The delights of biography are those of the highest human intercourse, in almost limitless diversity, which no one could hope to enjoy among the living. Even though you were placed so favorably that you became acquainted with many of the most interesting personages of your own time, were it not for this magic art, which makes the past present and the dead to live, you would still be shut out from all acquaintance with your forerunners. But, thanks to biography, you have only to reach out your hand and take down a volume from your shelf in order to converse with Napoleon or Bismarck, Lincoln or Cavour. You need spend no weary hours in antechambers on the chance of snatching a hasty interview. They wait upon your pleasure. No business of state can put you off. They talk and you listen. They disclose to you their inmost secrets. Carlyle may be never so petulant, Luther never so bluff, Swift never so bitter, but they must admit you, and the very defects which might have interposed a screen between each of them living and you are as loopholes through which you look into their hearts. So you may come to know them better than their contemporaries knew them, better than you know your intimates, or, unless you are a master of self-scrutiny, better than you know yourself.

The mixed motives which we seldom dissect in our own acts can usually be disentangled without difficulty in theirs. Through them we discover the true nature of traits, fair or hideous, of which we discern the embryos in ourselves; and however far they rise above us by genius or by fortune, we see that the difference is of degree and not of kind. The human touch makes us all solidaire. Were it not so, the story of their lives would interest us no more than if they were basilisks or griffins, phantasmal creatures having no possible relations with us.

Just now I mentioned at random some of the very great statesmen and leaders in religion and letters, access to whom in the flesh would presumably have been impossible, but with whom the humblest of us find many contacts in their biographies. Often we are surprised by a thought or feeling or experience such as we have had and scarcely heeded, but which at once takes on dignity from being shared with the illustrious man. Still, the touchstone of biography is not merely greatness, but interest and significance; and herein it coincides with its twin art, portraiture. The finest portraits, assuming equal skill in the technique of their painting, are not of kings and grandees, but those which embody or suggest character. Queen Victoria’s face, though a Leonardo had painted it, could never river the world’s attention or pique the world’s curiosity as Monna Lisa’s has done. In ten minutes one has revealed the uncomplex and uninspired nature behind it; while after four hundred years the other still fascinates us by its suggestive and perpetually elusive expression.

So the lives of persons who were inconspicuous, measured on the scale of international or enduring fame, are sometimes packed with the charm of individuality. Such, for instance, is “The Story of My Heart,” by Richard Jeffries. You may not like it—one friend to whom I recommended it told me he found it so exasperating that he threw it into the fire—but you cannot deny, if you are reasonably sympathetic, that it is the genuine utterance of a genuine man. Solomon Maimon’s biography is another of this sort, in which we see an unusual personality shackled by the cruelty of caste. John Sterling had talent, but he died too young to achieve any work of lasting note; and yet, thanks to Carlyle’s exuberantly vital memoir of him—which reminds me of one of Rembrandt’s portraits—Sterling will live on for years.

All Directories