Once upon a lifetime

November 6, 1998

The story of a life, from womb to tomb, reconstructs a past, but is it history? asks Ben Pimlott

Let's make no bones about it, many historians look down witheringly at biographers, as much for their industry and verbosity as for their approach. To Patrick O'Brien, former director of the Institute of Historical Research, biographers are mere showmen at best, quacks at worst. Political biographies, he recently declared, are informed by mere "concerns to instruct and to entertain their readers" and "tell historians all too little about the core aspirations of their discipline, which are to acquire a proper understanding of evolving political institutions and processes ..."

But biography shows no sign of going away. Serious historians of all periods moonlight to add to the stock, causing a biographical bottle-neck - the demand for new biographies greatly exceeds the supply of famous stiffs.

In addition to O'Brien's objections, there have been two philosophical ones. The first arises from a wish to define history in terms of a particular view of causation that gives a low place to the impact of individuals. E. H. Carr's is the most frequently cited voice on this point. In What is History?, a collection of Cambridge lectures delivered in 1961, Carr linked biography to what he called "the Bad King John theory of history" - namely "the view that what matters in history is the character and behaviour of individuals". This he considered archaic. "The desire to postulate individual genius as the creative force in history," he declared, "is characteristic of the primitive stages of historical consciousness."

Carr's view had a wide currency, striking a chord with those who saw history as a scientific quest for absolute truth and logical explanation and with those who, for ideological as well as scholarly reasons, were disturbed by the notion that individuals could tilt the course of events. By asking "What is history?" and publishing his answer as an easy-to-read bestseller Carr fixed a view of history that has been absorbed into the academy as a set of classic norms.

Perhaps the time has come to question it. After all, history is not the property of a profession. If Carr was entitled to exclude biography from his own definition, we are entitled to rescue an earlier understanding of history that is certainly eclectic and has always taken the keenest interest in the behaviour and self-ascribed motives of individuals.

The problem for biography is not whether it is part of the discipline of history, but how to shake off its own inferiority complex and establish independent credentials, in relation to art, literature and objectivity, as a way of writing about the past and inspecting the human condition.

Writing biography is like entering a deep cavern. The cavern is a human life, its walls are the evidence. From the lie of the land, you can tell that the cavern is likely to be an interesting one. But until you light your lamp and crawl around, you do not know what you will find. You will never get the whole picture - there will always be crevices out of reach. But the project is finite and when your exploration is finished, you will not only have a unique appreciation of the particular cave but a better feeling for geology in general.

The basic idea of taking a single human span, from cradle to grave, womb to tomb, is not only easy to comprehend; it is fundamental to the way everybody leads their own life. Thus, the intellectual case for biography is that far from lying on the margin of history, literary criticism or any other related discipline, it is more ambitious than any of them.

Every sentient and intelligent being is an instinctive biographer and autobiographer. Biography is about memory and expectation. Only human amoeba fail to construct a chronology of their own lives, and of the people around them, as a frame through which to view contemporary events.

Of course, the notion of a lifetime as finite is to some extent secular. A belief in a spirit world makes the "womb to tomb" package fuzzy at the edges. Doctrines of ancestor worship, reincarnation, heaven and hell interfere with the simple notion contained in humanistic modern biography, with its emphasis on individual experience and mortal opportunity. Nevertheless, some kind of biographical understanding can reasonably be regarded as a defining quality of the species.

We think of ourselves in terms of what we have done: our self-description consists, to a large degree, on how we construct our past.

Little of this is new - indeed most is ancient. The notion of the model life is central to several great religions. It is relevant to the place of biography within our culture that the most important part of Christian scripture consists of four short biographical accounts of the same person.

Are history and biography two sides of a coin? Plutarch, the most important Greek biographer, significantly differentiated between them. Justifying his failure to provide lists of his subjects' achievements, he claimed that he was writing biography not history "and the truth is that the most brilliant exploits often tell us nothing of the virtues or vices of the men who performed them, while on the other hand a chance remark or a joke may reveal far more of a man's character than the mere feat of winning battles ...."

The historian builds an argument, a thesis, which is argued on logical grounds. Biography is, by contrast, to a large extent non-logical. The historian finishes a book with a "conclusion". The biographer, like the painter, has no comparable ending. The conclusion is the whole. Moreover, the whole is the exclusive creation of the biographer. No two historians writing on the same topic would do so in the same way, but they might reach a similar verdict. But my Queen, my Harold Wilson and yours would be different people. There is such a thing as historical debate. I do not understand the concept of a biographical one.

Indeed, there is a way in which I do agree with Carr. A modern biography is a deliberate deceit. It purports to show the rounded individual but such a thing is impossible. I doubt if anybody ever recognises themselves in a biography. How many of us could really imagine anybody getting even near to the truth about ourselves, even with full co-operation? With most biographies, the subject is dead, the evidence fragmentary, with huge areas of life leaving no trace.

Biographers work from what they have, not from what is missing. Often, the subject leaves a false trail. The biographer colludes, and by stressing those things for which evidence exists downplays those for which it does not.

Of course, biographers have agendas, even if they are unlikely to stick to them. When I wrote about Dalton, I was aware of wanting to show, at a time in the early 1980s when a philistine and isolated Labour Party was gripped by a McCarthyism of the Left, how rich, varied and culturally mainstream were the traditions from which it sprang. I wrote about Wilson as a way of assessing the change of attitudes that swept Britain in the postwar period, especially in the 1960s. I wrote about the Queen because I wanted to look at an institution that people so widely dismiss, yet which they incessantly discuss. In none of these, even the first, did I expect to find the character itself particularly interesting. It was their situation that attracted me.

In each I saw the opportunity a longish life provides to the writer who wishes to follow a thread of continuity through changing times. In this sense, biography can be seen as an unpredictable picaresque adventure, because lives themselves are always unexpected.

Ben Pimlott, warden of Goldsmiths College, London, is author of The Queen: A Biography of Elizabeth II, published by Harper Collins. This is taken from a lecture to be delivered at Goldsmiths College on November 12 at 6pm.

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