwick or Mr. Micawber. In 1835 Francis Jeffrey concluded in the Edinburgh Review that Boswell “has raised the standard of his [Johnson’s] intellectual character, and actually made discovery of large provinces in his understanding of which scarcely an indication was to be found in his writings.” He did not pause to consider whether those provinces were the rightful territory of Johnson or of Boswell himself. Yet this invented biography created the first “romantic” hero. Out of artificial material a great truth was born; romance, epic, fiction and drama come together to form biography.

Mrs. Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Brontë was one of the most popular and most controversial lives of the nineteenth century. A modern editor of this interesting volume has remarked that “she seems to have forgotten that it was not a novel that she was writing.” 10 There are indeed some startling resemblances between Mrs. Gaskell’s biography and her fiction, to the extent that Charlotte Brontë becomes the heroine of a novel rather than of her own life.

When Elizabeth Gaskell first met Charlotte Brontë, she wrote that “the wonder to me is how she can keep heart and power alive in her life of desolation,” a sentiment similar to the themes of female anguish and self-sufficiency in her novels Ruth and Mary Barton . The opening of her Lifefollows the same trajectory as that of Ruth and Sylvia’s Lovers, as the narrator walks through the landscape and setting of her story. The parsonage at Haworth “is of grey stone, two stories high, heavily roofed with flags, in order to resist the winds that might strip off a lighter covering.” In Sylvia’s Lovers Hope Farm is “long and low, in order to avoid the rough violence of the winds that swept over that bleak spot.” In Ruth are to be found “grey, silvery rocks, which sloped away into brown moorland,” while in Sylvia’s Lovers stretch “the moorland hollows” and purple heather; in The Life of Charlotte Brontë are to be found “the dense hollows of the moors.” The first chapter of Ruth opens with a description of a town “in one of the eastern counties” where the streets “were dark and ill-paved with large, round, jolting pebbles, and with no side-path protected by kerbstones.” The first chapter of the Life opens with a description of Keighley where “the flagstones . . . seem to be in constant danger of slipping backwards.” There is a remarkable consonance of tone and theme. In each case the landscape creates a steadfast heroine, and what Mrs. Gaskell called Charlotte Brontë’s “wild, sad, life.” As Virginia Woolf suggested, “the Life gives you the impression that Haworth and the Brontës are somehow inextricably mixed. Haworth expresses the Brontës; the Brontës express Haworth; they fit like a snail to his shell.” This formula is itself so perfectly adapted to the English imagination that it might serve as its introduction; the mingling of character and landscape expresses a great truth, and out of this essentially fictional intuition by Elizabeth Gaskell have sprung a myriad books and literary pilgrimages.

It is appropriate, therefore, that Haworth Parsonage itself is perhaps the principal object of popular affection. Mrs. Gaskell did not start the identification of writer and place—the Shakespeare Jubilee of 1769 in Stratford has some claim to that honour—but Mrs. Gaskell’s setting of the Brontë sisters on the edge of the moors has greatly influenced the English literary inheritance. It combines a peculiar reverence for place, and a preoccupation with the formation of character. Just as artists have found inspiration on Salisbury Plain or among the Malvern Hills, so others have found consolation in areas which have become sacred or enchanted through their association with writers. From the 1870s forward there emerged a fashion for topographies or itineraries based upon the life of famous writers— The Homes of Tennyson, In the Steps of Charles Dickens, Bozland, Dickens’ Places and People, The Home and Early Haunts of Robert Louis Stevenson are among the scores of volumes which appeared upon the subject. It became a national pursuit, and Tennyson was forced to move house in order to avoid the attentions and depredations of these literary tourists. There are many volumes upon the neighbourhood of the Lake District and Thomas Hardy’s semi-fictional “Wessex,” and there are books entitled A Writer’s Britain and The Oxford Literary Guide to the British Isles . The genius loci has many hearths in England.

So Elizabeth Gaskell, inspired by the imaginative vision of her novels, re-created Charlotte Brontë. As a novelist she was preoccupied with details, and in similar fashion requested information on “the peculiar customs & character of the population toward Keighley.” As one of Mrs. Gaskell’s biographers has put it, “Charlotte Brontë’s life already fell easily into the patterns of Gaskell’s fiction, with its suffering daughters, profligate son and stern father, and its emphasis on upbringing and environment, female endurance and courage.” 11 Mrs. Gaskell lends strong imaginative shape to her biography, also, with letters and anecdotes reinforcing the pace and emphasis of the narrative. She was commenting upon Charlotte Brontë’s husband as an “exacting, rigid law-giving man” at the same time as she was creating just such a character, John Thornton, in North and South. In the Life, too, Elizabeth Gaskell comments that standards of behaviour and morality “in such a manufacturing place as Keighley in the north” are very different from those of any “stately, sleepy, picturesque cathedral town in the south”; this of course is a principal theme of her novel North and South. But the resemblances do not end there. After the publication of the Life Charlotte Brontë’s father, Patrick Brontë, wrote to its author and informed her that “the truth of the matter is that I am, in some respects, a kindred likeness to the father of Margaret Hale in ‘North and South’—peaceable, feeling, sometimes thoughtful.” The circle of “fact” and “fiction” becomes complete.

It has also become evident that Mrs. Gaskell, like Boswell before her, omitted, edited and distorted details so that they might more accurately reflect her imaginative concerns. It was necessary for her purposes to emphasise the private and domestic life of Charlotte Brontë, for example, rather than to examine her professional career in proper detail. When Charles Kingsley wrote to congratulate her upon fashioning “the picture of a valiant woman made perfect by suffering” he touched upon an important truth; hers is a “picture” rather than a defined or definite reality. Gaskell omitted unfortunate facts, such as her heroine’s obsession with a Belgian schoolmaster, and frequently cut out significant details from Charlotte Brontë’s correspondence; she also chose to emphasise the endurance and courage of the three sisters, at the expense of downgrading their unhappy brother, Branwell. Gaskell, in other words, created the myth of the Brontës which may still linger among the readers of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.

The ambiguity of Mrs. Gaskell’s achievement was recognised at the time. George Eliot praised her for creating “an interior so strange, so original in its individual elements and so picturesque in its externals . . . that fiction has nothing more wild, touching and heart strengthening to place above it.” The anonymous writer in the Edinburgh Review declared that “Mrs. Gaskell appears to have learnt the art of the novel-writer so well that she cannot discharge from her palette the colours she has used in the pages of ‘Mary Barton’ and ‘Ruth.’ This biography opens precisely like a novel.” But of course it is precisely because it is “like a novel” that it has created an enduring impression upon successive generations of readers. It represents a very English art.

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