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James Thompson © 1999


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I have a recurring nightmare at the moment. I sleep through 1999, only to awaken for Christmas. The newspapers are littered with reviews of the past twelve months. It has been a Poor Year for the English Novel. I am living in a Golden Age of Biography. I assume that it is still 1998. Or is it 1988? All the papers seem to be printed like the Guardian, so the dates are smudged. A feeling of panic sets in. I awake ...

The news of the death of the English novel is much exaggerated. It's alive, but moved to the US or India in about 1923. More troubling, though, is the paradoxical degree of attention lavished upon contemporary fiction. Novels have always received more than their fair share of the literary limelight, but currently also possess unprecedented intellectual kudos. Novelists, particularly men, eagerly seize upon the latest aspect of chaos theory and deliver inspired fictional meditations upon the new science. Or so we are told. In fact, macho pyrotechnics generally stand in for genuine scientific insights. The novel may be the new rock'n'roll, but it certainly is not the new science, whether natural or social.

I don't however want to talk about novels. Others can be relied upon to do that. I wish instead to discuss the Golden Age of Biography. The biographical renaissance is a truth universally acknowledged from the LRB to the Daily Mail. Massed phalanxes of biographies dominate lists of the Books of the Year, whether in the TLS or the Voice of East Anglia. Popular science is permissible, historians occasionally choose history books, the novel continues to breathe - but biography is inescapable. Last year only former members of Roxy Music bucked the trend: Brian Eno picked Richard Rorty's Achieving our Country.

This is all very English and very sad. Once upon a time, and a very good time it was, biography was taken less seriously. Professional historians preferred to write about the making of the English working class. Sociologists discussed capitalism, rather than the Third Way. Furthermore, biographies were short. Size matters in biographies, as in doorstops. Inflation began with Michael Holroyd's 1960s life of Lytton Strachey and has now reached South American proportions. It was strange that Holroyd's Strachey should be so long, for Eminent Victorians combined the linked virtues of brevity and wit. In the world of biography, however, Victorian values hold sway. The double-decker has returned. The length of the study seems inversely proportional to the stature of the subject. There is a crying need for another life of Jane Austen. There is, admittedly, usually more and more varied sex than in Victorian biographies, if not, apparently, than in Victorian lives. Otherwise, plus ça change...

Why does any of this matter? It matters to me in part as an historian. More professional historians are spending more and more time writing more and more biographies. This is not a uniformly bad thing, as Roy Foster on Yeats or Ian Kershaw on Hitler makes clear. It is possible to avoid many of the more obvious pitfalls. It is not, however, common or easy. Some individuals are genuinely worth a biography. Few, though, are worth several biographies. Virginia Woolf really does possess nine Lives. The choice of biographical subject does not often trouble conventional assumptions about who matters. Biography is usually history from above, occasionally heritage from below. The poor fare ill (too difficult archivally), women little better (ibid.). It is helpful to have been a monarch or at least to have invaded or ruled Russia. A focus on high politics predominates within historical biography. Pop psychology fares better than political, intellectual or cultural context.

The Golden Age is part of a trend away from process and structures towards people and events. Such reactionary productions are sometimes dressed up in the glad rags of postmodernity. This supposed sophistication is scarcely apparent in the old-fashioned reconstruction of lives from an unreflective use of sources. Biographical selves are rarely multiple or fractured: readers find it harder to relate to such schizophrenic creatures. Self-fashioning is not taken seriously: the authentic life of the real X must be presented for prurient scrutiny. Interesting theoretical work has been done on auto/biography, but its impact on the biographical boom is negligible. Biography rarely escapes from schoolboy intentionalism, and often manifests a wider failure to address seriously questions of causality. The messy divorce of history and social theory has deflected attention from explicit attempts to answer why questions. However, causal claims and chronologies can not and are not vanquished from biography, whether theoretically engaged or not, - they are merely assumed or borrowed.

But the failings of the Golden Age matter more generally, in the way that serious comprehension of the past matters. Most biography is simply bad history. It may be debunking rather than comfortingly heritage, ironic rather than pious, private rather than public in its focus; but it is of limited use in answering serious historical questions. Biography has always been popular. It has rarely been so intellectually respected. A culture serious about understanding its past and improving its future cannot afford to be so besotted with individuals, even those who lived in Bloomsbury or married Dukes. Biography sells very well, but other and better kinds of history have languished in its shadow. Exceptions exist, Linda Colley's Britons for one, but exceptions they remain. Biographical Britain is a country unable to think seriously about its past or itself, trapped in an individualist twilight of naive empiricism. Other countries with more active traditions of social science, such as Germany, witness their leaders-to-be engaged in debate with their foremost sociologists. Britain has Blair, Giddens and the Third Way, a philosophy so historically innocent as to take its name from interwar fascism. We can but hope the Golden Age will be brief.




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