Lord Cupid proves himself

David Cannadine

  • Palmerston: The Early Years, 1784-1841 by Kenneth Bourne
    Allen Lane, 749 pp, £25.00, August 1982, ISBN 0 7139 1083 6

The history of the world is no longer the biographies of great men. The Victorians, who needed heroes as an addict needs heroin, enshrined their worthies in multitomed tombs. Letters were reproduced verbatim, speeches were quoted at inordinate length, and eulogies were printed in extenso. If the public career was successful, the moral was ponderously pointed; if the private life was suspect, the veil was dutifully drawn. Superstars like Disraeli, Albert and Gladstone were celebrated in six, five and three volumes apiece, and most Cabinet Ministers could usually count on at least two – especially if, like Lord Randolph Churchill, their reputation was safer in their son’s hands than in their own. Although Lytton Strachey assailed such pious pomposity by showing that the slenderest of books could sometimes be the weightiest, and that eminence was not necessarily next to Godliness, these pantheons in print were still being constructed on a lavish scale until the Second World War: four volumes (and still unfinished) for Salisbury, three for Joseph Chamberlain (likewise incomplete) and for Curzon, and a double-decker apiece for Asquith, Balfour, Campbell-Bannerman and Rosebery.

The second half of our century has seen a dramatic decline in the construction of these many-volumed vaults. In the United States, where resources are greater, sentiments stronger, and Presidents ipso facto great men, the commemoration business has become even more luxuriant, as the metaphorical shrines have become actual, three-dimensional temples, housing the sacred relics of Presidential papers: the one for Kennedy in Boston stops short just this side of idolatry; Johnson’s in Texas goes well beyond it. But in England, the old genre has withered. Of recent Cabinet Ministers, only Ernest Bevin (two vols down, one to go) and Nye Bevan (canonised by Michael Foot) have received extended treatment, while the massive life of Churchill is unique in its Victorian dimensions. Today, the best way for a politician to guarantee this much-coveted form of life after death is to write it himself. And if he entertains pretensions to prolixity, it helps, as Harold Macmillan was the first to admit, if you own a publishing house as well.

This diminished celebration of the recently-departed has been paralleled by a scholarly reaction against biographies of the more distantly-deceased. The Victorians’ confident vigour meant that they were fascinated by the impact of men on circumstances; in our less expansive age, we are more preoccupied with the impact of circumstances on men. Unlike the old, the ‘new’ history – economic, social, urban and demographic – explores people as categories, groups, statistics, abstractions, rather than as flesh-and-blood beings. ‘Mere’ biography is dismissed as attributing an unmerited significance to the trivial doings of trivial individuals. At best, it is a poor way of writing history – person rather than problem-oriented, when no individual, however influential, has so dominated an age that it is sensible to write its history round him. Trends and tendencies, patterns and processes, crises and conjunctures, are what matter, not the vain protests of men, standing Canute-like in their impotent incomprehension, against the prevailing tides of history. We are all Marxists now.

Above all, there is the real danger for the professional historian that if he writes an outstanding biography, it may, even now, become a best-seller. For biography still flourishes – albeit on a reduced scale and with diminished intellectual self-confidence – both within and without the walls of academe. In one guise, it has been reincarnated as prosopography, which stresses backgrounds rather than opinions, collective behaviour in preference to individual diversity, in the (usually vain) hope of discovering some historical laws of circumstantial determinism. In another, it has been resurrected as psychohistory, which seeks greater intellectual respectability by becoming evidentially more sensational, probing the intimate details of men’s inner lives as lived in their bedrooms and bathrooms (thereby shifting the mainspring of historical causation from Cleopatra’s nose to Luther’s lav). A third response has been to restate the view that men sometimes make events as much as events make men; that history does, after all, occasionally need a helping hand; and that even Marx was a person, not a process. We are all persons now.

The alternative is to argue that good biography may be bad history, but that it takes more than a good historian to write great biography. Like the historian, the biographer must be familiar with the historical stage upon which his hero acts: if biography does encompass the universal in the particular, it is important to know about the universe before studying the particle. But in addition to knowledge of the period, careful study of the sources, thorough acquaintance with the secondary literature, the posing of pertinent questions and the exercising of controlled imagination in answering them, the biographer must also display empathy, sensitivity, sensibility, intuition, and, above all, be prepared to mortgage a large part of his intellectual and emotional life to understanding one particular, defunct figure. Cohabitation with the dead is not easy: Martin Gilbert has been living with Churchill for two decades; Dumas Malone has been communing with Jefferson for even longer. The demands of such single-minded scholarly devotion should not be underestimated. Bad biographies may be easy to write: good ones are much more difficult.

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