History as it is bought

July 7, 1995

John Campbell argues that academics should value the popular appeal of biography. Political biography, as a form of history, comes in for a lot of criticism these days. But serious questions are asked of the genre, which the biographer needs to answer.

The charge, at its simplest, is that biography is bad history: that focusing exclusively on the life of a single individual distorts history by exaggerating the influence of the Great Man (or Woman) at the expense of impersonal forces like class, social movements, technology and ideas which are the real motors of historical change.

The predominance of biography is a peculiarly British phenomenon. It has no parallel on the continent but appears to reflect a specifically British pragmatism or alternatively British sentimentality: the view that "history is about chaps".

Biography is rightly popular because it offers a way to comprehend events through the experience of one contemporary man or woman, without grandiose abstract patterns or overarching hindsight. Of course it is the historian's job to provide the hindsight, to interpret for the reader what was not clear to his subject at the time. But the discipline of biography anchors him to the reality of what the individual knew and understood at the time.

Because biography is so dominant in this country and in the present publishing climate, it has become the best way for serious historians to communicate with the public. For better or worse, biography is increasingly the only form in which the general reader buys serious history, or indeed economics. Academic historians who would once have sniffed at biography have been forced to recognise it as an essential vehicle for spreading scholarship beyond universities.

Equally, however, because biography is increasingly the form in which the general reader takes his history, a heavy professional responsibility falls upon biographers to write good history, fully sourced (not merely from the subject's own papers) and fully rounded, placing the subject properly in context and not exaggerating his (or her) heroic autonomy. We can see it, if we want, as smuggling in a cargo of history under the flag of biography. To take a personal example, my own biography of Edward Heath was, I acknowledge, as much a history of his government as a life of the man. But had I written it purely as a history of an inglorious government, many fewer people would have read it.

Ben Pimlott has recently suggested that political biography should aspire to become more like fiction. He has criticised recent political biography as formulaic, as though assembled from prefabricated sections bolted together in predictable patterns. Undeniably he has a point.

Of course, biography can aspire to many of the qualities of fiction: good writing, narrative pace and structure, imaginative sympathy. Biography should certainly see itself as literature, in that sense. But if it is essentially history it must be founded scrupulously on fact not fiction: that is, on evidence. The biographer can read between the lines of the evidence, speculate from the established facts as much as he likes, so long as he takes the reader openly along with him. But ultimately the evidence must take precedence over imagination.

We need to stop apologising for biography and celebrate it as a valid and valuable form in its own right. The only concern we should admit is that biography should not become the only form of history in this country.

John Campbell's biography of Edward Heath won the 1994 NCR Book Award. He is now writing a biography of Margaret Thatcher.

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