Biography and Modernity: Some Thoughts on Origins

Posted April 8, 2011

Published in Writing Lives. Biography and Textuality, Identity and Representation in early Modern England, Kevin Sharpe and Steven N. Zwicker eds, Oxford University Press, 2008.

Stella Tillyard

At the beginning of Society and Sentiment, his book about history writing in the eighteenth century, Mark Phillips tells a story about an angler who fishes all day.1   He is watched, to his increasing annoyance, by a silent observer, a man who stand close to him hour after hour, looking at everything, saying nothing.  At the end of the day, the angler, gritting his teeth to be civil, nods to the stranger as he leaves and says, “Fish much yourself?”.  “Oh no, not me,” the other man says, “I’d never have the patience.”

Phillips uses this story to illustrate the sometimes tense relationship between those professional historians who cast their lines of enquiry into the past and those historiographers who watch them do it.  But for me it stands equally for another, often uneasy, relationship, that between academic historians and professional writers or even popular historians.  In that scenario, the ‘real’  anglers are the professionals, the watchers, wonderers and even enviers, are the writers who swim in the murky waters of commerce.

Changing places is hard, especially if one feels out of date with ichthian banter, rusty with the camaraderie of the river bank. So this assignment preyed on my mind, rising to the surface – if I can use that expression – at odd moments.  One such, a few months ago, occoured for me at the Stadio Artemio Franchi in Florence, waiting fro a match between Fiorentina and Empoli to begin.  As the two teams ran onto the field an announcement was made that before the kick-off we would remember two Italian soldiers killed in Iraq the previous week.  The teams lined up opposite each other on either side of the centre circle and the whole ground fell silent.  So far, so conventional, except that the solemn moment was slightly undercut by the referee blowing his whistle at the beginning and end.  Two weeks later, though, we were back for the last match of the season, a very noisy affair between Fiorentina and Reggio  Calabria.  Over the chanting I caught the announcer saying something similar about remembering an ex-Fiorentina player who had just died.  Again the players lined up; again the referee blew his whistle.  But this time there was no silence.  Instead everyone – players, coaches, Fiorentina and Reggio Calabria fans – applauded, clapping steadily until the minute was up.  We were celebrating and not mourning a life – a life, I knew, from my reading of the local paper, had been spent in happy retirement, ‘in the shadow of his beloved stadium’, as the newspaper put it. A man who died at 89 years old and whose funeral had just been held in the church next door. His was a life was to be celebrated with noise, not a death to be regretted in silence.

This distinction struck me at the time because I had been puzzled for years about another difference between the way death is recorded in Britain and in Italy, that is the lack of obituaries in Italian newspapers, or, to put it another way, the fact that there is, in Italy, no tradition of obituary writing as we know it in Britain. Since the obituary, as it has developed in the Anglo-Saxon world, is the most ubiquitous biographical form that we have, the complete absence in Italy of the obituary as a way of summing up and commemorating a life must say something about the Italian attitude towards death and life – but also ask the question why, as well as how, it ever developed in Britain at all.

Although I am loathe to use national identity or any idea about national character as a descriptive or explanatory category, the fact that this volume focuses on biographical writing in early modern England points to a nationally specific enquiry.  this perhaps justifies the use of such generalisations if only as a foil or mirror in which to see more clearly.

In Italy, unlike Britain, there is, as the silence and clapping in the stadium showed, no uniform way of commemorating and remembering a life, either audibly or in print.  A long life well lived will be applauded and then, if there is no mystery attached  to it, left alone.  Newspaper articles, published on the news pages rather than under any separate heading, will celebrate an individual’s public achievements, mention his or her moral qualities and notice, probably, his attachment to his native town. Untimely deaths will be accompanied in print by interviews with relatives.  In all cases, family and friends insert black bordered death notices in newspapers, and in small towns, larger version of these are displayed on public notice boards.  Contrast this with Britain where, on the whole, grief remains a private affair, but all famous individuals will be given public cradle-to-grave obituaries. In these short essays – and here I think we approach explanations for the very existence as well as the resilience of the British biographical tradition – origins are described, character is at least in part ascribed to origins, and achievement, indeed, is usually explained, indeed, with reference to character.

This difference, the relative lack of interest in the relationships between private and public, origins and achievement in Italy, and the overwhelming importance of the notion of character in all forms of writing in the British tradition, is, I think, usually ascribed to religion.  Somewhere like Italy, the argument runs, was and remains an aural, confessional, and Catholic culture in whittle story of life – and its moral foibles – is told to a priest and atoned for daily before and after death.  In prayer and in the confession box, sins are absolved, leaving the deeds to speak for the man.  Protestant, literate cultures, on the other hand, in which men and women had to show their private worth by their public deeds, encouraged the writing of conversion narratives which emphasised and demonstrated moral reformation and lives well lived. It is out of saints’ lives, moral narratives like Pilgrim’s Progress as well as their mirror images, the ubiquitous lives of highwaymen, pirates or courtesans that the British biographical tradition is to to have emerged.  All such narratives rely on a notion of character already well developed by the end of the sixteenth century.

Think of the plots and themes of  Henry IV part One (to select just one of many Shakespearean plays that fit the template).  An extended revelation of true kingly character, the play’s plot is the working out of the idea that a person’s true character  and origin- in this case those of the Prince of Wales – will in the end become manifest in public deeds, and that therefore, in the end, public deeds will reflect and describe the true private man.
Now it is obvious that such plots are far from absent in Catholic cultures.  St Augustine’s Confessions tell the story of just such a transformation.  The emphasis, the balance, however, remains different, and perhaps mitigated against the development of a strong biographical tradition.   In the first place, while origins are not denied in Italian culture, it is where a person arrives and what he does that is important, not where he started and how he arrived.  Secondly – and this is perhaps because in a miraculous culture God himself can change your life and character in an instant – there is little interest in origin as the fount o character and thus of deeds. 

It is here, however, that English biography was anchored from the beginning.  The interest in origins so evident, for instance, in Aubrey, was compounded by Lockeian notions of the importance of childhood to the creation and development of character that became current at the end of the seventeenth century.  Samuel Johnson’s Account of the Life of Richard Savage, often cited as the first great English biography, thus has at its heart and almost as its raison d’etre both the search for aristocratic origin and Savage’s mysterious and miserable childhood.2  Amplified by Rousseau in the mid eighteenth century later these beliefs in the importance of early experience were balefully confirmed by Freud at the beginning of the twentieth.

English biography then has been a genre centrally concerned with origin and character since its emergence in the late seventeenth century.  But this idea of character, along with the concomitant interest in manners, habits and domesticity and private life, that goes along and perhaps grew out of it, is so ubiquitous in all forms of writing in the early eighteenth century that it may not make sense to talk of English biography at that time as a separate genre at all.
Eighteenth century readers, it seems to me, existed until quite late on in the century and for the most part without comment or complaint, in a kind of genre soup. Letters, journals, biographies, history, the novel,  what we can call, for want of a better word, journalism, memoirs, even poetry all had porous boundaries, often made claims to define themselves as something else, and were read equally in a spirit neither of belief nor scepticism but, perhaps, something in between.

Most readers seem to have been untroubled by taxonomic discretion.  One of the eighteenth century’s most enduringly popular works, never out of print before the French Revolution, was Anthony Hamilton’s secret history of the Restoration court, translated into English and published in 1714 as Memoirs of the Life of the Count de Grammont. Contains, in particular, the amorous intrigues of the Court of England in the Reign of King Charles II.3   The text claimed to be a life – that is a  biography – of the Count de Grammont written from his letters and journals and thus in some sense ‘true’. But Grammont’s Memoirs are not in any way autobiographical and he himself is neither the work’s author nor its principal protagonist.  The Memoirs are mostly taken up with Hamilton’s brothers and sisters, are part secret history and part fiction.  Moreover they contain within the narrated framework extensive passages of dialogue as well as poetry and letters, and thus slide about between scandalous history, a kind of picaresque fiction and a pastoral romance.  A decade after Hamilton, Defoe built a career on such ambiguities, publishing Jonathan Wild in 1725 as ‘The True and Genuine Account of the Life and Actions of the Late Jonathan wild; not made up of fiction and fable, but taken from his own mouth and collected from papers of his own writing’.

Exactly when biography becomes a distinct and recognisable genre, or when the different branches of writing peal away from one another, is one of the questions that this volume will try to address. But it is clear that it is not an overriding interest in character and private life that distinguishes it when it does, for these elements are common to the novel as it emerges, as well.  What may distinguish biography, or run alongside its preoccupation with character and origin,  may be something else entirely.

I have been struck, thinking about who in the seventeenth and early eighteenth century had tellable, telling, lives, by how many of them were products and agents of social change, of urban and imperial life: in short, of modernity.  Modernity was (and is), of course more a state of mind than anything else. But the way in which in the early eighteenth century, highwaymen’s lives were told, or courtesans’, merchants’, or even writers’, was as embodiments of the modern and thus of the present age. It was here, perhaps, that biography began to insist on a difference with history, for although history might have allegorical force it could never record and describe the modern age directly.  The huge popularity of lives of the recently dead, or even of the still living suggests that they were read in part as a mirror to the modern.

The modernity that such biographies insisted on defining itself in two familiar ways, an insistence on a feeling of the separation and  isolation of its subjects, and  a belief that this feeling inheres in urban life, that is to say, in England, in London life. London drew towards it more than a tenth of the population in the early decades of the century.  If individuals began to think of themselves as isolated from others in the great city, where they acted a part, or could decide which part to act, then a branch of writing which came to concentrate on single subjects might seem to reflect, or come to reflect, contemporary experience.  Biography could accommodate and describe new ways of life and new forms of fame. In narratives like those of Equiano or James Lackington, it could advertise and celebrate stories of arrival and transformation in the city.4    But at the same time it could, in relating intimate life, offer individuals the sense that in the city, in the narrative, there were ways of being acquainted with those you might have seen, but would never know.  Biography might thus describe and embody the conditions of modernity while simultaneously offering a consolation for their trials.  It is no surprise then, that Boswell’s Life of Johnson, the story of a provincial who came to London and made his mark in the modern metropolis, should have been immediately hailed as a masterwork.  For Boswell remained true to English biography’s interest in character, origins, private life and transformation while at the same time offering a fable of success in the capital.  Johnson’s life, as Boswell told it, stood not only for  modernity but also, in 1791, for a peculiarly English modernity, one that was pious, Anglican, monarchist, modest, anti-idealist and, above all, not French.  Perhaps that is why, at that moment, English biography as a literary art, seems to have, for the first time, to have come into its own.


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