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In My Good Books

Virginia Woolf on Biography

James Fenton
copyright © 2005

Originally published in The Guardian
17 December 2005

What we call life-writing includes biography, autobiography and some kinds of journal and letters. Already the category begins to look too big for comfort, but there is nothing we can do about that: it is a big category, it is uncontainable. There are all the memoirs. There are all those fictional works which take a historical character as their subject, like Edward Mörike's beautiful novella, Mozart on the Journey to Prague, which attempts to capture the character of Mozart by imagining a particular moment in his life.

If we allow, as I have done so far in these columns, that works of more or less any length may be admitted for consideration, then the material expands enormously. But again we have no choice: when Gibbon was wondering whether to write his autobiography, he thought of Hume as a precedent. But Hume's autobiography is only a few pages long.

The use of the early term "life-writing" reminds us that the word "biography" only came into use after the Restoration and "autobiography" after 1809, when Southey seems to have invented it. It sounds perhaps a little affected, as if one were to use the old word "face-painting" instead of "portraiture". But if it also reminds us that the scope of enquiry is much larger than is sometimes thought, that can be no bad thing.

It keeps us aware, for instance, what a narrow view Virginia Woolf was taking in her essay "The Art of Biography" when she says that "the biographer might argue" that biography is a young art and that "Interest in ourselves and in other people's selves is a late development of the human mind. Not until the eighteenth century in England did that curiosity express itself in writing the lives of private people. Only in the nineteenth century was biography fully grown and hugely prolific." It depends what weight you give to the term "private people": there are four early biographies of Milton. They are not long, but the early lives are seldom very long. The classical lives are like long speeches. Biography has its origins in rhetoric.

Woolf wrote two essays on biography, and it is worth reading them (anyway, all her essays are worth reading) as long as one is always aware that these arguments of the moment, however forcefully and vividly expressed, were intended to provoke thought, perhaps even to invite contradiction, not to stand as textbooks on the subject. Her hypothetical biographer, who "might argue" that "interest in ourselves and in other people's selves is a late development of the human mind," is never contradicted. But his contention hardly survives a cursory reading of the Epic of Gilgamesh. Interest in ourselves would seem rather to be a defining characteristic of the human mind.

The notion that "there have been only three great biographers -- Johnson, Boswell, and Lockhart" is similarly vulnerable, but it is part of the story Woolf is telling: biography begins late, and then is quickly shut down by Victorian reticence. It starts up again at the end of the nineteenth century, and once again becomes worth thinking about when Lytton Strachey picks up his pen.

It's a story that was itself picked up and told again and again, very often by biographers themselves, when they surveyed the history of their chosen genre. It never made much sense. For instance, it ignored the whole of the Romantic period -- Hazlitt, De Quincey, Haydon -- in its praise of the eighteenth century and its denigration of the nineteenth. And it is a little baffling that this story is put together by Woolf, who was elsewhere very interested in authors she chooses here to pass over.

If, though, we take up that phrase "interest in ourselves and in other people's selves" a great list of masterpieces stretches out into the past. Montaigne's essays, considered as a whole, must count as a sort of life-writing, since they amount to a portrait of a life. Chronology, after all, is not everything. As Montaigne put it, "Anything we do reveals us. The same soul of Caesar's which displayed herself in ordering and arranging the battle of Pharsalia is also displayed when arranging his idle and amorous affrays. You judge a horse not only by seeing its paces on the race-track but by seeing it walk -- indeed by seeing it in its stable."

And of Brutus Montaigne writes: "I would rather have a true account of his chat with his private friends in his tent on the eve of battle than the oration which he delivered the next morning to his army, and what he did in his work-room and bedroom than what he did in the Forum or Senate." One thinks at once of Shakespeare's Brutus. Shakespeare of course was thinking of Montaigne.

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Virginia Woolf's Essays, "The Art of Biography" and "The New Biography", are in Collected Essays, vol 4, Harcourt Brace 1967.

The two quotes from Montaigne come from respectively from the Essays, Book One, essay 50, "On Democritus and Heraclitus," and Book Two, essay 10, "On Books". Penguin translation by M.A.Screech.


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