Revolt Against Whitewash
Article publication date: 1 May 1932
ENGLISH literature has never been notably rich in biography. We have Boswell. We have Lockhart. We have the vigorous, piquant Aubrey, the gentle Walton, who turned a life into an elegy, the ruthless Froude who upended Carlyle. But such achievements, splendid as they are, are isolated examples. As a nation we have not, in the past, shown much comprehension of the fundamentals of the art. We had not, in fact, until Mr. Strachey published his famous preface to Eminent Victorians, realised that biography was an art. During the reign of Victoria the craft of the biographer sank to its lowest ebb. Idealism was in the air. Ruskin and Tennyson had hymned the beauty of Goodness. Carlyle had instructed the nation in the ecstasies of hero‐worship. Puritanism and antimacassars and a copy of the egregious Bowdler were in every home. Biography suffered as biography must inevitably suffer where morality has ousted plain speaking. Of biography as the process of assembling, from a mass of data, the elements essential to a shapely narrative; uniting the relevant characteristics together into a warm, living, recognisable and interesting portrait; charting the inner development of a human personality: of biography in this sense the Victorians had practically no conception. The Victorian biographer combined the duties of sexton and stonemason. He came both to bury his Cæsar and to praise him. His biography, a tissue of laudation, half‐truth and pious concealment, was one long distended epitaph. If the subject, being human, had been cursed with human fallibility, the fact was not insisted upon. If, like most of us, he had been ungodly enough to exist below the diaphragm, the defection from grace was glossed over or even concealed. Lives of great men, ran the current tradition, remind us that we can make our lives sublime; and the biographer indulged freely in hagiology and proselytism. Biographies of this sort—and the bookshelves of the period were cluttered up with them—were not only false to life. They were not only sentimental. They were, in nine cases out of ten, both ill‐composed and ill‐written. They were vast, indigestible, wersh, forbidding. They were tasks undertaken without artistic scruple or discrimination, and completed without artistic satisfaction.
SNAITH, S. (1932), "Revolt Against Whitewash", Library Review, Vol. 3 No. 5, pp. 213-219. https://doi.org/10.1108/eb011940
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