Biography pp 13-66 | Cite as

Biography as an Institution

  • Ira Bruce Nadel


The extremes Lytton Strachey proposes for the length of biography highlight the problem Bernard Shaw expresses which persists throughout the history of the genre: the proper size and scope of life-writing. In the nineteenth century, this issue was especially acute as the Victorian attraction to history, leading to the inclusive life, opposed the plea for an interpretative life indicated by George Eliot in 1852.1 Initially, the analytic life was a minority voice as large, multi-volume biographies dominated Victorian lives. However, a tradition originating in short Latin lives, renewed by antiquaries of the sixteenth century, popularized by Aubrey’s Brief Lives in the seventeenth, dignified by Johnson’s Lives of the Poets in the eighteenth and culminating in works like Strachey’s Portraits in Miniature in the twentieth reasserted the centrality of the brief life. In the nineteenth century, the form reached its apogee in collective lives, biographies in series and biographical dictionaries. Their extraordinary sales and continued influence is a measure of their importance.


Nineteenth Century Quarterly Review Collective Life February 1879 Biographical Detail 
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Notes and References

  1. 1.
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  2. 2.
    John Sterling in Thomas Carlyle, The Life of John Sterling, Centenary Edition, The Works of Thomas Carlyle (London: Chapman & Hall, 1897) XI, 138. In 1882 Leslie Stephen was also to refer to the great eighty-five-volume Biographie Universelle, Ancienne et Moderne (1811–1862), founded by J. F. Michaud and his brother L. G. Michaud (Paris: Michaud frères, 1811–62) as a model for the Dictionary of National Biography. The subtitle indicated the scope of the dictionary: Histoire, par ordre alphabetique, de la view publique et privée de tous les hommes qui sont fait remarquer par leurs écrits, leurs actions, leurs talents, leurs vertus, or leurs crimes.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    John Watkins, ‘Preface’, Universal Biographical Dictionary (London: n.p., 1800) in Waldo H. Dunn, English Biography (London: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1916) p. 157. On being paid not to write lives seeGoogle Scholar
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  5. 4.
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  23. 12.
    Thomas Carlyle, The French Revolution in Edmund G. Berry, Emerson’s Plutarch (Harvard University Press, 1961) p. 28. A curious example of this shift back and forth from brief to enlarged lives is Robert Southey whose short life of Nelson appeared in 1813. His own life, however, became the subject of a six-volume biography by his son, C. C. Southey published in 1850.Google Scholar
  24. 13.
    Plutarch, ‘Timoleon’, Plutarch’s Lives, tr. Dryden, rev. Clough, p. 293. Sigmund Freud, Leonardo da Vinci, A Study in Psychosexuality, tr. A. A. Brill (New York: Vintage, 1947) p. 109.Google Scholar
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    Self Help, p. 55; 7500 copies of Stephenson were published in 1857; 25 500 were in print to 1863, 60 000 to the end of the 1880s. See Richard D. Altick, The English Common Reader (University of Chicago Press, 1957) p. 388. By comparison, Croker’s 1831 edn of Boswell’s Johnson sold only 50 000 copies up to 1891. An American edition of Stephenson appeared in 1858. As recently as 1975 the Folio Society of London reprinted the book. One example of the influence of the biography is Adam Bede. SeeGoogle Scholar
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  32. 20.
    Samuel Smiles, The Lives of George and Robert Stephenson (1863; London: Folio Society, 1975) ch. XI. This combined life is the most accessible edition. All further references are to this version.Google Scholar
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  35. 24.
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  36. 25.
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  37. Harold Nicolson, The Development of English Biography (London: Hogarth Press, 1927) pp. 126–7.Google Scholar
  38. 26.
    Little has been written on Morley as a critic or biographer although the following are helpful: Lytton Strachey, ‘A Statesman: Lord Morley’, Characters and Commentaries (London: Chatto & Windus, 1933) pp. 222–31;Google Scholar
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  41. 27.
    Alexander Macmillan to Malcolm Macmillan 2 October 1877 in C. L. Graves, The Life and Letters of Alexander Macmillan (London: Macmillan, 1910) p. 342. Gladstone, in fact, did a primer on Homer for Macmillan, while Grove contributed one on geography.Google Scholar
  42. 28.
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  43. 29.
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  44. 31.
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  45. 33.
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  46. 34.
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  47. Nineteenth Century Essays, ed. Peter Stansky (University of Chicago Press, 1970) p. 61.Google Scholar
  48. 35.
    See John Gross, The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters (1969; Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1973) pp. 121–4;Google Scholar
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  51. 37.
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  52. 39.
    Morley, Voltaire (1872; London: Macmillan) pp. 301–2; ‘A New Calendar of Great Men’, Nineteenth Century, no. 180 (Feb 1892) p. 390. Morley explained, for example, that ‘Little books are often laughed at as a sort of tinned intellectual meats; but many have no doubt found how extremely difficult it is to write them well. To tell the story of even a great man’s life in some two hundred pages or so might seem to those who have never tried an easy matter enough; but it will not seem so to any who have tried it’ (ibid.).Google Scholar
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    Anon., ‘English Men of Letters, ed. J. Morley, Johnson, by Leslie Stephen’, Athenaeum, 2645 (6 July 1878) p. 11; ‘Shelley’, Athenaeum, 2662 (2 Nov 1878) p. 553; ‘Hutton’s Scott’, Athenaeum, 2646 (13 July 1878) p. 46; ‘English Men of Letters’, Athenaeum, 2645 (6 July 1878) p. 13. E. F. Benson wrote one of the most negative assessments of the series declaring they were ‘a shelf of disillusionment’. His attack on the unsuitability of writers’ lives for biography appeared in the Contemporary Review, LXVIII (1895) 131–2.Google Scholar
  55. 43.
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  58. 48.
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  60. 49.
    The clearest history of the shaping of the Dictionary of National Biography is Alan Bell’s article ‘Leslie Stephen and the DNB’, Times Literary Supplement, 3951 (16 Dec 1977) p. 1478. A fuller account can be found in the ‘Memoir of George Smith’ written by Sidney Lee in vol. I of the DNB.Google Scholar
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  63. 53.
    [R. C. Christie], ‘Biographical Dictionaries’, Quarterly Review, 157: 313 (Jan 1884) 229. All further references are to this version. The essay also includes an estimate of the popularity of biography among readers. Cf. ‘Contemporary Literature’, Blackwood’s, CXXV: DCCLXII (April 1879) 482–96, which also astutely surveys the status of nineteenth-century biography.Google Scholar
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  67. 57.
    Sidney Lee, ‘Principles of Biography’ (1911), Elizabethan and Other Essays, ed. Frederick J. Boas (1929; Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press, 1968) p. 55.Google Scholar
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  70. 62.
    Samuel Schoenbaum, Shakespeare’s Lives (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970) p. 572; Sidney Lee, ‘Shakespeare’, DNB, vol. 51 (Rpt. vol. 17): 1292A; Schoenbaum, ibid., pp. 512–14. In the one-volume biography, the Life of William Shakespeare, Lee consciously avoids aesthetic commentary preferring ‘an exhaustive and well-arranged statement of the facts of Shakespeare’s career, achievement, and reputation that shall reduce conjecture to the smallest dimensions consistent with coherence, and shall give verifiable references to all the original sources of information’.Google Scholar
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    [R. C. Christie,] ‘Dictionary of National Biography, Vols. I–X’, Quarterly Review, 164: 328 (Jan–April 1887) 352, 364, 380. Of the E. A. Freeman affair, Christie remarks that ‘surely a Dictionary of National Biography ought to consult the wants of a nation, and not the whims of a few scholars’ (p. 358). Some readers were never satisfied, however. Reverend John Washbourn, Rector of Rudford, Gloucester, sent regular criticisms to Stephen, from vol. 1 to 35 until the rector’s death in 1893. Another clergyman, W. C. Boulter, contributed papers of correction to Notes and Queries throughout the entire eighteen-and-a-half-year project.Google Scholar
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    Edmund Gosse, ‘Preface’, Critical Kit-Kats (London: Heinemann, 1896) pp. ix–x; Portraits and Sketches (London: Heinemann, 1912) p. viii.Google Scholar
  77. 71.
    See Sidney Lee, ‘The Perspective of Biography’, Elizabethan and Other Essays, pp. 64–5; on the parallels between Scott’s life and Zélide see Meryle Secrest, Being Bernard Berenson (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1979) p. 304;Google Scholar
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    Edmund Gosse, Tallemant des Réaux or the Art of Miniature in Biography (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1925) pp. 8–9, 14, 21, 23.Google Scholar
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    Charles Whibley, ‘The Limits of Biography’ (1897), Biography as an Art, ed. James L. Clifford (New York: Oxford University Press, 1962) pp. 110, 109; ‘The Indiscretions of Biography’, English Review, XXXIX (Dec 1924) 772.Google Scholar
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    T. S. Eliot, ‘Charles Whibley’ (1931), Selected Essays, new edn (New York: Harcourt Brace World, 1964) p. 444. Eliot’s praise of Whibley’s writing reflects his important role in Eliot’s life and career: Whibley was patron to the Criterion and recommended Eliot to Geoffrey Faber as a talented young man eager to enter publishing. Edmund Gosse dedicated his 1925 collection of essays, Silhouettes, to Whibley.Google Scholar
  82. 76.
    On the original title of Eminent Victorians see Michael Holroyd, Lytton Strachey (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1968) II, 66;Google Scholar
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  84. 77.
    Lytton Strachey, Portraits in Miniature (London: Chatto & Windus, 1931) title page. All further references are to this edition. The quotation, from Horace, Satire, Book 1 Satire 10 reads, in a modern verse translation, ‘You need / terseness, to let the thought run freely on without / becoming entangled in a mass of verbiage that will hang heavy / on the ear’,Google Scholar
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© Ira Bruce Nadel 1984

Authors and Affiliations

  • Ira Bruce Nadel
    • 1
  1. 1.VancouverCanada

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