Four Recent Biographies


THREE of the volumes thus far published in the new series of English Men of Letters one opens with the utmost confidence; and the inherited tradition of excellence is so high that it is a little hard to withhold that confidence in the case of the fourth.1 Its authorship is not what might have been expected, to be sure. There is cause for wonder in the admission of a facile leader-writer, such as Mr. Herbert W. Paul has hitherto seemed to be, to the esoteric fellowship of Mr. Birrell, Mr. Harrison, and Mr. Stephen; and there is cause for amazement in the fact that he has been assigned one of the most delicate tasks which have fallen to the lot of recent biographers. It is conceivable that a writer of Mr. Paul’s limitations might at such a moment, feeling the stress of an unusual obligation, call in his reserves of strength and shoot fairly beyond his ordinary mark. Apparently nothing of the sort has been felt or done in this instance. Mr. Paul has undertaken to dispose of Matthew Arnold with the same jaunty confidence which may no doubt have proved a useful asset to the London Daily News. Surely, without making a superstition of such a personality as Arnold’s, there are restraints and reticences to be practiced. The truth is to be told as one sees it, but without cocksureness; certainly without suspicion of familiarity or condescension. “But Matthew Arnold is more than strong enough to live in spite of his faults.” This is the conclusion which the present biographer offers us in his introductory chapter: and this suggests very well the tone of the book as a whole.

One is perhaps unduly prejudiced against the substance of the biography by its defects of style in the smaller sense. Mr. Paul is in the habit of bringing together perfectly irrelevant facts, which he does not take the trouble to link together even rhetorically. We may cite, as a presumably favorable instance, a narrative passage, a sort of writing in which, one would think, facts and sentences must link themselves : —

“Throughout his life, indeed, he worked hard for a moderate salary, never complaining, always promoting the happiness of others, and throwing into his daily duties every power of his mind. In one of his early letters to his sister, Mrs. Forster, Mr. Arnold naïvely observes that he is much more worldly than the rest of his family. He was fond of society, and a delightful member of it. Worldly in any other sense he was not. Few men have had less ambition, or a stronger sense of duty. On the 10th of June, in this same year, he married the lady who for the rest of his life was the chief source of his happiness. Her name was Frances Lucy Wightman, and her father was an excellent judge of a good old school, much respected in court, little known outside. Mr. Arnold, though neither a lawyer nor interested inlaw, accompanied Mr. Justice Wightman on circuit for many assizes as marshal. Characteristically avoiding the criminal side, he liked to watch his father-in-law try causes. ‘ He does it so admirably, ' he tells his wife. ' It ’ is said to be a lost art. ” Here a paragraph division brings relief to the eye without being otherwise of appreciable use.

After all, the difficulty must be understood in the end as a difficulty of style in the larger sense. It is clear that the main business of a brief biography should be to effect by a gradual process of increment in narrative and interpretation a palpable projection of the subject’s personality. It is equally clear that this end can be gained only by the exertion of discriminating sympathy and of constructive power. Mr. Paul has been able to bring neither of these qualifications to his task. For his lack of intellectual and temperamental kinship with Arnold he is not responsible, though it is so marked as to disqualify him for effective biography; and this he might have felt. Nor can it be asserted that he is quite accountable for his lack of method. He expresses himself fragmentarily because he thinks in bits ; his talent is altogether for aphorism and summary. It is not astonishing, therefore, that we should find him somewhat at a loss for legitimate material to eke out his two hundred pages withal. Leaving out of account the quality of his Introduction, it must be noted that he there says all that he has to say about Matthew Arnold. Having made his snappy generalizations, he finds them incapable of development. He is thenceforth reduced to three expedients: the statement of such facts about Arnold’s life as may serve to illustrate his aphorisms, the frequent repetition of those aphorisms, and, most useful measure of all, the minute criticism of certain phrases and dicta which do not meet his approbation. Not a little of this criticism is clever and even of value, but far too often some carefully considered theory or statement of Arnold’s is met by flat contradiction based upon the personal opinion of the biographer. It appears to be a main point with Mr. Paul to record the number of verses or sentences in Matthew Arnold of which Mr. Paul does not approve. Excessive attention to minutiæ is a failing to which all critics are liable. With a plentiful lack of mere assertiveness and exceptional poise of mind and temper, the error is at least not offensive. Unfortunately Mr. Paul possesses the assertiveness and lacks the poise. His book will do no harm unless by having removed the opportunity for an important work in an important series.

Mr. Birrell’s achievement is of a very different sort. He is not a trained biographer like Sir Leslie Stephen, but he is a man of keen and flexible intelligence, and a writer of much experience and extraordinary charm. The book may be pretty exactly classed with Black’s Goldsmith in the earlier series. As in that case, the theme is admirably suited to the biographer’s taste. Its treatment does not call for powers in which he is deficient, nor exact their painful utmost. He has the critical advantage over the other writers in this group of dealing with a product the quality of which has been already approximately determined by time. On the other hand, he thinks, the lapse of a century since Hazlitt’s death must have made a modern interpretation of his character of dubious value: —

“How little is it we can ever know about the character of a dead man we never saw! His books, if he wrote books, will tell us something; his letters, if he wrote any, and they are preserved, may perchance fling a shadow on the sheet for a moment or two ; a portrait if painted in a lucky hour may lend the show of substance to our dim surmisings; the things he did must carefully be taken into account; but, as a man is much more than the mere sum of his actions, even these cannot be relied upon with great confidence.”

We are tempted to quote against Mr. Birrell’s theory and in favor of his practice a passage from his favorite Bagehot: “ Some extreme skeptics, we know, doubt whether it is possible to deduce anything as to an author’s character from his works. Yet surely people do not keep a tame steam engine to write their books: and if those books were really written by a man, he must have been a man who could write them. ”

It is impossible not to feel that Mr. Birrell has been singularly successful in deducing the kind of man Hazlitt was from the facts of his life and work; most readers will find their conception of an interesting personality sensibly clarified by this appreciation.

It is a personality neither quite lovable nor quite venerable. Hazlitt made enemies as long as he lived, and will continue to make them as long as he is read; for there was little tolerance in his heart, and no flag of truce among his accoutrements. But if he gave no quarter, he received none. “Gifford’s abuse stopped the sale of the Characters, ” says Mr. Birrell with his accustomed energy; “but, happily, there is no need to grow tearful over Hazlitt’s wrongs. He had enough bile in his hold to swamp a dozen Giffords.” That swamping was effected in due time. The fact which is most to the credit of this rather lonely man’s character is the avowed friendship of Lamb: a guarantee that there can have been nothing radically vicious in its recipient. At just this point it is possible that Mr. Birrell is too conservative. From the conventional point of view of his time and still more distinctly from our own not less conventional point of view, Hazlitt failed of being a moral person. Doubtless it is advisable to judge a man by the canons of his own age. But it should be remembered that Hazlitt at his worst never made, like Byron, a postulate of libertinism or, like Sterne, a cult of prurience. In truth, Hazlitt, in many respects so perfectly a modern, was in a moral sense a survival and not a decadent: a survival, however, not of classical unmorality, but rather of the romantic idealism which the Middle Ages did not always connect with what we regard as purity of life. One can find nothing pleasant in the circumstances which led to the writing of the Liber Amoris; nor can one altogether fail to perceive a certain warped and misdirected nobility in the eager seriousness with which Hazlitt there attempts to rear a structure of ideal passion upon a pitifully inadequate foundation.

If Hazlitt was now and then capable of mediæval idealism, he was habitually receptive to modern sentimentalism. “For novels and plays there never was such a reader,” says Mr. Birrell, “nor was he over-critical, — the most stilted of heroines, the palest of sentimental shadows, could always be relied upon to trundle her hoop into Hazlitt’s heart.” He adored Richardson and reveled in Rousseau. From a personality so constituted it is impossible to expect absolute regularity of life or thought. Nor can one look for impartial judgment, since nobody is capable of greater bias or virulence than your sentimentalist. Hazlitt’s Spirit of the Age is the finest gallery of portraits in English; yet one is reminded by not a few sketches of that early experience of his as a painter. “Hazlitt began with the poets — the two finest in England if not in Europe, Coleridge and Wordsworth, whose equine physiognomy Hazlitt greatly admired. Unluckily, neither picture was a success. According to Southey, Hazlitt made Coleridge look like a horsestealer on his trial, evidently guilty, but clever enough to have a chance of getting off; whilst Mr. Wordsworth, according to another critic, represented a man upon the gallows-tree deeply affected by a fate he felt to be deserved.”

Mr. Birrell gives an interesting account of the gradual development of the literary personality of his author. “In the beginning of things Hazlitt was slow of speech and sluggish of fancy, the bent of his mind being speculative and reflective.” His first book was published when he was twenty-seven years old, and was a metaphysical discourse In Defence of the Natural Disinterestedness of the Human Mind. He can have little fancied that the passage of a century would leave him valued not as critic or metaphysician, but as the author of Table-Talk and, in Mr, Birrell’s phrase, “the most eloquent of English essayists. ”

If the limitation of remoteness in point of time is really important, Mr. Harrison has not suffered under it. His peculiar qualifications for the present undertaking and the spirit in which it is carried out are plainly indicated in the opening chapter. He has accepted the task, he says, with real hesitation. “ Though an ardent admirer of the moral, social, and artistic ideals of John Ruskin myself, I am sworn in as a disciple of a very different school, and of a master whom he often denounced. As a humble lover of his magnificent power of language, I have studied it too closely not to feel all its vices, extravagances, and temptations. I am neither Socialist nor Plutonomist; and so I can feel deep sympathy for his onslaught on our modern life, whilst I am far from accepting his trenchant remedies. I had abundant means for judging his beautiful nature and his really saintly virtues, for my personal acquaintance with him extended over forty years. I remember him in 1860 at Denmark Hill, in the lifetime of both his parents, and in the heyday of his fame and his power. I saw him and heard him lecture from time to time, received letters from him, and engaged in some controversies with him, both public and private. I was his colleague as a teacher at the Working Men’s College and as a member of the Metaphysical Society. And towards the close of his life I visited him at Brantwood, and watched, with love and pain, the latest flickering of his indomitable spirit. If admiration, affection, common ideals, aims, and sympathies, can qualify one who has been bred in other moulds of belief and hope to judge fairly the life-work of a brilliant and noble genius, then I may presume to tell all I knew and all I have felt of the ‘ Oxford graduate ’ of 1842, who was laid to rest in Coniston Churchyard in 1900.” The warmth and frankness of this introduction are a happy promise of the sympathy and discrimination with which the work is done. Mr. Harrison writes with complete recognition of the defects of judgment which made Ruskin a life-long leader of forlorn hopes. But while he deplores the fallacies and lapses which marred so much of the work of the great prose rhapsodist, there is not a trace of sharpness in his strictures. On the contrary those Utopian dreams, those vagaries of mental habit, those wild and wandering words of which Ruskin was too capable are treated with forbearing candor. “ The ninety-six letters of Fors contain the tale of a long career of failures, blunders, and cruel disappointment. They contain, too, the record of that damning perversity of mind and of character which ruined Ruskin’s life and neutralized his powers, the folly of presuming to recast the thought of humanity de novo, and alone; to remould civilization by mere passion without due training or knowledge ; attempting alone to hurl human society back into a wholly imaginary and fictitious past. Yet, let us remember, —

' It was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Cæesar answered it.'

But there are some failures more beautiful and more useful to mankind than a thousand triumphs. It is impossible to weigh the value, or to judge the legitimacy, of a hopeless but heroic sacrifice. . . . Magnanimity owes no account of its acts to Prudence. No; nor to Common Sense.”

Ruskin, like Hazlitt, was a lover of painting and to some extent a proficient in the art; a voluminous writer upon miscellaneous themes; and a none too discreet belligerent upon many fields. There the likeness ends, and the difference begins which marks Ruskin for sympathy and love where Hazlitt gets none. Ruskin’s instinct was to build up rather than to tear down; and it was from a certain soreness of heart that his bitterest invectives welled up, and not, as Bagehot remarked of Hazlitt’s work, from “a certain soreness of mind.” As for the character of his total written product, Mr. Harrison says what most needs to be said, in his preliminary summary : “ The author of more than eighty distinct works upon so miscellaneous a field, of masses of poetry, lectures, letters as well as substantial treatises, was of necessity rather a stimulus than an authority — an influence rather than a master. . . . He is a moralist, an evangelist — not a philosopher or a man of science.”

Sir Leslie Stephen does not approach his task in quite Mr. Harrison’s mood, partly on account of a difference in temperament and subject, but largely on account of a difference in method. Sir Leslie is perhaps the most accomplished of living biographers. It has become his habit to write, never without sympathy, but without obvious enthusiasm ; with a cool detachment of tone and a polished irony of phrase which in the long run may well be more effective than a sentimental and rhetorical manner. It is an indication of his mastery of the chosen method that his coolness suggests dispassionateness rather than indifference, and his irony discrimination rather than superciliousness. The career of George Eliot calls for less cautious treatment than that of Ruskin. Her life, though not in all respects normal or happy, had nothing of the piteous about it. From the time of her union with George Lewes the merit of her work was fully rewarded by public approbation; and the constant and affectionate encouragement of Lewes himself was a gift of the gods such as few women of genius have been blessed with. She had her fits of diffidence and depression, as what writer of serious purpose has not ? But there was nothing morbid in her nature, her experience was of a sort to nourish her wholesome powers, and her success in literature was prompt and stable. She was, to be sure, even later than Hazlitt in finding her true work. As with him, the natural bent appeared to be toward speculative studies, and it was diligently followed till she had fared well toward middle age. At thirty-six she had not even attempted to write anything original. “She was at home in the upper sphere of philosophy and the historical criticism of religion, but she was content to be an expositor of the views of independent thinkers. She had spent years of toil upon translating Strauss, Feuerbach, and Spinoza; and was fully competent to be in intellectual communion with her friends Charles Bray and Herbert Spencer.” This was to have done much, but apparently in a direction little likely to lead to creative work of any sort. And indeed, undisputed as was the influence which her metaphysical studies exerted upon her later literary method, the best of her work sprang from a very different soil. The seed of her hardy and slowgrowing genius was probably none the worse for the stony deposit with which her speculative studies had laboriously overlaid it. Perhaps nothing less than the lapse of years and the interposition of sober occupation could have enabled her in middle life to found a great reputation upon a basis of youthful memories.

It will be remembered that critics have had much to say about the quality of George Eliot’s work as art. Mr. Dowden asserts, for example, that her novels are not only far from mere “ didactic treatises,” but “are primarily works of art, ” while Mr. Brownell contends that she had no art at all, but was essentially a moralist. Sir Leslie characteristically declines to make himself uncomfortable over the somewhat academic question. “ George Eliot speaks, we have seen, of the ' ethics of art,’ and to some people this appears to imply a contradiction in terms. Æsthetic and ethical excellence, it seems, have nothing to do with each other. George Eliot repudiated that doctrine indignantly, and I confess that I could never quite understand its meaning. The ‘ ethical ’ value of artistic work, she held, is simply its power of arousing sympathy for noble qualities. The ‘artist, ’ if we must talk about that personage, must, of course, give true portraits of human nature and of the general relations of man to the universe. But the artist must also have a sense of beauty; and, among other things, of the beauty of character. ... If anybody holds that morality is a matter of fancy, and that the ideal of the sensualist is as good as that of the saint, he may logically conclude that the morality of the novelist is really a matter of indifference. I hold myself that there is some real difference between virtue and vice, and that the novelist will show consciousness of the fact in proportion to the power of his mind and the range of his sympathies.” The biographer, however, is careful to note the danger of “direct didactic intention.” “It does not matter so much why a writer should be profoundly interested in his work, nor to what use he may intend to apply it, as that, somehow or other, his interest should be aroused, and the world which he creates be a really living world for his imagination. This suggests the difficulty about George Eliot’s later writings. The spontaneity of the earlier novels is beyond all doubt. She is really absorbed and fascinated by the memories tinged by old affections. We feel them to be characteristic of a thoughtful mind, and so far to imply the mode of treatment which we call philosophical. Her theories, though they may have guided the execution, have not suggested the themes. A much more conscious intention was unfortunately to mark her later books, and the difficulties resulted of which I shall have to speak. ”

It is impossible to give here even a brief summary of Mr. Stephen’s very interesting discussion of the novels. Among his conclusions these may be barely stated: that Mrs. Poyser is the novelist’s masterpiece of characterization ; that George Eliot is unnecessarily hard upon Hetty Sorrel, sharing “the kind of resentment with which the true woman contemplates a man unduly attracted by female beauty; ” that she “ did not herself understand what a hairdresser’s block she was describing in Mr. Stephen Guest,” and indeed was incapable of creating real men; and that Romola was not a Florentine maiden of the fifteenth century, but “a cousin of Maggie Tulliver, though of loftier character, and provided with a thorough classical culture.”

George Eliot’s verse, particularly The Spanish Gypsy, is analyzed at some length, and to this end: “ Passages often sound exactly like poetry; and yet, even her admirers admit that they seldom, if ever, have the genuine ring. . . . Perhaps it was simply that George Eliot had not one essential gift — the exquisite sense for the value of words which may transmute even common thought into poetry. Even her prose, indeed, though often admirable, sometimes becomes heavy, and gives the impression that instead of finding the right word she is accumulating more or less complicated approximations. ” Mr. Stephen avoids the word “ style ” as he avoids the word “artist; ” but he seems here to come very near Mr. Brownell’s judgment that George Eliot “had no style.” The biography concludes with the suggestion that the abiding charm of George Eliot’s novels may best be understood “by regarding them as implicit autobiography; ” that, in short, to read her novels is to come under the intimate spell of companionship with a remarkable person. The remark would seem to be generally applicable to the best work in any field of literature. Sir Leslie Stephen’s biographies, indeed, scrupulous as he is to avoid the autobiographical note, are likely to prove of permanent value not only because they are the product of an informed and subtle intelligence, but because they seem to place us upon terms of almost familiar intercourse with a personality of marked distinction.

H. W. Boynton.

  1. Matthew Arnold. By HERBERT W. PAUL. William Hazlitt. By AUGUSTINE BIRRELL. John Ruskin. By FREDERIC HARRISON. GeorgeEliot. By LESLIE STEPHEN. English Men of Letters. Edited by JOHN MORLEY. New York : The Macmillan Co. 1902.