Nineteenth Century Biography
After Boswell, there was a retreat from his bolder innovations which amounted to self-censorship on the biographers’ part. In his Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott (1837-1838), for example, John Gibson Lockhart explicitly eschewed Boswell’s intimate focus. As Sir Walter Scott’s son-in-law, Lockhart wanted to preserve both a relative’s and a great man’s dignity; he became, in Ian Hamilton’s words, a “keeper of the flame,” the one anointed to protect the hero’s reputation.
Nineteenth century biography is replete with examples of similar self-censorship. George Gordon, Lord Byron’s biographer, for example, burned Byron’s memoir lest it disgrace his subject. Henry James attempted to fix his own posthumous reputation by burning many of his papers and letters and writing fiction that denigrated the snooping biographer. Thomas Hardy tried to forestall other biographers by writing his own biography, while attributing it to the pen of his second wife, Florence Emily Hardy. Mrs. Gaskell, Charlotte Brontë’s biographer, ruthlessly suppressed evidence that might show Brontë to be anything other than a conventional nineteenth century woman. Sir Richard Burton’s widow burned many of his unpublished translations of erotica and then wrote a bland biography of him herself. When Thomas Carlyle’s biographer, James Anthony Froude, braved this trend against truth and allowed his subject’s dark side to show, he was vilified in the press.
The preferred form of biography was not only sanitized, it allowed biographers virtually no leeway to interpret their subjects. Instead they presented documents with narratives that loosely linked them together, giving accounts of their subjects’ times. These multivolume life-and-times biographies encased their subjects in piety and euphemism. In 1912 Mark Twain’s official biographer, Albert Bigelow Paine, published a three-volume biography that carefully avoided unsavory episodes and dark issues in his subject’s life. Paine dedicated the biography to Mark Twain’s only surviving daughter with the ironic inscription: “To Clara Clemens Gabrilowitsch, Who steadily upheld the author’s purpose to write history rather than eulogy as the story of her father’s life.”