This manner of exposing the private concerns of families, and sacrificing the secrets of the dead to the curiosity of the living, is one of the licentious practices, which might well deserve the animadversions of our government.
Histories do rather set forth the pomp of business than the true and inward resorts thereof. But Lives, if they be well written, propounding to themselves a person to represent, in whom actions both greater and smaller, public and private, have a commixture, must of necessity contain a more true, native, and lively representation.
I am only aware of one objection that has been seriously urged against me as a writer,and this I confess I have not at all attempted to correct,that, forgetting the dignity of history, my style is sometimes too familiar and colloquial. If I err here, it is on principle and by design. The felicity of my subject consists in the great variety of topics which it embraces. My endeavour has been to treat them all appropriately. If in analyzing the philosophy of Bacon, or expounding the judgments of Hardwicke, or drawing the character of Clarendon, I have forgotten the gravity and severity of diction suitable to the ideas to be expressed, I acknowledge myself liable to the severest censure; but in my opinion the skilful biographer when he has to narrate a ludicrous incident will rather try to imitate the phrases of Mercutio than of Ancient Pistol
projicit ampullas et sesquipedalia verba.
I cannot understand why, in recording a jest in print, an author should be debarred from using the very language which he might with propriety adopt if he were telling it in good society by word of mouth.
Of all the species of literary composition perhaps biography is the most delightful. The attention concentrated on one individual gives a unity to the materials of which it is composed, which is wanting in general history. The train of incidents through which it conducts the reader suggests to his imagination a multitude of analogies and comparisons; and while he is following the course of events which mark the life of him who is the subject of the narrative, he is insensibly compelled to take a retrospect of his own. In no other species of writing are we permitted to scrutinize the character so exactly, or to form so just and accurate an estimate of the excellences and defects, the lights and shades, the blemishes and beauties, of an individual mind.
Robert Hall: Preface to the Memoirs of Rev. J. Freeston.
He who desires to strengthen his virtue and purify his principles will always prefer the solid to the specious; will be more disposed to contemplate an example of the unostentatious piety and goodness which all men may obtain than of those extraordinary achievements to which few can aspire: nor is it the mark of a superior, but rather of a vulgar and superficial taste, to consider nothing as great or excellent but that which glitters with titles or is elevated by rank.
Robert Hall: Preface to the Memoirs of Rev. J. Freeston.
This is a protest against a growing and intolerable evil to which every reader of these lines will unhesitatingly put his name. Everybody is subject to the nuisance. Some pretend to despise it; some are good-natured, and dont care about it; others are so snobbish and vain that they positively like it; but all this is no argument why you and I should submit to it, or refrain from expressing our disgust and dissatisfaction.
I mean the pest of biography. What in the world have I done to have my life written? or my neighbour the doctor? or Softlie, our curate? We have never won battles, nor invented logarithms, nor conquered Scinde, nor done anything whatever out of the most ordinary course of the most prosaic existences. Indeed, I may say the two gentlemen I have mentioned are the dullest fellows I ever knew: they are stupid at breakfast, dinner, and tea; they never said a witty thing in their lives; they never tried to repeat a witty thing without entirely destroying it. I have no doubt they think and say precisely the same of me; and yet we are all three in the greatest danger of having our lives in print every day.
The business of the biographer is often to pass slightly over those performances and incidents which produce vulgar greatness, to lead the thoughts into domestic privacies, and display the minute details of daily life, where exterior appendages are cast aside, and men excel each other only by prudence and virtue.
But biography has often been allotted to writers who seem very little acquainted with the nature of their task, or very negligent about the performance. They rarely afford any other account than might be collected from public papers, but imagine themselves writing a life when they exhibit a chronological series of actions or preferments; and so little regard the manners or behaviour of their heroes, that more knowledge may be gained of a mans real character by a short conversation with one of his servants, than from a formal and studied narrative, begun with his pedigree and ended with his funeral.
The variety and splendour of the lives of such men render it often difficult to distinguish the portion of time which ought to be admitted into history from that which should be preserved for biography. Generally speaking, these two parts are so distinct and unlike that they cannot be confounded without much injury to both: either when the biographer hides the portrait of the individual by a crowded and confined picture of events, or when the historian allows unconnected narratives of the lives of men to break the thread of history. Perhaps nothing more can be universally laid down than that the biographer never ought to introduce public events except as far as they are absolutely necessary to the illustration of character, and that the historian should rarely digress into biographical particulars except as far as they contribute to the clearness of his narrative of political occurrences.
He [the biographer] is in no wise responsible for the defects of his personages, still less is their vindication obligatory upon him. This conventional etiquette of extenuation mars the utility of historical biography by concealing the compensations so mercifully granted in love, and the admonitions given by vengeance. Why suppress the lesson afforded by the depravity of the greatest, brightest, meanest of mankind; he whose defilements teach us that the most transcendent intellectuality is consistent with the deepest turpitude? The labours of the panegyrists come after all to naught. You are trying to fill a broken cistern. You may cut a hole in the stuff, but you cannot wash out the stain.
Sir Francis Palgrave: History of Normandy and England, B. ii. p. 67.
I should dread to disfigure the beautiful ideal of the memoirs of illustrious persons with incongruous features, and to sully the imaginative purity of classical works with gross and trivial recollections.