These examples will suffice to prove that a great biography does not require a great man for its original; but it does require a great biographer. For biography is an art, a very high art; and, if we judge by the comparatively small number of its masterpieces, we must conclude that the consummate biographer is rarer than the poet, the novelist, or the historian of similar worth.

The belief that anybody can write a life is one of the widespread fallacies. As if anybody could paint a portrait or compose a sonata! When some notable person dies, it is ten to one that his wife or sister, son or daughter, sets to work to compile his memoir. The result, at its best, must present a partial, family point of view, hardly more to be trusted than the official biographies of kings and queens.

It was the public relations of the gentleman that warranted writing about him at all; but from his wife—doting, perhaps—or from his child—spoiled, possibly—we shall hear of him chiefly in his rôle as husband or as father.

Personal affection, devotion even, may be and usually is a handicap, which the family biographer cannot overcome. The wise surgeon does not trust himself to perform an operation on his dearest; neither should a biographer.

Knowledge, sympathy, and imagination the biographer must possess; these, and that detachment of the artist which is partly intuition and partly a sort of conscience, against which personal considerations plead in vain. Thus, although Boswell, the master biographer among all those who have written in English, felt toward Johnson admiration little short of idolatry, yet, when he came to write, he was the artist striving to make a perfect picture, and not the worshiper hiding his idol in clouds of incense. Sir George Trevelyan was Macaulay’s nephew, and therefore likely to be hampered by family reserves; but in him the quality of biographer so far surpassed the accident of nephew that he, too, was able to produce a biography which portrays Macaulay as adequately as Boswell’s portrays Johnson.

Such exceptions simply prove the rule: detachment—which ensures fairness—and knowledge, sympathy, and imagination—uniting in a faculty which we may call divination—are indispensable.

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