No one, the conclusion seems to be, can make the best of both worlds; you must choose, and you must abide by your choice. But though the failure of Elizabeth and Essex leads to this conclusion, that failure, because it was the result of a daring experiment carried out with magnificent skill, leads the way to further discoveries. Had he lived, lytton Strachey would no doubt himself have explored the vein that he had opened. As it is, he has shown us the way in which others may advance. The biographer is bound by facts — that is so; but, if it is so, he has the right to all the facts that are available. If Jones threw boots at the maids head, had a mistress at Islington, or was found drunk in a ditch after a nights debauch, he must be free to say so — so far at least as the law of libel and human sentiment allow.
The Art of biography - wsj
And when with Alberts death the veil descended and authentic information failed, he knew that the biographer must follow suit. We must be content with a beliefs brief and summary relation, he wrote; and the last years are briefly disposed. But the whole of Elizabeths life was lived behind a far thicker veil than the last years of Victoria. And yet, ignoring his own admission, he went on to write, not a brief and summary relation, but a whole book about those strange spirits and even stranger bodies of whom authentic information was lacking. On his own showing, the attempt was doomed to failure. Iii it seems, then, that when the biographer complained that he was tied by friends, letters, and documents he was laying his finger upon a necessary element in biography ; and that it is also a necessary limitation. For the invented character lives in a free world where the facts are verified by one person only — the artist himself. Their authenticity lies in the truth of his own vision. The world created by that vision is rarer, intenser, and more wholly of a piece than the world that is largely made of authentic information supplied by other people. And because of this difference the two kinds of fact will not mix; if they touch they destroy each other.
The queen thus moves in an ambiguous world, between fact and fiction, neither embodied nor disembodied. There is a sense of vacancy and effort, of a tragedy that has no crisis, of characters that meet but do not clash. If this diagnosis is true we are forced to say that the trouble lies with biography itself. It imposes lab conditions, and those conditions are that it must be based upon fact. And by fact in biography we mean facts that can be verified by other people besides the artist. If he invents facts as an artist invents them — facts that no one else can verify — and tries to combine them with facts of the other sort, they destroy each other. Lytton Strachey himself seems in the queen Victoria to have realized the necessity of this condition, and to have yielded to it instinctively. The first forty-two years of the queens life, he wrote, are illuminated by a great and varied quantity of authentic information. With Alberts death a veil descends.
By what art are we to worm our way into those strange spirits? Those even stranger bodies? The more clearly we perceive it, the more remote that singular universe becomes, lytton Strachey remarked on one of the first pages. Yet there was writing evidently a tragic history lying dormant, half revealed, half concealed, in the story of the queen and Essex. Everything seemed to lend itself to the making of a book that combined the advantages of both worlds, that gave the artist freedom to invent, but helped his invention spondylolisthesis with the support of facts — a book that was not only a biography but also. Nevertheless, the combination proved unworkable; fact and fiction refused to mix. Elizabeth never became real in the sense that queen Victoria had been real, yet she never became fictitious in the sense that Cleopatra or Falstaff is fictitious. The reason would seem to be that very little was known — he was urged to invent; yet something was known — his invention was checked.
In time to come lytton Stracheys queen Victoria will be queen Victoria, just as Boswells Johnson is now. The other versions will fade and disappear. It was a prodigious feat, and no doubt, having accomplished it, the author was anxious to press further. There was queen Victoria, solid, real, palpable. But undoubtedly she was limited. Could not biography produce something of the intensity of poetry, something of the excitement of drama, and yet keep also the peculiar virtue that belongs to fact — its suggestive reality, its own proper creativeness? Queen Elizabeth seemed to lend herself perfectly to the experiment. Very little was known about her. The society in which she lived was so remote that the habits, the motives, and even the actions of the people — of that age were full of strangeness and obscurity.
Virginia woolf and the Art of biography - ida home
In the statement Elizabeth he treated biography as an art ; he flouted its limitations. But we must go on to ask how we have come to this conclusion and what reasons support. In the first place it is clear that the two queens present very different problems to their biographer. About queen Victoria everything was known. Everything she did, almost everything she thought, was a matter of common knowledge.
No one has ever been more closely verified and exactly authenticated than queen Victoria. The biographer could not invent her, because at every moment some document was at hand to check his invention. And, in writing of Victoria, lytton Strachey submitted to the conditions. He used to the full the biographers power of selection and relation, but he kept strictly within the world of fact. Every statement was verified; every fact was authenticated. And the result is a life which, very possibly, will do for the old queen what Boswell did for the old dictionary maker.
And the anger and the interest that his short studies of Eminent Victorians aroused showed that he was able to make manning, Florence nightingale, gordon, and the rest live as they had not lived since they were actually in the flesh. Once more they were the centre of a buzz of discussion. Did Gordon really drink, or was that an invention? Had Florence nightingale received the Order of Merit in her bedroom or in her sitting room? He stirred the public, even though a european war was raging, to an astonishing interest in such minute matters.
Anger and laughter mixed; and editions multiplied. But these were short studies with something of the over-emphasis and the foreshortening of caricatures. In the lives of the two great queens, Elizabeth and Victoria, he attempted a far more ambitious task. Biography had never had a fairer chance of showing what it could. For it was now being put to the test by a writer who was capable of making use of all the liberties that biography had won: he was fearless; he had proved his brilliance; and he had learned his job. The result throws great light upon the nature of biography. For who can doubt after reading the two books again, one after the other, that the victoria is a triumphant success, and that the Elizabeth by comparison is a failure? But it seems too, as we compare them, that it was not Lytton Strachey who failed; it was the art of biography. In the victoria he treated biography as a craft; he submitted to its limitations.
Virginia woolf bibliography - wikipedia
Ii, the figure of Lytton Strachey is so important a figure in the history of biography, that it compels a pause. For his three famous books, Eminent Victorians, queen Victoria, and, elizabeth and Essex, are of a stature to show both what biography can do and what biography cannot. Thus they suggest many possible answers to the question whether biography is an art, and if not why it fails. Lytton Strachey came to birth as an author at a lucky moment. In 1918, when he made his first attempt, biography, with its new liberties, was a form that offered great attractions. To a writer like himself, who had wished to write poetry or plays but was doubtful of his creative power, biography seemed to offer a promising alternative. For at last it was possible to tell the truth about the dead; and the victorian age was rich in remarkable figures many of whom had been grossly deformed by the effigies that had been plastered over them. To recreate them, to show them as they really were, was a task that called for gifts analogous to the poets or the novelists, yet did not ask that inventive power in which he found himself lacking. It was well worth trying.
Then, towards the end of the nineteenth century, there was a change. Again for reasons not easy to discover, widows became broader-minded, the public keener-sighted; the effigy no longer carried conviction or satisfied curiosity. The biographer certainly won a measure of freedom. At least he could hint mother that there were scars and furrows on the dead mans face. Froudes Carlyle is by no means a wax mask painted rosy red. And following Froude there was Sir Edmund Gosse, who dared to say that his own father was a fallible human being. And following Edmund Gosse in the early years of the present century came lytton Strachey.
a distinction between biography and fiction — a proof that they differ in the very stuff of which they are made. One is made with the help of friends, of facts; the other is created without any restrictions save those that the artist, for reasons that seem good to him, chooses to obey. That is a distinction; and there is good reason to think that in the past biographers have found it not. Only a distinction but a very cruel distinction. The widow and the friends were hard taskmasters. Suppose, for example, that the man of genius was immoral, ill-tempered, and threw the boots at the maids head. The widow would say, still I loved him — he was the father of my children; and the public, who love his books, must on no account be disillusioned. And thus the majority of Victorian biographies are like the wax figures now preserved in Westminster Abbey, that were carried in funeral processions through the street — effigies that have only a smooth superficial likeness to the body in the coffin.
If it is true that there have been only three great biographers — johnson, boswell, and fruit Lockhart — the reason, he argues, is that the time was short; and his plea, that the art of biography has had but little time to establish itself and. Tempting as it is to explore the reason — why, that is, the self that writes a book of prose came into being so many centuries after the self that writes a poem, why Chaucer preceded Henry james — it is better to leave that. It is that the art of biography is the most restricted of all the arts. He has his proof ready to hand. Here it is in the preface in which Smith, who has written the life of Jones, takes this opportunity of thanking old friends who have lent letters, and last but not least Mrs. Jones, the widow, for that help without which, as he puts it, this biography could not have been written. Now the novelist, he points out, simply says in his foreword, every character in this book is fictitious.
Lyndall Gordon: Virginia woolf
The, art of, biography, i the art of biography, we say —-but at once go on to ask, is biography lab an art? The question is foolish perhaps, and ungenerous certainly, considering the keen pleasure that biographers have given. But the question asks itself so often that there must be something behind. There it is, whenever a new biography is opened, casting its shadow on the page; and there would seem to be something deadly in that shadow, for after all, of the multitude of lives that are written, how few survive! But the reason for this high death rate, the biographer might argue, is that biography, compared with the arts of poetry and fiction, is a young art. Interest in our selves and in other peoples selves is a late development of the human mind. Not until the eighteenth century in England did that curiosity express itself in writing the lives of private people. Only in the nineteenth century was biography fully grown and hugely prolific.