|Virginia Woolf on Biography
copyright © 2005
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.