Biography in Literature -Definition & Meaning

The Biography as an art-form has developed comparatively recently. For classical times we have the Lives of the Caesars, by Suetonius, and Plutarch’s Lives, short accounts, written in pairs, comparing and contrasting a famous Greek and a famous Roman; but modern Biography has no really close resemblance to these or to such odd notes and gossip as one finds in the Brief Lives of the seventeenth-century antiquarian, John Aubrey.

It was Dryden In 1683 who first used the term Biography, defining it as “the history of particular men’s lives”. Its form was still indeterminate, and for a long time it continued to be a promiscuous collection of varied details not governed by any artistic principle of selection or proportion. The former Life and Letters of any person of note was usually a tedious production. As Lytton Strachey, the celebrated biographer of Queen Victoria, wrote in 1918: “The art of Biography seems to have fallen on evil times in England. Those two fat volumes, with which it is our custom to commemorate the dead-who does not know them, with their ill-digested masses of material, their slipshod style. Their tone of tedious panegyric, their lamentable lack of selection, of detachment, of design? They are as familiar as the shortage of the undertaker. And wear the same air of slow, funereal barbarism”. The Oxford Dictionary defines Biography as “the history of the lives of individual men as a branch of literature”. In the words of Harold Nicolson, the Biography is “a truthful record of an individual, composed as a work of art”. Each of these constituents needs to be examined separately.

Biography differs from history in being a record of the life of one individual. “It is a study sharply defined by two definite events, birth and death. It fills its canvas with one figure, and other characters, however great in themselves, must always be subsidiary to the central hero”. It studies its subject from both without and within; it is an account of his achievements and of his personality. “Character and exploits”, observes Sir Sidney Lee, “are for biographical purposes inseparable. Character which does not translate itself into exploit is for the biographer a mere phantasm. The exploit may range from mere talk, as in the case of Johnson, to empire-building and military conquest as in the case of Julius Caesar or Napoleon. But character and exploit jointly constitute biographic personality”. The Biography should be no more a panegyric than a diatribe. It should be a faithful picture of its subject, with both its virtues and its faults, neither praising the former nor condemning the latter, but studying both dispassionately. Finally and pre-eminently, it should be a work of art, not a mere collection of odds and ends to satisfy idle curiosity, but something that will leave in the mind of the reader a sustained and lasting impression. Its function is “to transmit personality”, as Sir Sidney Lee says, to rebuild a living man from dead bones, and the ideal Biography would be almost a novel of character with verifiable facts for its basis instead of invented details. Apart from its artistic attractiveness, a really veracious biography, presenting its subject and his achievements in relation to his contemporaries and the events of his time, is of immense value to the historian; for, as Carlyle said, “history is the essence of countless biographies”. The biographer must strive for truth and for that beauty which comes from a perfect synthesis and portrayal of his subject. Without the former his work becomes mere fiction, without the latter it degenerates into a mere recital of facts.

Pure and Impure Biography: Any ‘pure’ Biography would give us a perfect picture of the development of both the external and the inner life of its subject. Unfortunately, several factors may intervene to make it ‘impure’. The most common is the desire to honour the dead, to conceal the evil and perpetuate the memory of the good. De mortuis nil nisi bonum is an old Latin proverb which says that the living should speak nothing but good of the dead. It is doubtless a good motto for everyday conduct but not for the biographical art, which ought to look cool on good and ill alike and to hold the balance between them. The Victorian biographer tended to exaggerate the virtues of his subject; recent biographers have inclined to emphasise his foibles. One method may result in an undeserved eulogy, the other in an- unkind satire, and neither will give a full and faithful account of the man and his career.

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A second factor making for impurity is the obtrusion of the author’s own views and prejudices. The personal mode, which can be so pleasing in other forms of literature, is defect in the Biography. It is essential that the biographer should stand away from his subject so as to be able to view it clearly and dispassionately. He must maintain an attitude of detachment or disinterestedness, forgetting his personal predilections so far as is humanly possible. He must have only a professional interest, much as a doctor has in his patient. If he thrusts too much of himself into his work-his own likes and dislikes, opinions and preferences-he digresses from the biographical into the autobiographical. A similar cause of impurity is the substitution of moral or other utilitarian aims for the genuinely artistic. A Biography should not be treated as an illustration of some theory or with the intention of driving home some particular lesson. This entails a one-sided approach to the subject, to the neglect of other sides that are equally significant but cannot be made to fit the author’s purpose. “So long as Biography is looked upon simply as a medium through which to convey ‘useful information’ for the sake of ethics, so long it is kept from its own true mission. Biography must be allowed to stand or fall of itself. Let it but relate faithfully the history of a human soul. Without any warping of the truth for purposes either of panegyric or invective; let it but place before us a true narrative, without any straining for effect or any drawing of a moral, and it will not fail to speak to us clearly and influence us powerfully… All works of art are shorn of their power when men attempt to reduce them to slavery rather than allow them to assert their sovereignty. Works of art cease to be works of art when they carry about upon them the chains of any tyrannical influence. A work of art must be as free and sovereign as the Truth, of which, indeed, it is but a part and a manifestation”.

Basis of the Biographical Instinct: “The proper study of mankind is man”, says Pope. The basis of the biographical impulse is similarly man’s absorbing interest in man. The biographer instinctively aims at a revelation which will both capture the individuality of his subject and also show the common touch of humanity in him which assures the reader that human nature is always essentially the same. In this field of literature, as in the Novel, it is the psychological element that has become more interesting and significant than the mere record of events.

Difficulties of the Biographer: “A well-written Life”, says Carlyle, “is almost as rare as a well-spent one”. It is extremely difficult for a man who has not lived constantly with his subject to present an accurate image of him in his pages. Boswell was an intimate friend of Johnson; Lockhart was Scott’s son-in-law: Forster was closely associated with Dickens. All three have written masterly Lives of their heroes. But biographers are not always contemporaries, much less associates, and for those who are not. Biography can become a herculean task in which failure is more likely than success. Only too often, they imagine a background to their subject in terms of their own time, and thus fall into anachronisms as misleading as those of a Hollywood film. Yet the most conscientious and scholarly of this class of biographer can, at his best, gain the advantage of an objective view, if distance does not lend too much enchantment, and thus avoid the dangerous enthusiasm of the biographer who is a personal friend and champion.

Perhaps the most important difficulty is that it is scarcely possible within the covers of a book to contain a whole life in all its phases-physical, intellectual, moral, and spiritual-doing full justice to each. Life is too elusive to be so easily confined within the narrow room of a biographical record. And, often enough, half of a man is composed of thoughts he never utters or feelings he prefers to conceal, as to which no biographer can do more than guess. He may, of course, generalise from words and deeds, but these might have been hasty or abnormal lapses of character and so are only dubious guides. Despite all such obstacles, however, English literature is rich in fine biographies and is constantly adding to its store. We need name only Mason’s Gray, Boswell’s Johnson, Southey’s Nelson, Lockhart’s Scott, Carlyle’s Sterling, Froude’s Carlyle, Rosebery’s Pitt, Morley’s Gladstone, Trevelyan’s Macaulay; and perhaps, to represent more recent times, Lytton Strachey’s Queen Victoria, Winston Churchill’s Marlborough, Philip Guedalla’s The Duke (Wellington), Arthur Bryant’s Pepys, Lord David Cecil’s The Stricken Deer (Cowper), and Peter Quennell’s studies of Byron, all of which a future critic may consider worthy to rank with the earlier masterpieces in this form.

Modern Tendencies: As has already been mentioned, the modern tendency in biography was at first towards a ruthless dissection of its subject. In Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians this process was carried to an extent popularly described as ‘debunking’, by reason of his insistence upon the human weaknesses of famous people who had hitherto been set on lofty pedestals. While this was a useful corrective to the legends fostered by the Nil nisi bonum’ school, it fell into the opposite danger of belittling the characters of those with whom it dealt by magnifying trivial matters in their lives and personalities to the distortion of the general effect. In the same way, the application of psychology has sometimes resulted in over-emphasizing certain motives in a man’s character, or the biographer has deliberately chosen hero whose life bears a superficial resemblance to his own, and created him in his own image. A reaction has already set in, and the present trend is to demand from a biographer not only an intuitive understanding of his subject but also a complete and accurate estimate of the environment and social background of events. Unless he takes refuge in the biographical novel, the biographer must therefore become a social historian, philosopher, and psychologist in one. As W. H. Dunn says of Biography, “Perhaps no other form of composition is so difficult: no other deals with such elusive material. Other forms of composition deal with thought and emotion, but Biography deals with the source of thought and emotion, with Man himself in his inward and outward manifestations. Who is sufficient for such a task?”



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