Janet Malcolm as Censor

Also read Nigel Hamilton’s article “When writing biography, should any part of a life be off-limits?” and comments in The Conversation 

By Nigel Hamilton


Janet Malcolm at it again?NigelHamilton

Oh, dear! Not content with publicly defending Ted Hughes’s right to censor all writing about Sylvia Plath – who committed suicide when Hughes left her for his mistress Assia Wevill – Ms. Malcolm has once more gone into the breach of print, this time to defend Hughes’s second wife, Carol, who now controls the Plath literary estate. And in the venerable New York Review of Books, in its forthcoming February edition, no less!

It is not a pretty picture, at least for those of us who care about biography and literary studies.

Ms. Malcolm’s new article is titled “A Very Sadistic Man.”[1] It purports to be a book review – namely of Professor Jonathan Bate’s new life of Hughes, Ted Hughes: The Unauthorized Biography.[2] Carol Hughes withdrew copyright permission to quote more than minimal “fair use” of words written by Hughes and Plath during their lives, once she suspected it was going to reveal Hughes’s extraordinary sexual appetite and exploits.)

Ms. Malcolm feels for the Second Mrs. Hughes (the first was Sylvia Plath), just as she felt for Ted Hughes when, as an essayist-journalist, she was writing the series of New Yorker articles that became Ms. Malcolm’s book The Silent Woman: Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, in 1993.

That book was hailed by the critic James Wood (now also a New Yorker writer) as “one of the deepest, loveliest and most problematic of the things Janet Malcolm has ever written.” It was “so subtle, so patiently analytical and so true” in its dissection of the problem of writing about Sylvia Plath, “that it is difficult to envisage anyone writing again about Plath and Hughes. She is the cat who has licked the plate clean.”[3]

To biographers and those who actually knew Ted Hughes this was not only silly, but infuriating, for it was clear Ms. Malcolm had simply been suckered by Hughes – whom Ms. Malcolm had never actually been able to meet in person, or even correspond with. Instead, Hughes had fobbed her off with his sister, Olwyn Hughes: a sort of monster, successfully guarding the Plath-Hughes Literary Estate or castle for decades.

Ms. Malcolm’s problem, like all who had tried to write about Sylvia Plath, was this: that when Sylvia Plath successfully committed suicide on February 11, 1963, it was found she had left no will. Possession of her manuscripts and copyright in everything she had ever written had thus passed to her widower, Ted Hughes – who, separated from Sylvia, was sleeping not with his main mistress Assia Wevill that night, but with another girlfriend, Sue Alliston, when his wife gassed herself. In fact he had taken the telephone off the hook in the small apartment on Cleveland Street in London where he was living, and only found out about the suicide the next day.

Details of this calamity had largely been covered up – and Hughes had no intention of telling Ms. Malcolm the truth, any more than he had told earlier writers.

Balked by Hughes, Janet Malcolm lost interest in Hughes himself, so contented herself with the trying experiences of those attempting to write about Sylvia Plath. The stories they told Ms. Malcolm of the legal difficulties placed in their path by Olwyn Hughes made for harrowing – but fascinating – reading among those of us interested in the pursuit of biography. However, Ms. Malcolm was, in the end, unsympathetic to our collective curiosity. In the memorable first chapter of The Silent Woman she gave her view that biographers had become altogether too intrusive – as, to be sure, had readers of biography. “Voyeurism and busybodyism” was all it amounted to. “The transgressive nature of biography is rarely acknowledged,” she claimed, “but it is the only explanation of biography’s status as a popular genre.”[4]


Clearly Ms. Malcolm had never read Dr. Johnson’s writings on biography, or much serious modern biography. She certainly declined to quote any examples. Instead she contented herself with the notion of modern biography as a form of burglary, in which the biographer breaks into the private quarters of his or her victim to search for, and carry away, “the loot.” Ted Hughes was to be seen, she felt, as the poor victim, both of his wife’s death and the chorus of biographical thieves invading his privacy and feminists furious at his control of Sylvia Plath’s literary works. He should be left alone to grieve for Sylvia. Moreover, he was perfectly within his rights to do so: by using (or misusing) the law of copyright, and that of libel, to protect himself – and to have control of anything anyone wished to publish about Plath or himself.

Ms. Malcolm’s support of such censorship was rocked five years later, in 1998, when Hughes stunned the literary world by publishing Birthday Letters. This was a sort of biography or memoir in verse: recording his marriage to Sylvia, and written secretly over the many years since her suicide. It was clear he had employed Olwyn for so many years so that, thanks to her censorship, only he, Ted Hughes, would legally be allowed to paint Sylvia Plath’s portrait, or his relationship with her.

This had all worked to Hughes’s enormous financial advantage – indeed it had proved a brilliant stratagem. Janet Malcolm, like others, had been bamboozled into rising to defend him, outside his castle gates, without ever having to meet him or know the real story of his life – especially the somewhat murky story of his relationship with Assia Wevill.

Death comes to us all, however – and with Hughes’s death in 1998, shortly after publication of Birthday Letters, the plate that had been licked so clean by Ms. Malcolm was bound eventually to be sullied by revelations. In 2006 it was, in a new book about Ms. Wevill[5] – who had eventually committed suicide in the same manner as Sylvia, gassing herself in 1969. (Unfortunately Assia had not only killed herself, but had murdered her and Hughes’s daughter, Shura, when Hughes declined to marry her.)

Ms. Malcolm kept silent at that point. But now, ten years after the Assia Wevill revelations, Jonathan Bate’s new biography of Hughes has roused Ms. Malcolm to go back into print – this time to defend another of Hughes’s mistresses, Carol Orchard, a nurse who supplanted Assia Wevill after her death and became the second Mrs. Hughes.

Ms. Malcolm hates Bate’s book. It is intolerable, in her view, that the private life of Ted Hughes should be exposed to public view, even seventeen years after Hughes’s death from colon cancer. She castigates the “blabbings” of Hughes’ contemporaries that are quoted by Bate, indeed she laments that “the dead cannot sue,” since the post mortem revelations of biographers “can be excruciating for spouses and offspring” who have to “read what they know to be untrue.”

Here Ms. Malcolm goes too far. As in journalism and fiction, biography abounds in “kiss-and-tell” works, and one can have great sympathy for survivors. But most serious biographers like Professor Bate are seeking, as Dr. Johnson explained when extolling the challenge of modern biography, to understand a significant (even sometimes insignificant) individual – an individual, moreover, in all his or her guises, quirks and characteristics. “If a man is to write A Panegyrick he may keep vices out of sight, but if he professes to write A Life he must represent it really as it was,” Johnson told Boswell.

Bate – a Shakespeare scholar – has written a 662-page book; he is not out to inflict embarrassment. Au contraire, he is actually interested in the truth, if he is allowed to access it.

It quickly became clear to Professor Bate, however, that despite Carol Hughes’s initial enthusiasm for his project, he was not going to be allowed to write the truth – and that everything he showed her would be subject to her censorship, with the Damocletian sword of copyright permission being held over him. In the end he and his publisher’s lawyers decided they must publish the biography as unauthorized – sacrificing Carol’s permission to quote from Plath’s and Hughes’s writings, but preserving at least a serious biographer’s independent judgment.

Bate’s book is of door-stopping size and length, but the Second Mrs. Hughes read only sixteen pages before declaring, through her lawyer, it was enough. She objected to it as “offensive” – what the French would call insupportable – issuing a public statement through her lawyers.[6]

Given some of Bate’s revelations – particularly the ménage à trois Ted Hughes conducted until finally deciding to marry Carol Orchard – it is understandable Carol does not wish to read more. Nor need she, if she does not wish to. But Ms. Malcolm?

Sad to say, Janet Malcolm has declined to recognize she was bamboozled by Ted Hughes and his sister Olwyn, or that her Silent Woman was pretty much a free pass to Hughes – who had destroyed Plath’s last diary, “lost” her unpublished novel, and lived a private life of extraordinary sexual drama.

Ignoring this, Ms. Malcolm has chosen to reprise her 1993 stance, and has decided to support the widow in her hatred not only of biography, but all biography that tackles the private as well as the public life of an individual, Dr. Johnson be damned. “If anything is our own business it is our pathetic native self,” Ms. Malcolm intends to claim in the New York Review of Books. “Biographers in their pride think otherwise. Readers, in their curiosity, encourage them in their impertinence.”


Impertinence is a word seldom used in our confessional age. Ms. Malcolm (who has never written a book with footnotes, let alone an index) nevertheless cannot bear Professor Bate’s “squalid findings about Hughes’s sex life,”[7] which include accusations of rape, sexual sadism and a lifelong pursuit of adultery, whatever the costs. For her, Hughes’s life was “ruined not just once, but twice”[8] by his partners’ unfortunate suicides, for which he bore no responsibility, and he should be left to rest in peace.

Bate’s biography, in short, is a frightful example of what Ms. Malcolm still thinks of as biographical burglary. In her article she accuses Bate of “blowing up” Ted Hughes “into a kind of sex-maniac” – in fact she happily quotes (and mocks) in her piece some of the many women’s accounts of Hughes’s “vampirish, warlock” approach to adultery: accounts Ms. Malcolm finds a mark of Bate’s “cluelessness about what you can and cannot do if you want to be regarded as an honest and serious writer.”[9]

In another post I would like to comment on Bate’s actual biography. The book disappointed me above all because Professor Bate was not permitted to quote legally from the many thousands of Plath and Hughes documents he needed for a serious biography without permission from the second Mrs. Hughes – permission which Mrs. Hughes withdrew.

Moreover, having met Hughes myself, I felt Bate did not adequately – i.e. with sufficient biographical skill – address Hughes’s real problem, or tragedy: his raw sex appeal, which he seemed unable or unwilling to control, and which got him into so much trouble with women.

I remember asking an Irish poet, who knew Hughes well and had spent time with him in Italy, about Hughes’s misfortune to have two successive partners who committed suicide. “Well, Nigel, it’s loik this,” he replied. “Ted is loik a lighthouse – drawing the ladies onto the rocks. He means to warn them away, but they come nevertheless.”

When I later met Hughes in person, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London after a poetry reading with Seamus Heaney, I saw what he meant.

A woman friend introduced me, and Hughes, who’d had his back to me at the bar, turned to shake hands. He wore a dark corduroy jacket; he was much taller than me; his shoulders seemed amazingly wide. And that face! Long, chiseled out of stone, the nose resembling that of a raptor, the eyes staring from their deep shells. He exuded sexual energy. In a Heathcliff way he was the most aggressively masculine figure I had ever met in my life, leaving me temporarily speechless – and he remains that still, decades later.

For Ms. Malcolm the relatively few mentions of Hughes’s sexual fierceness in a 662-page biography are, however, too much – whereas for me, as a biographer, they are not enough to move me in explaining Ted’s tragedy: a second-rate poet, married for a time to a great poet; a man who became a great literary figure in Britain, rising from a working-class background to become the English poet laureate; the hunting and fishing friend of princes; and the owner of minor castles across the land. Yet leading, as he pursued this trajectory, a double-life he was never able to address in his work, as Sylvia had begun to address the demons, by contrast, in hers.

Fierce serial sexual conquest, I suspect, made up for the ultimate creative constipation which Hughes himself lamented – and I would like to have read in Bate’s biography more of that dilemma, given the vast, treasure-trove of Hughes’s papers in British and American archives, which can be seen but not quoted without Carol Hughes’ permission. And surviving lovers, who can still be interviewed.

As for Ms. Malcolm, I would love her to get off her high horse and read the recently-published letters of Iris Murdoch – who was a great novelist, and a considerable philosopher.

As the literary critic John Sutherland noted in the New York Times Book Review last week, the edited volume throws light on many corners of Murdoch’s career, but the “central focus is on Murdoch’s sexual career” – an aspect that allows her to come vividly to life, and was fully backed/authorized by her last husband, John Bayley, who died only two weeks ago.

Murdoch had “an unusually wide carnal experience,” from Nobel prizewinners to chauffeurs, Professor Sutherland writes. “Was it nymphomania?” he asks. “This volume’s selection of letters tacitly suggests that Murdoch’s sexual activity can be seen as part of her quest to live as a ‘whole person.’ The different aspects of her life did not always coincide. There was an ‘austere puritan’ Murdoch, who sternly set her face against promiscuity, and there was another Murdoch, her Mr. Hyde, who could proclaim ‘I am a sadomasochistic male homosexual.’ Which was the real Iris?” Sutherland asks.[10]

We might ask the same of Hughes. Ms. Malcolm doesn’t, sadly. And that is a shame – for biography, together with fiction, allows us to explore the multitudinous facets of human life, and try to make sense of them – as the Great Doctor so emphatically urged us. Not to judge, but to know.

Nigel Hamilton

(Also read Nigel Hamilton’s article “When writing biography, should any part of a life be off-limits?” and comments in The Conversation )

[1] Janet Malcolm, “’A Very Sadistic Man,’” New York Review of Books, February 11, 2016

[2] Jonathan Bate, Ted Hughes: The Unauthorized Life (Harper, 2105)

[3] James Wood, “Interview: A Woman of Letters,” Guardian Weekend, 15 October, 1994.

[4] Janet Malcolm, The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, (Knopf, 1993), 9.

[5] Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev, Lover of Unreason: The Life and Tragic Death of Assia Wevill (Pavilion Books, 2006)

[6] Kevin Rawlinson, “Ted Hughes’ widow criticizes ‘offensive’ biography,” Guardian, 14 October, 2015

[7] Malcolm, “’A Very Sadistic Man,’” loc. cit.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] John Sutherland, “Her Kind Regards: Iris Murdoch set aside most afternoons for her letters, sending thousands through the years to friends, lovers, fans,” New York Times Book Review, January 24, 2016.

Biography Society workshop at the SAES Conference in Lyon – June 2016

 Last updated on 24/05/2016

The Biography Society will be taking part in the SAES conference (Société des Anglicistes de l’Enseignement Supérieur ), 2-4 June 2016 at Lyon III University .

Here are the CALL FOR PAPERS and PROGRAMME for our workshop:

Biography Studies: An Interdisciplinary Confluence

Since the end of the last century, a “biographical turn” has occurred in the Humanities, which, after several decades that have been dominated by the “death of the subject”, place the human individual once again at the heart of debates. The development of researches on autobiography and autofiction in literary studies, the methodology of life writing in the social sciences, have characterized the first phase of this movement. Today, Biography Studies appear as a dynamic emerging field, under way of theorization. Researchers in many countries and various disciplines turn to studying the hitherto underestimated genre of biography. Contemporary literature and cinema display a remarkable interest for biofiction and the biopic. In history, biography asserts itself as an innovating mode of historiography. Researchers of several disciplines are pulling together around the recently founded Biography Society (www.biographysociety.org), to animate this new research field and to contribute to its theorization.

Anglistics, as a multifarious discipline, is a vantage ground for Biography Studies, not only because of the importance of biography as a genre in English literature, from Izaak Walton and John Aubrey, to Samuel Johnson and James Boswell, to Thomas Carlyle, to Virginia Woolf, Giles Lytton Strachey and the authors of the New Biography, to the Oxford DNB, and the flourishing biographical productions in anglophone countries today; but also because Biography Studies constitute an interdisciplinary zone of confluence, properly speaking, at the crossroads of “civilisation“, literary and cinema studies, history and visual arts. Many French anglicistes are biographers in their own rights, others have developed the study of literary biography around Frédéric Regard, and new projects to study the biopic are in the offing.

This first workshop of The Biography Society is intended as a rallying call to English Studies scholars interested in Biographical Studies in one way or another: it welcomes contributions from researchers of various waters, confirmed academics or doctoral students. Papers can address the practice of biographical writing, offer theoretical reflections on biography, the biopic, biofiction, or biographical dictionaries, explore new biographical approaches to literature, or else propose analyses of remarkable biographers and biographical works in historiography, literature, cinema, or other media. Abstracts for papers focussing on the theme “confluences”, of no more than 300 words, should be addressed before 25 January 2016 to info@biographysociety.org

Conveners: Joanny Moulin (PR) joanny.moulin@univ-amu.fr and Maryam Thirriard (PRCE, PhD student) maryam.thirriard@laposte.net.


2  June – 3.30 – 6.30 Workshop I

3.30-4.00 – Antoine Capet ”Churchill et ses biographes”

4.00-4.30 – Olivier Frayssé (Paris 4) “Biographie et généalogie: les grands ancêtres: le cas d’Abraham Lincoln”

4.30-5.00 – Karyn Wilson Costa (Aix-Marseille): “Auguste Angellier’s Life of Robert Burns: an Indulgent Biography”

5.00-5.30 – Louis Roux (Saint-Étienne): “Ruth Scrurr: John Aubrey: My Own Life”

5.30-6.00 – Alice Braun (Paris Ouest Nanterre): “When Janet Frame’s biography and autobiography collide”

6.00 – 6.30 – Questions

3 June – 9.00 – 10.30 Workshop II

9.00-9.30 – Taïna Tuhkunen (Angers) : “A real life on a reel: Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s biographical picture of Allen Ginsberg (Howl, 2010)”

9.30-10.00 – Delphine Letort (Le Mans) “Adapting and Reenacting the Past in the Political Biopic Selma

10.00-10.30 – Questions

4 June – 9.00 – 10.30 Workshop III

9.00-9.30 – Patricia Godi Tkatchouk (Clermont-Ferrand 2) : “Art and life, or aspects of the original integration of biography in feminist literary criticism to read women poets”

9.30-10.00 – Patrick Di Mascio (Aix-Marseille): “Americanizing Freud: John Huston’s Secret Passion”

10.00 – 10.30 – Questions

4 June – 11.00 – 12.30 Workshop IV

11.00-11.30 – Maryam Thirriard (Aix-Marseille): “Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey, Harold Nicolson, André Maurois and the ‘New Biography’: Zones of Confluence”

11.30-12.00 – Alex Tremblay (Aix-Marseille); “Lytton Strachey and Biography: The Oddity of True Interpretation”

12.00 – 12.30 – Questions

On Composition in Biography

By Nigel Hamilton

Who knows what goes into the composition – the structuring, the narrative style, the authorial agenda – of a major biography?

Do you? Does anyone, other than the author?

Given that we’ve been composing biographies for more than 2000 years, is that not a reason to be a surprised, even ashamed at our ignorance? We know about string theory, we know how Hemingway composed his novels; but about how Edmund Morris composed his multivolume biography of Theodore Roosevelt – or even his experimental biography of Ronald Reagan – we know next to nothing. Ditto Robert Caro’s Lyndon Baines Johnson, or Ron Chernow’s Hamilton, or John Lahr’s Tennessee Williams? And yet these works profoundly influence the way we see those individuals, in retrospect, and will do so for perhaps a generation!

This unfortunate situation has a number of causes, ranging from longstanding academic indifference to the inherent “problem” of biography as it is “received” in our society: namely that readers are understandably more interested in the “product” of biography – the individual portrayed – than in the creative process by which the portrait was arrived at. Subject trumps composition, tout court.

Now there is nothing wrong with this, per se. As readers we want to know about the life being recorded, and the author’s evaluation of that life. Moreover we want to be convinced the biographer has done his or her homework; we also want judgments that proceed from the research, rather than mere assertion or prejudice. But about the composition of the work? No.

No. Whether in book reviews, essays, or interviews with the author, or even occasional academic discussion: no. Biographical composition is a foreign land. One that is still not mapped, is largely undiscovered, and generally ignored in our culture. We spend more time speculating about a dish from a menu then we ever do reflecting on the way a major work of biography, affecting a major figure in past or present culture, was composed, behind the finally-printed text.

This is a pity, for the way in which a biographer puts together the jigsaw of a human life, often over many years of gestation and alteration, is potentially very interesting – at least, if you are interested in creative composition, as I am.

I don’t just mean the genesis, as in how the author came to write a serious biography (though that, too, can be interesting). I mean how the biographer constructed the work, as an architect goes through the iterative processes of a major work of architecture. The story.

For in the end, as has often been observed, biography is telling the story of an individual –– a real individual. The biographer uses many of the same tropes, techniques, narrative designs and other strategies as fictional storytelling. Why, then, do we analyze and discuss such tropes almost ad nauseam with regard to fiction (and memoir in “creative non-fiction” classes), but almost never in relation to biography – despite biographies having a far more serious impact on our culture: the way we see, judge, and relate to real lives.

How is it possible that the composition of major works of biography – of masterworks – simply go unexamined in our society, either as the history of a text, or in terms of new research pursued: namely in interviews conducted with the author, and/or in thoughtful dissection of a major biographer’s papers? Where are those papers? Why did it take almost 150 years to start tracing them and the actual composition of Boswell’s Dr. Johnson?

Hopefully the Société de Biographie will spur interest and research into this dark corner of real life depiction – especially with regard to the evolution of a major biographical text.

Let me give an example – albeit from fiction composition.

At the recent Morgan Library exhibition of the manuscripts and correspondence of Ernest Hemingway[1] it was possible recently to see mounted on the walls the various stages of composition and re-composition of some of Hemingway’s seminal texts: an exhibition that provided fresh and often moving – occasionally hilarious – insight into the textual changes Hemingway made, from first draft to final draft. His letters to and from his expatriate colleagues in Paris made fascinating viewing, featuring Gertrude Stein, Sylvia Beach and Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald’s nine-page letter critiquing the draft of A Farewell to Arms is there – a letter that effectively ended their friendship, when Hemingway scribbled, at the bottom of the letter, “Kiss my ass/E.H.”

Here, surely, is a New Territory, still unsurveyed and open to scholarly biographical investigation. How much did the biographer change his or her account during the composition of a major work: its style, its structure, its interpretation, its agenda?

It will be fascinating to see, once we set to work.

Au travail, mes confrères!

 Nigel Hamilton

[1] “Ernest Hemingway: Between Two Wars,” Morgan Library, New York, September 25, 2015 – January 15, 2016

History & Biography in France

by Antoine Capet (Université de Rouen)

March 2013


The relationship or relationships between History and Biography in France are extremely complex. Each has its own ‘history’ as a discipline, gradually emerging from Belles Lettres and slowly and painfully finding its independence from them. And whereas History has established its autonomy and legitimacy as an intellectual pursuit, Biography continues to live in an unspecified ‘No Man’s Land’ at the confines of literary fiction, gossip, journalism and academic History.

It is not easy to identify the first work of Biography published in France. Many people would agree that the first to have been preoccupied with historical truth was Histoire de Charles XII (of Sweden) by Voltaire (1731). Le Siècle de Louis XIV (1752), though not a Biography proper, has so many biographical vignettes, with of course long disquisitions on the Sun King, that it may be included in the early manifestations of the genre without extending the definition too much. Interestingly, Voltaire himself benefited from a Biography written by another famous Enlightenment philosopher, the marquis de Condorcet, in 1789.

The great post-1815 successor was Jules Michelet (1798-1874). The French title of his great work of 1835, which went into many subsequent editions and translations, does not seem to indicate that it is a biography of Luther – only the subtitle suggests a text of a biographical nature: Mémoires de Luther écrits par lui-même. Traduits et mis en ordre par J. Michelet. Précédés d’un essai sur l’histoire de la religion et suivis des biographies de Wicleff, Jean Huss, Érasme, Mélanchton, Hutten et autres prédécesseurs et contemporains de Luther. The main point of interest for us, however, is that the English translation has no hesitation upon the nature of the book: The Life of Luther. Written by himself; collected and arranged by M. Michelet, translated by William Hazlitt (1846).

Setting the trend for a series of innumerable biographies – ‘serious’ or ‘popular’ – of her, Michelet offered a Jeanne d’Arc (1412-1432) in the recent ‘library’ launched by the great publisher Louis Hachette for railway travellers, the Bibliothèque des chemins de fer. This was published in 1853, and curiously, considering the popularity of the Maid of Orleans in Britain, no English translation appeared until 1957 – and this by the University of Michigan Press.

In the 19th century, the other great name in the field is undoubtedly Hippolyte Taine (1828-1893), best known in France for his Les origines de la France contemporaine (5 vol. 1875-1893) and in Britain for his History of English Literature (1864) and his Notes sur l’Angleterre (1870) / Notes on England (1872). He wrote however four major works of a biographical nature: La Fontaine et ses fables (first published 1853 as Essai sur les fables de la Fontaine), Essai sur Tite Live (1856),  Le positivisme anglais : Étude sur Stuart Mill(1864) / English Positivism : A Study on John Stuart Mill (1870) and L’ idéalisme anglais : Étude sur Carlyle (1864), apparently never translated. It seems ironical that his study of the man who did a lot to propagate the notion of individual heroes in history was not translated, and therefore not published, in Carlyle’s own country.

Taine’s close contemporary was Ernest Renan (1823-1892), an advocate of ‘scientific atheism’ (as he called it) whose Vie de Jésus (1863)[1] / The Life of Jesus (1863) could not go unnoticed at a time when L’histoire sainte, as the phrase went, was felt to be out of bounds for lay historians. Renan had just contributed the ‘Calvin’ entry in J.R. Beard’s The Progress of Religious Thought (1861). In his youth he had written on a little-known Arab philosopher of the 12th century: Averroès et l’Averroïsme : Essai historique (1852) and it is only posthumously, far later, in 1926, that his essays, Sur Corneille, Racine et Bossuet, were published. By then, of course, the biographies of ‘great men’, ‘great thinkers’ or ‘great authors’ were being accepted in the canon of serious writing.

In fact, it seems that all these early ‘serious’ biographies had a militant dimension – the ‘agenda’ behind them, as we would now say, being that by describing the lives of these great men you disseminated their important thought, which was long forgotten or had been distorted by their opponents. ‘Setting the record straight’, to use another modern phrase, was of course intended to do justice to the people themselves – but perhaps above all to their ideas.

‘Militant’ Biography took a new turn with Ernest Lavisse (1842-1922), one of the great late 19th-c. French historians who believed that they should orientate their teaching towards preparing their disciples for ‘la revanche’. He also produced biographies of high historical quality, but curiously on the imperial elites of new ‘hereditary enemy’: Trois empereurs d’Allemagne : Guillaume Ier, Fréderic III, Guillaume II (1888) and their ancestor, Frederick II (Frederick the Great), King of Prussia (1740-1786): La Jeunesse du Grand Frédéric(1891) and Le Grand Frédéric avant l’avènement (1893). He also published a monumental multi-volume Histoire de France depuis les origines jusqu’à la Révolution (1900-1911), and interestingly, with the current revival of interest in the serious discussion of great historical figures, the well-known old-established French publishing house, Librairie Jules Tallandier, which specialises in history books for the educated public outside the academic profession, felt in 1978 that there would be a market for Louis XIV, extracted from Lavisse’s copious tomes, as part of its Monumenta historiae series.

A curiosity in the field of 19th-c. Biography is the Histoire de Jules César (2 vol., 1865-1866) whose title-page bears ‘par Napoléon III’ – but it seems that it was largely ghost-written by a specialist of ancient history, a great figure of the academic world of the time, Victor Duruy (1811-1894), who had himself written a semi-biographical monograph on Tiberius, De Tiberio imperatore : État du monde romain, vers le temps de la fondation de l’empire (1853). Now, Duruy, together with Taine and Renan, encouraged another prominent historian, Gabriel Monod (1844-1912), who was a close friend of Lavisse’s, to found the Revue historique in 1876. As its current Editors, Claude Gauvard and Jean-François Sirinelli, put it in their editorial commemorating the centenary of his death,

Today’s historians approach Gabriel Monod and his influence with the weapons which he recommended: a search for the sources, a proving of evidence, conclusions impregnated with a truth which the scholar knows to be relative and accepts it to be so. This quest leads to a reconstruction of reality which is not as dry in the bone as is commonly heard and written, and does not either encourage a deconstruction of History paralysing its presentation as a narrative[2].

This reference to the ‘narrative’ (or ‘récit’ in the French original) is of the highest importance, not only for History, but also for Biography. In Italian, there is only one word,storia, for ‘story’ (narrative) and ‘history’ (the succession of events and the discipline). Gauvard and Sirinelli suggest that the scholar must not write only ‘a good story’, with little respect for the facts. But at the same time History texts must be a good read, ‘a good story’. Of course Biography must also reconcile the two exigencies.

Arguably, in France, Biography as a form of History suffered a long eclipse after the great learned precursors of the 19th c. The next generation, with great names like Charles Seignobos (1854-1942) or Charles-Victor Langlois (1863-1929) were increasingly to distance themselves from the genre. With the foundation in 1929 of the journal, Annales d’histoire économique et sociale, and the ‘school’ that soon gravitated around it, by Lucien Febvre (1878-1956) et Marc Bloch (1886-1944), the distance became a veritable rejection. It was clear that if History was governed by longue durée phenomena, no transient human life could durably make a mark upon it. Paradoxically, Febvre’s doctoral thesis of 1911 was entitled ‘Philippe II et la Franche-Comté’[3] – but then the subtitle left no doubt that is was not one more study of the great King of Spain: ‘La crise de 1567, ses origines et ses conséquences : Étude d’histoire politique, religieuse et sociale’. The last word said it all: it was acceptable to speak of individual ‘heroes’ à la Carlyle – but only within a framework which made room for ‘histoire sociale’. Speaking derogatively of the ‘école positiviste’ or ‘école méthodique’ to describe the approach advocated by Gabriel Monod, his Revue historique and its followers, Febvre wanted to give precedence to explanation over description.

But then the temptation to ‘best’ his ancestor Michelet – who is often considered as having introduced methodical history-writing based on primary sources in France – must have been too strong, and he offered another biography of Luther (naturally somewhat of a bugbear for the French Roman Catholic Right which dominated most official institutions in the inter-war years): Un destin : Martin Luther (1928)[4]. ‘Militant’ Biography had not disappeared among academic historians with ‘scientific’ ambitions…

In a remarkable article on the evolution of the genre since then[5], Guillaume Piketty of Sciences Po makes the point that it suffered an eclipse between 1930 and the mid-1970s. He quotes the damning judgement of Pierre Goubert (1915-2012), one of the staunchest keepers of the Annales flame, in the opening remarks of his celebrated Louis XIV et vingt millions de Français[6] – which of course he did not want to be mistaken for another biography of the Sun King – referring to Biography as a ‘trade’, linked to ‘anecdotal history’, which made the prosperity of ‘some publishers and television companies’[7]. In this indictment, the coup de grâce is not so much of course the assimilation of Biography to the quest for the ‘quick buck’ as the allusion to the general moronisation of society which great French intellectuals like him saw lurking behind the popularity of television among the amorphous masses of uneducated people.

Yet, evidently, Biographies of great men were published at the time – and not all of them written by despicable people. Pierre Goubert might have been thinking of Jean Tulard (b. 1933), the specialist of Napoleon, who was a ‘historical advisor’ for French television at the time. Tulard has impeccable academic credentials, with a Chair at the Sorbonne – but one may fairly accuse him of running a Bonaparte industry, starting in 1964 with L’Anti-Napoléon : La légende noire de l’Empereur,  with a sideline on Talleyrand and Fouché.

Another remarkable case is that of the belle-lettrist Max Gallo (b. 1932), a former Lecturer in History at the University of Nice, a former Junior Minister under Mitterrand and a popular ‘television personality’. His output is also considerable, often with several books, including novels, or rather ‘factional’ sagas, published every year – but on widely different topics, although most have to do with 20th c. History. The list of his Biography work is impressive. To quote only a selection in recent years: Napoleon in 4 volumes (1997); de Gaulle, also in 4 volumes (1998); Rosa Luxemburg (2000); Victor Hugo in 2 volumes (2001); Roman Emperors in 6 volumes (2003-2006); Louis XIV in 2 volumes (2007) and Voltaire (2008). All his most recent biographies are published by Librairie Arthème Fayard, another long-established publishing house specialising in heavy tomes of History, including Biography. Now, Fayard was the publisher of Goubert’s Louis XIV et vingt millions de Français at one extreme[8] and Gallo’s ‘popular’ biographies at the other – so it is very difficult to draw conclusions from the publishing house as to the market aimed at, ‘popular’, or ‘academic’. Ideally, of course, biographers – and historians – aim at both. For the ‘Gallo phenomenon’, the analogy in Britain would be Sir Martin Gilbert and his prodigious output on Churchill in various forms. There might of course be an element of jealousy among less commercially-successful colleagues.

What academic historians like Pierre Goubert particularly resent, however, is the intrusion of ‘outsiders’ – not necessarily low-class pulp writers who specialise in what the French call ‘la petite histoire’, or ‘les dessous de l’histoire[9]’, often with spurious ‘State secrets’ and ‘secret love affairs’: in other words with objectives of titillation rather than edification of the reading public. The unwelcome competition in Biography can also come from academics who are not historians: people who do not have the right credentials[10] and therefore are prima facie suspect of not knowing, let alone respecting, ‘la méthode historique’.

Here, the most remarkable case is that of de Gaulle. There is a minor cottage industry in books of reminiscences on the leader of the Free French and later President of the Republic by those who served under him, many of an anecdotal nature, as Goubert would have put it, and many others with a hagiographic aspect by the Gaullist keepers of the Resistance and Fifth Republic flame, the general theme being ‘de Gaulle as I knew him’. Among these hundreds of ‘biographies’, it can be argued that only three emerge from the mass, two from distinguished political journalists, and the third from the ubiquitous Max Gallo, as we saw.

Chronologically, the first of the three to appear was Jean Lacouture’s De Gaulle. His first offering came in a single volume in 1969 for Éditions du Seuil[11], a middlebrow publisher. But there appeared a greatly expanded edition in three volumes fifteen years later: (1) Le rebelle : 1890-1944; (2) Le politique : 1944-1959; (3) Le souverain : 1959-1970[12]. This impeccably archive-based magnum opus was widely acclaimed, even by historians who could have started a ‘demarcation dispute’ – and Lacouture (b. 1921) is regularly invited to speak in academic conferences: in fact he appears as the father figure of de Gaulle studies outside Gaullist / Resistance circles, and perhaps the undisputed authority on the subject. Lacouture is also a prolific author, and besides his de Gaulle trilogy and other non-fiction books, he also wrote biographies of Nasser (1971), André Malraux (1973), Léon Blum (1977), François Mauriac (1980), Pierre Mendès-France (1981), John F. Kennedy (2000), with a title à la Goubert in between: François Mitterrand : Une histoire de français (2 vol., 1998).

Considering the high standards achieved by Lacouture, it is not quite clear why another respected journalist and commentator, Paul-Marie de la Gorce (1928-2004) felt that another biography of over 1,500 pages was needed[13]. The obvious answer could be that Lacouture was associated with the centre Left and de la Gorce was associated with the Gaullist ‘progressives’ of the Left, ‘les gaullistes de gauche’. But then both biographies strive to be fair – they do not try to demonstrate that de Gaulle was always right and his opponents always wrong, or vice-versa. Indeed, the de la Gorce version seems to have had good sales since it recently benefited from a posthumous paperback reissue.

And this in spite of the competition from the best-selling Max Gallo, whose four volumes were also soon reissued as cheap paperbacks, in 2000, and are still available: (1) L’appel du destin; (2) La solitude du combattant; (3) Le premier des Français and (4) La statue du commandeur[14]. Gallo sales are easily explained: he catches academic historians like Sirinelli at their own words, in that he mixes impeccable research (‘history’) with an attractive style of writing which makes for a good ‘story’.

In fact, the colleagues in the Annales tradition finally decided to abandon their own prohibitions and they entered the fray, the most unexpected example being that of Marc Ferro (b. 1924), whom Fernand Braudel designated as his successor at the head of theAnnales in 1970. Ferro created a stir in the world of academic historians when he published his Pétain in 1987. Not that he was deemed incompetent, as he was a prominent French historian of the troubled 20th century – but because this lapse into a minor genre seemed to be in flagrant breach of the Annales philosophy. Once again, popular success followed, however, and Fayard (again) published a long series of paperback reissues, the latest appearing in 2012. The same held good for his Nicolas II of 1990[15]: it is still available in paperback, with a reissue ‘with new material’ in 2011. The claims made in it about the tsar’s descendants smack very much of the ‘petite histoire’ or ‘dessous de l’histoire’ denounced by Goubert – but no matter[16].

Ferro was not the first of the Annales historians to compromise with ‘the world of trade’, however: he was preceded by the medievalist Georges Duby (1919-1996) and his biography of William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke (c.1145-1219), Guillaume le Maréchal, ou, le meilleur chevalier du monde, published by Fayard (again) in 1984, appropriately in its series entitled ‘Les inconnus de l’histoire’[17]. After Ferro and Duby, the gates were open for the rediscovery of Biography as a legitimate tool of the historian. After all, in the Preface to his Luther, Febvre had justified his excursion into the genre by the two-way approach between the individual and society which it made possible, ‘this problem of the relations between the individual and the community, of personal initiative and social necessity which is, perhaps, the capital problem of History’[18]. Jacques Legoff (b. 1924) followed suit with Saint Louis in 1996 and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie (b. 1929) in 1997 withSaint-Simon, ou, Le système de la cour. Outside of the Annales team, but still a friend of Febvre and Braudel, Pierre Chaunu (1923-2009) had written Christophe Colomb ou La logique de l’imprévisible in 1993. Even the next generation finally yielded to temptation. One can think of Michel Winock (b. 1937), the founder in 1978 of the respected magazineL’Histoire, a specialist of 20th c. French History, who wrote a Clemenceau, which indeed was in his field of predilection, in 2007, but also a Madame de Staël in 2010, which was not.

It became therefore increasingly difficult for the guardians of the academic temple to refute the value of Biography, and to deny ‘lay’ people using the same sources and methods the right to share the lucrative cake. Two ‘amateurs’ of Russian origin – both later elected to the French Academy – offered good-quality and highly readable biographies of their former compatriots. Hélène Carrère d’Encausse (b. 1929), well known in France for her books which predicted the ‘explosion of the Soviet Empire’, as she put it, from the late 1970s, thus wrote Staline : L’ordre par la terreur (1979), Nicolas II : La transition interrompue(1996), Lénine (1998), Catherine II : Un âge d’or pour la Russie (2002) and Alexandre II : Le printemps de la Russie (2005).

The other was Henri Troyat (1911-2007). His list of publications is absolutely prodigious, and even his list of biographies is much too long to allow reproduction here. Suffice it to say that he alternated between lives of famous French people, notably writers (e.g.Flaubert (1988); Maupassant (1989); Zola (1992); Verlaine (1993); Baudelaire (1994);Balzac (1995)) and Russian royalty (e.g. Catherine la Grande (1977); Pierre le Grand(1979) ; Alexandre Ier(1981); Ivan le Terrible (1982); Alexandre II (1990); Nicolas II (1991)[19];  Alexandre III (2004); Boris Godounov (2008)). His biographies were extremely popular and sold very well, but he was the object of suspicion on the part of his competitors, who could not understand how he could research his books so fast. Still, a nasty affair of plagiarism over his biography of Victor Hugo’s mistress in 1997, which resulted in a law suit, did not impair his popularity or his output.

Finally, as in Britain, there is a tendency for politicians to take advantage of their (provisional) fame to publish lives of the predecessors whom they admire for their ideas or their political struggle. The first instance that springs to mind is that of Condorcet (1743-1794) : Un intellectuel en politique, written by Élisabeth Badinter (b. 1944) and Robert Badinter (b. 1928), two typical representatives of the ‘liberal Left’ in the American sense – he was the Minister of Justice who abolished capital punishment in Mitterand’s first mandate. One could also mention the former Prime Minister (1993-1995), Édouard Balladur (b. 1929), who published Jeanne d’Arc et la France : Le mythe du sauveur in 2003, or the former Europhobe Gaullist minister Philippe Séguin (1943-2010) and his Louis Napoléon le Grand (1990). In all these cases, there is however a suspicion that the authors have an axe to grind, settling contemporary accounts through their chosen dead heroes. Still, there is obviously a public for these biographies, probably bought more for the name of the author than that of the subject. Apart perhaps from the Badinters’Condorcet, possibly because of their impeccable ‘liberal Left’ credentials, academic historians would not touch these ‘amateurish’ biographies with a barge pole – and they ignore them in their own books (at least in their lists of ‘Recommended Reading’ or ‘For Further Reading’ at the end).

In parallel with the biographies of great figures of the past, there also developed a tendency to publish ‘instant history’, even before the protagonist was dead. The movement was particularly visible over Mitterrand, who died in 1996. It would be too long here to list all the books of a biographical nature which appeared on him before 1996, but perhaps one can quote the title of the third volume of the trilogy written by a fashionable journalist who used to claim support for the Left, Franz-Olivier Giesbert, François Mitterrand, ou la tentation de l’histoire. That ‘final’ volume, published in 1993 (two years before the end of Mitterrand’s second Presidency and three years before his death) was called La fin d’une époque. He also wrote a controversial portrait of Chirac, full of  ‘revelations’, in 2006, again before the end of his Presidency in 2007: La tragédie du président.

The murky world of ‘revelations’ has long been associated with Biography – hence the diffidence of those who insist that they are only interested in writing History. The suggestions of voyeurism, prurience and titillation are never far behind this notion of ‘revelations’ – and yet when one writes a ‘new’ Life of someone, the presumption is that it will contain material not present in earlier biographies. An extreme case of titillation is provided by the ‘blurb’ of a fairly recent (2006) biography published by a reputable house, formerly known as Librairie académique Perrin, Le goût du roi : Louis XV et Marie-Louise O’Murphy, by Camille Pascal:

‘Of Marie-Louise O’Murphy, history remembers neither her name nor her face – only her arse. An arse to which Casanova, Boucher [the painter] and Louis XV, three fine connoisseurs, each paid tribute in turn in his own way, marvelling at it’ – It is with these deliberately provocative words that Camille Pascal, breaking with the usual tone of historical biography, presents his heroine[20].

The borderline between ‘new material’ and ‘revelations’ is all too often tenuous, which justifies the attitude of those who continue to abstain from writing Biography. But the lines seem to be increasingly blurred: the rigid attitude of those who wanted to found a French historical school firmly based on the best ‘scientific’ principles was not only occasionally ignored by the early ‘founding fathers’, as we saw – it is increasingly in danger of being thrown overboard for good by the self-appointed guardians of the flame. The ivory tower of those French historians who refuse to have any truck with Biography is not only under threat from without – the enemy is now within.

Antoine Capet,
Professeur émérite à l’Institut d’études anglophones
Université de Rouen

[1] Part of his 7-volume undertaking (1863-1882), Histoire des Origines du Christianisme, which in fact also ended with a biographical dimension: Marc-Aurèle et la fin du monde antique (1882).

[2] Les historiens d’aujourd’hui traitent de Gabriel Monod et de son influence avec les armes dont il a recommandé l’usage : recherche des sources, administration de la preuve, conclusions empreintes d’une vérité que le chercheur sait et veut relative. Cette quête restitue la réalité d’un positivisme qui est loin d’être desséché comme il est si courant de le dire et de l’écrire, mais qui n’encourage pas non plus à une déconstruction de l’Histoire paralysant sa mise en récit. (‘Retour sur Gabriel Monod’. Revue historique 664:4 (2012), p. 787)

[3] Originally published by Honoré Champion (lvi-783 p., Paris, 1911), it has benefited from several reprints since 1970. Recently reissued with a Preface by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie (Paris: Éditions Perrin, 2009).

[4] With an almost immediate English edition: Martin Luther: A Destiny (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1929 / London:  J.M. Dent & Sons, 1930).

[5] ‘La biographie comme genre historique ? Étude de cas’. Vingtième Siècle 63 (1999), pp. 119-126.

[6] Continuously in print since its first edition in 1965.

[7] ‘La biographie comme genre historique’, p. 119

[8] In its academically prestigious series, ‘L’histoire sans frontières’, edited by François Furet and Denis Richet.

[9] With a deliberate ambiguity: both the ‘hidden strata beneath visible History’ and ‘History’s undies’.

[10] The hallowed ‘agrégation d’histoire’ being the sine qua non. Ironically, Tulard passed with flying colours – first of his cohort when he took that annual competitive examination.

[11] English edition: De Gaulle. Translated by Francis K. Price. Revised and enlarged edition, with additional material translated by John Skeffington. London : Hutchinson, 1970.

[12] Paris: Le Seuil, 1984-1986. English edition in two volumes: (1) De Gaulle: The Rebel, 1890-1944. (2) De Gaulle: The Ruler, 1945-1970. London: Collins Harvill, 1990-1991.

[13] Charles de Gaulle. (1) 1890-1945. (2) 1945-1970. Paris : Perrin, 2000. (Paperback reissue, 2008.)

[14] Paris: Presses-Pocket, 2000.

[15] English edition. Nicholas II : Last of the Tsars. Translated by Brian Pearce. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.

[16] Ferro also wrote a book with the ‘commercial’ title Les tabous de l’histoire (Paris : Nil, 2002).

[17] English edition. William Marshal : The Flower of Chivalry. Translated from the French by Richard Howard. London: Faber, 1986.

[18] ‘Ce problème des rapports de l’individu et de la collectivité, de l’initiative personnelle et de la nécessité sociale qui est, peut-être, le problème capital de l’Histoire’. See ‘La biographie comme genre historique’, p. 120.

[19] Thus there were at least three biographies of Nicholas II on the French market after 1990.

[20] ‘De Marie-Louise O’Murphy, l’histoire n’a retenu ni le nom ni le visage, mais le cul. Un cul auquel Casanova, Boucher et Louis XV, trois fins connaisseurs, ont rendu tour à tour et chacun dans leur genre un hommage émerveillé’. C’est par ce propos délibérément provocant que Camille Pascal, rompant avec le ton habituel de la biographie historique, présente son héroïne.

On Teaching Biography

by Nigel Hamilton

NigelHamiltonFor a number of years, at Royal Holloway, University of London and
De Montfort University, Leicester, I taught biography.

A quarter century of writing biographies had burned me out; I decided therefore to follow Bernard Shaw’s dictum (in Man and Superman), “He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches.”

But how to teach a subject that has so rarely been taught, even after thousands of years of biographical works produced in our western cultures?

Teaching biography in England in the 1990s was certainly challenging. When asked to what intellectual faculty or discipline biography belonged, I could only say it was interdisciplinary. And that as such it deserved its own discipline, drawing as it does from so many others in its tropes and its insights, yet having such a constant preoccupation over the millennia: how to understand and record the real life of a human being?

In the end I was parked in the history departments of Royal Holloway and De Montfort – first as Visiting Professor of History, then as Professor of Biography.

How did it go? At Royal Holloway, where I taught undergraduates and postgraduates for five years, my course on the history of western biography in the 20th century was open to all students of the University of London. Most, however, came from within Royal Holloway’s student body, where the interdisciplinary range of proposed texts was considered eclectic, but interesting.

Over two semesters we examined, in chronological order, a whole gamut of biographical works in a number of different media, in an effort to show how the biographical imperative had expressed itself. And, as best we could, to posit why these texts might be seen as Landmarks of Twentieth-Century Western Biography – the title of the course.

At the outset I explained how lucky we were to be at the end of the twentieth century – for we were in a position to now know so much about the composition and background of these texts. And the lives of their creators.

Our mission would be to explore, historically, how these landmark texts came about; how they reflected the cultures in which they were produced; and how in turn they influenced those cultures, across ten decades. We would, I promised, obtain a fresh perspective on the century, and on biography’s development within that century. Moreover, though highly selective in our choice of landmarks, we would try to include multiple points of view: of biography as genre; as representation of a culture; as markers of different, often new media; and as expressions of the author’s intent or agenda – despite the so-called Death of the Author!

Each week I began with a brief historical overview of the period in which the chosen landmark text was published, staged, shown or broadcast. Then we would dig right in.

For most history students the course was initially tough to fathom – unlike anything they had been used to. Its very interdisciplinarity – involving literature, psychology, social science, media arts, and “straight” history – was a challenge. Gradually, however, they began to see it as a sort of historical cultural analysis, offering them the chance both to learn and to bring together different lenses on the past. The authorial component, far from being negligible as Roland Barthes had memorably posited, helped to lock down the weekly focus, and to present a more tangible, humanly interesting, hold upon the composition. From Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son to Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot and Nigel Nicolson’s Portrait of a Marriage, the fascination of learning who the author was, why he or she had produced the text, and what its impact had been in the course of the century, made it the most popular course in the History Department. Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph der Wille (film biography as propaganda) and Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (fictional film biography as coded exposé), the students were able to engage with great examples of the sheer interdisciplinarity and cross-dressing of modern biography, both as contrast to Victorian biography, and as precursor to a new century.

From being the orphan of history and the arts, biography was at last center stage.

In my postgraduate courses at Royal Holloway and De Montfort, it was possible to then put this interdisciplinary perspective to specific use. After preliminary discussions, students were able to choose a real life, and to subject it to comparative analysis –  examining the different ways, across the twentieth century, in which that life had been “biographised,” in differing media by differing authors.

This comparative approach proved, in turn, a richly rewarding opportunity to reflect on the cultural history of the century, as well as learning in greater detail how and why an author creates a biographical text, from research to composition and reception.

Of course, after five years of somewhat pioneering education, I found myself once more burned out – and ready to reverse Shaw’s dictum! I thus returned to “doing” biography with a sense of relief – though I received many letters and emails from former students saying how much their study (and enjoyment) of history had been changed by the courses. So much so that I decided to take time out from “doing” biography, several years later, and address at least some of what I’d learned in teaching biography. I therefore wrote two little books, Biography: A Brief History, and How to Do Biography: A Primer (Harvard, 2007 and 2009), to assuage my guilt at giving up teaching.

I confess the Société de Biographie has rekindled my excitement about the theorizing of the study and practice of biography, even though I am now too ancient to teach.

As Samuel Johnson put it, “I esteem biography, as giving us what comes near to ourselves, what we can turn to use.”

How true! By “use” Dr. Johnson meant the opportunity – somewhat in the same fashion as in fiction, but in biography’s case the delineation of a real life – to identify with an actual human individual, honestly recorded and portrayed by a biographer. Moreover, it did not necessarily have to be a career of grand achievement. “There has rarely passed a life,” he wrote in The Rambler, “of which a judicious and faithful narrative would not be useful; for not only every man has, in the mighty mass of the world, great numbers in the same condition with himself, to whom his mistakes and miscarriages, escapes and expedients, would be of immediate and apparent use; but there is such a uniformity in the state of man, considered apart from adventitious and separable decorations and disguises, that there is scarce any possibility of good or ill but is common to human kind.”

Vive la biographie! Et l’enseignement de la biographie…

Nigel Hamilton