Drowning in a Sea of Salacious Biographies

By Hamilton, Adrian | The Independent (London, England), November 26, 2002 | Go to article overview
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Drowning in a Sea of Salacious Biographies

Hamilton, Adrian, The Independent (London, England)

Winston Churchill would have been delighted to have been elected as the BBC's "Greatest Briton". Born in Victorian times, formed by British Empire tales of derring-do, he believed absolutely in the 19th century view of "great men".

The person who would have been appalled would have been Lytton Strachey, who might well have hoped he'd destroyed the concept of great men of history for ever with his Eminent Victorians. In it he tore into the great figures of Victorianism, including Florence Nightingale and General Gordon, revealing all the hypocrisy, moral torpitude and deceit that was the reality behind the public face.

Yet here we are more than 80 years after the publication of that seminal work positively drowning in a sea of biographies, television bio-documentaries and contemporary lives. Queen Mary, London, has even announced a special centre devoted to teaching how to research a biography.

So nothing is going to stop the stream of works, good and bad, that have made this country the world centre of seeing history through personal lives. I even heard a German politician recently explain wistfully that public figures in his country had to spend so much time blowing their own trumpet "because we don't have your tradition of biographers to do it for us".

That could be regarded as something of a mixed blessing to anyone who has tried to wade through the piles of remaindered contemporary political biographies and ghosted sporting lives to try and find a copy of a straightforward history book with new ideas and illuminating analysis, such as Linda Colley's Captives.

Of course, it could be said - and is said by the perpetrators of the BBC's latest foray into the world of voted lists - that at least it gets younger people to know of figures such as Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Oliver Cromwell and Isaac Newton. Biography of people - and of matter (Oxygen and Einstein's Equation are just two of the latest examples) - has become the way of satisfying the new-found public interest in popular science.

Fine. But why do the British feel that this is the one true way of getting public interest in history or the arts? It's partly Strachey's fault. The reasons why he thought we should be wary of the admiration of great men and women - the frailty and hypocrisy of the personal lives that lay behind - are the very reasons why we love it.

There is nothing more exciting than knowing that Napoleon liked his mistresses to wait for him naked in the ante-room and then took only five minutes to enjoy them, that Dickens kept two households and that Lloyd George was reputed to have liked to make love on the Cabinet table.

Forget whether Napoleon was a monster or a master of Europe or both, or whether Lloyd George undermined the war effort or saved it in his quarrels with the generals. Old-fashioned scandal is the stuff that can sell a book, get real money for the newspaper extracts and then, if you're lucky, lead to a mini-TV series. For a nation so deeply distrustful of the abstract and the analytical, human lives and relationships are the concrete road to understanding. In history and literature, just as in public life and the media, the personal is the political.

This personalisation, or feminisation, of history leads down some strange paths. At its best it has rescued from obscurity some independent and important figures such as Rosalind Franklin and Rosamund Lehmann (to name the subjects of a couple of new biographies), brought attention to the contribution of wives of great men (Mrs Elliot and Mrs Darwin ) and, most ambitiously, attempted to evaluate partnerships in the joint lives of such couples as Sir Richard Burton and his wife, the Lutyenses and the Carlyles.

At its worst, it has led to a curious return to 19th-century moral judgement.

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