Satan Among the Biographers

MARCH, 1923



BY Satan I do not mean the evil spirit who goes about like a roaring lion. I have in mind the Satan who appears in the prologue to the Book of Job. He is the adversary, the one who presents the other side. When the sons of God came together, then came the adversary among them. He belonged to the assembly, but he sat on the opposition bench. He introduced questions which had occurred to him as he walked up and down upon the earth. His function was to challenge generally received opinions. There was Job. Everyone looked upon him as a man who was as righteous as he was prosperous. But was he? Satan suggested that his character should be analyzed. Take away Job’s prosperity and let us see what becomes of his righteousness.

Now that critical spirit has entered into the biographers and influenced their attitude toward what they used to call the subject of their sketch. It used to be taken for granted that the tone of biography should be eulogistic. ‘Let us praise famous men and the fathers who begat us.’ This indicates how closely biography is related to genealogy. The text is often transformed into, ‘Let us praise the fathers who begat us, and if we have sufficient literary skill we may make them famous.’

The lives of the saints have a great sameness, for it is necessary that they should be saintly. Even when their adventures are of the most astonishing character, the chronicler must throw in a word now and then to show that they are not acting out of character. Thus that wild Irish saint, Saint Brandan, who went careering over the Western Sea like another Sindbad the Sailor, must have a religious motive for his voyage. The chronicler declares, ‘seven years on the back of a whale he rode, which was a difficult mode of piety.’ Had Brandan been a layman, we might have admired him for his acrobatic gifts. Being a saint, we must see him balancing himself on the back of a whale as a pious exercise.

Biographers on the whole have been a rather modest folk and have had scant recognition in academic circles. Thus there are numberless professors of history — ancient and modern—but when recently a Minnesota college established a professorship of biography, the title seemed a strange one. The educational world has followed the example of Nature — so careful of the type, so careless of the single life.

But a new school of biography has arisen, and it is of interest to compare it with the old. The great difference is in the attitude of the biographer toward his subject. The attitude of the old biographer was that of a painter who was commissioned to paint the portrait of a great man. He wished to make a likeness and to make it as lifelike as possible; but he had to recognize the proprieties. The painter is frankly on the outside, and can give only so much of character as is revealed in the countenance. So the biographer was dealing frankly with externals. What the great man did or said could be recorded, but what he meant could only be guessed. Every man’s mind was his castle, and there were private rooms into which the public had no right to intrude. If a person were very inquisitive, he might, if he got the chance, peep in through the windows of the soul; but that was as far as he could go. He was necessarily an outsider.

But of late the biographer has become bolder and, instead of peeping in, has taken to breaking and entering. His method is described as ‘penetrating.’ We see him not only prowling in the consciousness, but penetrating into the most remote portions of the subconsciousness. We see him throwing his flashlight upon motives concealed from nearest friends. It is the era of the X-ray, and human character cannot escape the methods of research. The biographer attempts to show us a man’s mind as viewed from the inside. How he gets inside is his business — not ours.

Let us compare John Morley’s Gladstone with Mr. Strachey’s Queen Victoria. Morley takes his subject very seriously. Gladstone was a great man, and knew it, and so did everyone else. He lived in a great period and was an important part of it. Morley was a friend who followed his career with respectful but discriminating interest. He was in a position to know a great many facts. But he did not intrude. A vast number of details are given, but the result of it all is that we feel that we are looking at Gladstone and not through him. We know what he did and what he said, and we know what interpretations his friend Morley put upon his words and actions; but we can only guess at his ulterior motives. We see the conclusions to which he came but not all the mental processes by which they were reached. Mr. Gladstone always appears to us clothed and in his right mind. If he had any unlucid intervals, they are not a part of the record. As for exploring Gladstone’s subconscious mind, his friend would as soon have thought of poking about in his host’s pantry without asking leave. What did Gladstone think when he was n’t addressing the public or preparing to address it? The biographer would say, ‘That is none of your business, nor is it mine.’

The same impression is made by Trevelyan’s John Bright. We feel that we know John Bright as well as his constituents knew him. It never occurs to us that we know him better.

Turn to Mr. Strachey’s delightful biography of Queen Victoria. We have a surprise. We are conscious of a new sensation. To say that the book is stimulating is faint praise. It is intoxicating. Here is biography with its crudenesses and irrelevancies distilled away. We get the essential spirit.

It is not that we are behind the scenes as an ordinary playgoer who is allowed this novel experience, that he may see how things look on that side of the curtain. We are behind the scenes as a playwright who is also his own stagemanager may be behind the scenes. We feel that somehow we have an intimate knowledge of how the lights should be arranged to produce the best effects. We have no illusions ourselves, but this allows us to watch the production of the play with keener intellectual interest.

We see Queen Victoria, not as her admiring subjects, with superstitious ideas about royalty, saw her, but as she would have seen herself, had she been as clever as we are. The revelation has all the charm that an autobiography would have if a person could speak about himself without vanity and without self-consciousness.

In reading the Confessions of St. Augustine or Rousseau, we feel that they are trying to tell the whole truth about themselves, but we are not convinced that they have succeeded. They confess certain sins that attract their attention; but what of those failings which St. Paul describes as ‘the sins that so easily beset us’? Some of these beset a person so closely that he does n’t know that they are there. There are certain commonplace faults which are seldom confessed by the most conscientious. I have never come across an autobiography in which the writer drew attention to the fact that his friends often found him a little wearing.

Mr. Strachey gives us Victoria’s autobiography written by somebody else who saw through her. There is an awareness of all her limitations and a cool appreciation of her middle-class virtues. We sympathize with her efforts to live up to her station in life. We see her successes and admire her pluck. When she makes mistakes we recognize that she is thoroughly conscientious. Her judgments are often shrewd. She is rather muddle-headed in regard to the new problems of the day, but not more so than her constitutional advisers. She is a real character, and we know her in the same way that we know Becky Sharp and Mrs. Proudie. We feel that we not only know what she did, but we know the moving why she did it. We know also why she did not do more. It was because it was n’t in her to do more. And her environment was exactly fitted to her personality. We feel that it was no mere coincidence that she lived in the Victorian Age.

In Eminent Victorians, Mr. Strachey reversed the methods practised by writers like Walter Scott. They took some well-known historical character and allowed their imagination to play about it. The result was Historical Romance, or Romance founded on fact.

Mr. Strachey takes well-known historical characters of the last generation, like Arnold of Rugby, Cardinal Manning, Chinese Gordon, and Florence Nightingale, and shows us that they have become in a short time little better than noted names of fiction. Every man is his own myth-maker and his friends and enemies collaborate in producing something quite different from the reality. The ordinary biography is, therefore, little more than a collection of facts founded on a fiction. The problem, then, is not simply to reëxamine the facts, but to rearrange them so that they will tell a true story and not a false. The biographer is like a typesetter. He must first distribute the type and then set it up again to form new words and sentences.

No saint in the calendar had a legend more firmly fixed and authenticated than Florence Nightingale. The public not only knew what she did, but was convinced that it knew what kind of a person she was. She was the lady with the lamp, the gentle ministering angel who went about through the hospitals in the Crimea. She was the one who brought the feminine touch to war.

Mr. Strachey does not change the outlines of her story. That is a matter of historic record. She did all and more than we have been taught to believe. But he shows Florence Nightingale as an altogether different kind of a person.

The feminine gives way to a masterful personality. Florence Nightingale was the stuff that successful politicians and captains of industry are made of. She appears as a formidable person, abrupt in manner, often bitter in speech, the terror of evil-doers, and still more the terror of incompetent well-doers. She was strong minded, neurasthenic, intense in her antipathies, and not pleasant to live with; but she got things done.

She was born in a wealthy family. She wanted to have her own way, but was never quite sure what it was to be. This was an endless trouble to her family, who never knew what to do with Florence, or rather what Florence would let them do for her.

When marriage was suggested, she writes, ‘The thoughts and feelings I have now I can remember since I was six years old. A profession, a trade, a necessary occupation, something to fill and employ all my faculties I have always felt essential to me. Everything has been tried — foreign travel, kind friends, everything. My God, what is to become of me?’

Then came the Crimean War with the breakdown of the hospital service. At last she had her own way and it proved a gloriously right way. She won immortal fame.

The war ended, and Florence Nightingale had fifty years of invalidism. But she was the same energetic, pugnacious personality. Almost to the end she refused to wear the halo prepared for her by the public which she continued to serve faithfully and acrimoniously. We are made to feel that Florence Nightingale loved her fellow men, but not as an amiable person loves those friends whom he finds congenial. She loved mankind as a thoroughly conscientious person might love his enemies. ‘Sometimes,’ says Mr. Strachey, ‘her rages were terrible. The intolerable futility of mankind obsessed her, and she gnashed her teeth at it.’

This is a triumph of biographical reconstruction. We see Florence Nightingale as great and good, though with very different virtues.

When I turn to Arnold of Rugby and Chinese Gordon, I begin to have misgivings. Mr. Strachey’s portraits are marvelously clear, but there is something lacking. Looking through the eyes of Thomas Hughes and Dean Stanley, we see Dr. Arnold as a great man. We cannot expect Mr. Strachey to share their awe, for Dr. Arnold was not his schoolmaster. But we do not feel that he accounts for the impression the Doctor made on those who knew him.

As for General Gordon, we see him not through the eyes of a hero worshiper, but as he appeared to one who had no sympathy with his enthusiasms. That irony which is delightful when playing around the figure of Queen Victoria seems out of place when directed toward the hero of Khartum. There was a touch of fanaticism about Gordon, just as there was about Cromwell. But Carlyle’s Cromwell stands out against the background of eternity, and is justified. Strachey’s Gordon stands condemned against a bleak background of common sense. Even the final tragedy is told without any relenting admiration. The whole thing was so unnecessary. When all was over, we are told of the group of Arabs whom Slatin Pasha saw, one of whom was carrying something wrapped in a cloth. ‘Then the cloth was lifted and he saw before him Gordon’s head. The trophy was taken to the Mahdi; at last the two fanatics met face to face.’

Thirteen years after, Kitchener fearfully avenged his death at Omdurman, ’after which it was thought proper that a religious ceremony in honor of Gordon should be held at the Palace in Khartum. The service was conducted by four chaplains and concluded with a performance of “Abide with Me,” General Gordon’s favorite hymn. General Gordon, fluttering in some remote Nirvana the pages of a phantasmal Bible, might have ventured a satirical remark. But General Gordon had always been a contradictious person, even a little off his head perhaps — though a hero; and besides he was no longer there to contradict. At any rate, all ended happily in a glorious slaughter of twenty thousand Arabs, a vast addition to the British Empire, and a step in the peerage for Sir Evelyn Baring.'

What is it that offends in this? It is the unfairness not to Gordon but to his contemporaries. Gordon represented an ideal that belonged to his generation. It was British imperialism touched with a sense of responsibility for the government of the world. We have broken with imperialism, but we ought to be touched by the heroism. In brushing aside the judgment of his contemporaries with a touch of scorn, we feel the kind of unfairness of which Cato complained when, after he had passed his eightieth year, he was compelled to defend himself in the Senate. ‘It is hard,’ he said, ‘to have lived with one generation, and to be tried by another.’

Each generation takes itself seriously. It has its own ideals and its own standards of judgment. One who has made a great place for himself in the hearts of his contemporaries cannot be dismissed lightly because he does not conform to the standards of another period. The visitor to Colorado is taken by his friends for a drive over the high plains in sight of the mountains. Pointing to a slight rise of ground that is little more than a hillock, the Coloradian remarks: ‘That we call Mount Washington, as it happens to be the exact height of your New Hampshire hill.’

The New Englander recalls, with shame at his provincialism, the time when he thought Mount Washington sublime. When he recovers his selfrespect, he remembers that a mountain is as high as it looks. It should be measured not from the level of the sea but from the level of its surrounding country. Mount Washington seen from the Glen looks higher than Pike’s Peak seen from the window of a Pullman car.

In like manner a great man is one who towers above the level of his own times. He dominates the human situation as the great mountain dominates the landscape of which it is a part.


A very alluring opportunity is offered for the scientific study of personages who have made a great place for themselves in history. They have all of them been more or less ailing, and have had ‘symptoms’ of one kind and another. An American medical man has given us a number of volumes entitled Biographic Clinics.

Mr. Frederick Chamberlin has given us a large volume on The Private Character of Queen Elizabeth. Elizabeth is defended against the charges made by her enemies, but the defense is damaging to the romance which has gathered around her name. She is treated as if she were an out-patient in the General Hospital. The first thing, of course, is to take her family history. Then we have sixty pages of the medical history of Elizabeth Tudor.

The writer is most conscientious, and says, ‘Items are numbered consecutively, accompanied by Elizabeth’s age and the date of each. It is attempted to confine each disease or illness to one group.’ In her long life she had a number of ailments. We are spared not one detail. Following the itemized health record, there are twenty-five pages of ‘The Opinions of Medical Experts.’ Mr. Chamberlin, who is not by profession a medical man, presented the data he had collected to the leading consultants, to get their opinion as to what was the matter with Queen Elizabeth.

Sir William Osler was rather brief in his answers to the questions. While agreeing that, judging from the records, the patient could hardly be said to be in good health, he says, ‘Apart from the dropsy, which may have been nephritis, and the smallpox, the descriptions are too indefinite to bare any opinion of much value.’ To Question IV — What was her probable health during the years for which there are no data supplied? — Dr. Osler answers, ‘Impossible to say.’

Sir Clifford Allbutt is equally unsatisfactory. ‘Would it be too much to say that after her fifteenth year she was practically an invalid with the possible exception of the years for which no data are supplied, directly or indirectly?’ He answers, ‘It would be too much.’

But Dr. Keith of the Royal College of Surgeons gives an opinion at great length, accompanied by a clinical chart. We learn that she had anemia, stomach and liver derangements, septic conditions of the teeth, and the pain in her left arm may have been from rheumatism.

The reader’s apprehensions, however, are somewhat relieved by the consideration that all these ailments did not come at once but were scattered over a period of sixty-nine years. Dr. Keith adds very justly that the diagnosis would he more complete had the physician had an opportunity to personally examine the patient. ‘In the case of Queen Elizabeth, the modern physician is separated from his patient by more than three hundred years; he has to attempt a diagnosis on historical data.’

By the way, it is interesting to see how the course of history modifies scientific opinion. When she was about eighteen, Elizabeth had an illness which Dr. Howard at first diagnosed as the most extreme form of kidney disease. ‘But,’ he adds, ‘it seems hardly possible that the subject of nephritis of so severe a type would live to be nearly seventy.’ He therefore inclines to the theory that the trouble was ‘acute endocarditis and mitral regurgitation’; and then he adds, with the fairness characteristic of a scientific man, ‘The same objection to longevity might be raised to this diagnosis also.’

Modern pathology may throw light on some historical characters, but one feels that it has its limitations. Not only do the modern physicians find it difficult to make a complete diagnosis when the patient has been dead for three hundred years, but they find it difficult to keep to the highest standard of professional ethics when speaking of the practitioners of a former day.

Thus Sir Clifford, speaking of the doctors who treated Queen Elizabeth, says: ‘My impression is that in the sixteenth century medicine was below contempt. In Queen Elizabeth’s time Clowes did somewhat, and, possibly, Lowe; but really all the medicine of value was in Italy; and only by studying in Italy could our doctors then have known anything. Some few did, of course. The rest were hard-shell Galenish and quacks.’

This is rather hard, coming from a consultant of the twentieth century who was called into a case that belonged to medical men of the sixteenth century. The fact that these medical men had kept the patient alive for almost seventy years, while the modern diagnosticians would have given her up at twenty, ought to count for something.

I am willing to admit that pathological inquiries may have their uses for the biographer, but there are limits. In this sphere pathology may be a good servant, but it is a bad master. The same may be said of psychology. The psychologist in his own sphere is a modest and hard-working person. The advancement of any science within its own territory is always slow work. If one is to get results he must work for them and share them with others.


But there is a border line between the sciences which is a fair field for adventure. The bold borderer, with a few merry men, may make a foray and return with booty. The psychiatrists and psychoanalysts have invaded the field of biography in force and are now engaged in consolidating their conquests. Biography is a particularly inviting field. To psychoanalyze a living person takes a great deal of time and patience. But to psychoanalyze historical personages and to point out their various complexes and repressions and conflicts is an inviting pastime. There is no one to contradict.

The old-time theologians in discussing predestination ventured into the recesses of the Divine Mind. Assuming that God both fore-knew and foreordained man’s fall, they asked which had the priority, fore-knowledge or fore-ordination. Did God fore-know that man would fall and therefore foreordain that he should be punished everlastingly? So said the sub-lapsarians. With more rigid logic the supralapsarians contended that fore-ordination is absolute and independent of all contingencies. God fore-ordained man’s creation, his fall, and his punishment in one decree, and of course he fore-knew that the decree would be fulfilled.

Theologians to-day are more modest and are inclined to admit that there are some things which they do not know. But there are biographers whose minds seem to be built on the high supralapsarian plan. When we open the book we feel that everything is foreordained. There are no contingencies. The man’s character being determined, the biographer presents us with the incidents which illustrate it. We know the kind of a person he is, and his deeds are pre-determined.

The clear-cut character sketches in which a man represents a single trait are interesting, but they are most sharply defined when we know only one incident. Some of the most familiar characters of the Bible are known only from a chance word or mere gesture. ‘Gallio cared for none of these things.’ Generations of preachers have held up Gallio as an example of the sin of indifference. He was the kind of man who, if he lived now, would neglect his religious privileges and forget to register at the primaries. But was Gallio that kind of a man? All we know about this Roman magistrate is that he dismissed a case over which he had no jurisdiction, and in regard to which he had little interest. Had we a glimpse of him on another day, we might revise our opinion.

The name of Ananias has been used as a synonym for habitual liar. But in the Book of the Acts it is not said that Ananias told a lie: all that is said is that he sold his possessions and laid part of the price at the Apostle’s feet. In other words, Ananias did not, on this occasion, make a complete return of his personal property.

When this method is applied to persons whose lives are well known, there will always be a great deal of skepticism. How can we be sure that the clever writer has happened on the right clue to the character he undertakes to reveal to us?

In the Mirrors of Downing Street, and Painted Windows, and Uncensored Celebrities, we have interesting studies of character. We have snapshots of distinguished statesmen and churchmen. But do we really get inside the minds of these persons; and, if we did, should we be as wise as we think we should be?

Take this question in regard to Mr. Lloyd George. The writer, speaking of that statesman’s sudden change of front, asks, ‘How came it that the most pronounced pacifist of a pacifist liberal cabinet, who had, six weeks before, begun a passionate crusade against armaments, on the fateful August 4, 1914, gave his voice for war?’

Now I venture to say that no biographer, furnished with the latest instruments of psychological precision, exploring the recesses of Mr. Lloyd George’s mind but ignoring the tremendous events of crowded days, could give the right answer to that question.

Why does it happen that a quiet householder in Kansas, who is shingling his kitchen roof, is seen the next moment frantically digging himself out of a mass of débris? You cannot understand the sudden change of occupation by an intensive study of the Kansas mind — you have to take into account the nature of a cyclone.

The student of Mr. Lloyd George’s mind says: ‘He is always readier to experience than to think. To him the present tick of the clock has all the dignity of the Eternal. If thought is a malady, he is of all men most healthy. The more he advocates a policy, the less he can be trusted to carry it through.’

This is clever analysis, but the question intrudes—How does the writer know so much about what goes on inside of Mr. Lloyd George’s mind? Why may he not be doing a good deal of rapid thinking while he is experiencing so vividly? And why may not this thought directed to the question of the moment be fairly accurate? Granted that he changed his mind rapidly, did he change it any more rapidly than the circumstances with which he had to deal changed? Granted that he did n’t bring anything to its logical conclusion. Amid the tremendous forces that were struggling in the world, could anything be brought to its logical conclusion? There is room here for honest doubt.

The biographer may well sharpen his wits by means of psychology, but he must not allow a formula to stand in the way of an individual. From the rigid supra-lapsarians we are always happy to escape to the biographers, ancient or modern, who are of the humanistic school. In their pages we see characters developing unevenly under the stress of circumstances. We cannot tell what a person is capable of doing till he does it; and even then we are not always sure that we have all his reasons. There is no programme that is followed. Unexpected things are all the time turning up and bringing into play powers which we had not looked for. We are compelled to revise our first impressions both of the man and his times. The more the individual is observed, the more individualistic he appears to be. He becomes less significant as a symbol and more interesting as a personality.

There, for example, is Plutarch’s Cato. No attempt is made to analyze his character or to account for his idiosyncrasies. We see him just as he happened to be. He does n’t correspond to any formula. He is just Cato.

Cato was gray-eyed and red-headed. He was a self-made man. He worked hard and liked to wear old clothes when he was in the country. He was fond of turnips and of cabbage. He was very thrifty, and when his slaves began to grow old he sold them to save the depreciation in his property. He disliked flatterers, but was not averse to praising himself. He loved sharp jests. He was a popular orator and a good soldier. When he was elected to office, he put a super-tax on articles of luxury; he cut the pipes by which wealthy householders had surreptitiously drawn water from the public fountains; he reduced the rates of interest on loans, and conducted himself with such outrageous rectitude that all the best people turned against him.

All these incidents have to do with the outward life of Cato. Plutarch is content to set them down with the remark, ‘Whether such things are proof of greatness or of littleness of mind, let each reader judge for himself.’ Yet somehow they make the red-headed Roman seem very real to us. We know him in the same way that we know a contemporary. If we were to drop into Rome on election day and be told that the paramount issue was ‘Anything to beat old Cato,’ we should feel at home. We should probably vote for Cato, and regret it after the election.

We have this sense of complete reality in the characters of statesmen and soldiers which we come upon in the crowded pages of Clarendon. Here is Clarendon’s Hampden. It is the portrait of a gentleman drawn by another gentleman who was his enemy. But one would prefer to have Clarendon as an enemy rather than another man as a friend.

John Hampden ‘was a gentleman of good family in Buckinghamshire, and born to a fair fortune, and of a most civil and affable deportment. In his entrance into the world he indulged to himself all the license in sports, and exercises, and company, which was used by men of the most jolly conversation. Afterwards he retired to a more reserved and melancholy society, yet preserving his own natural cheerfulness and vivacity, and above all a flowing courtesy to all men. . . . He was of that rare affability and temper in debate, and of that seeming humility and submission of judgment, as if he brought no opinion with him but a desire of information and instruction; but he had so subtle a way of interrogating, and, under the notion of doubts, insinuating his objections, that he left his opinions with those from whom he pretended to learn and receive them. . . . He was indeed a very wise man and of great parts and possessed with the most absolute spirit of popularity, that is, the most absolute faculties to govern the people, of any man I ever knew.’

In Clarendon’s eyes, John Hampden was a very dangerous man. ‘He begat many opinions and motions, the education of which he committed to other men.’ Of one thing we are not left in doubt. He was a very great man, though he fought on the wrong side.

‘He was very temperate in diet, and a supreme governor over all his passions and affections, and had thereby a great power over other men. He was of an industry and vigilance not to be tired out or wearied by the most laborious; and of parts not to be imposed upon by the most subtle or sharp, and of a personal courage equal to his best parts; so that he was an enemy not to be wished wherever he might have been made a friend.’ It is after all these qualities have been acknowledged that Clarendon adds: ’His death therefore seemed a great deliverance to the nation.’

No psychologist by the most painstaking analysis could produce the effect that these words make upon us. We are conscious of John Hampden’s personality as a force against which strong men are contending. We not only see the man himself, but we see why some men loved him and others resisted him. He was part of a mighty movement, which he largely directed.

Biography cannot be reduced to a science, but it may rise into the finest of the arts. It is the art of reproducing not merely the incidents of a great man’s life, but the impression he made on those who knew him best.