SAINTE-BEUVE, as Gamaliel Bradford points out, started the fashion of dissecting souls. It remained for the twentieth century to develop this idea into a definite theory of biography: an attempt to illuminate, as by a flash of lightning, the essence of a character, and to eliminate the mass of detail that forms such an important part of older biographical studies. That this method is remarkably effective is undeniable; that it affords an excellent opportunity for the display of literary skill is also beyond question; but whether or not it is conducive to fidelity of portraiture is another matter.
Mr. Strachey is probably the most striking exponent of this method to-day, but in at least three of the sketches in the present volume Mr. Barrington shows himself fully his equal. Indeed, he may fairly be said to surpass both Strachey and Bradford in the delicacy and sympathy with which he depicts great souls in their great moments. Mr. Barrington has not been content merely to imitate a method: he has added to it and made it peculiarly his own. He shows his characters as far as may be through the eyes of contemporaries — or as he imagines they saw themselves — and not as specimens exhibited to the overcritical judgment of an alien posterity. And if due care be taken not to deviate from the known facts, a loss of accuracy need not be the price of this increased effectiveness.
The seven gallant gentlemen selected for illumination range all the way from Henry II of England to Sir Peter Teazle, but in every case it is of the ladies concerned that we get the real picture; the men, alas, are as shadowy as before. They do, it is true, shine with some reflected light, but no single male character stands out clearly and unforgettably from these pages. Whatever be his title, it is with the ladies that Mr. Barrington is really concerned, and in portraying them and analyzing them he is at his best. It is worth noting, too, that he is far more at home in the eighteenth century than anywhere else. Perhaps because he understands the eighteenth century so well, he finds it difficult to be quite at ease in the more direct and, if you like, more brutal sixteenth century. Certainly the sketch of Queen Elizabeth is the least convincing.
The masterpiece is Lady Nelson’s story. One ventures to hope that those who read ‘The Divine Lady’ will also read ‘The Two and Nelson’; each is needed to complete the other. As for the portrait of Mrs. Thrale, it is more than a pathetic story of passing interest— it is a real contribution to the more complete understanding of that extraordinary circle in which Dr. Johnson lived and of which he was the most important member, if not exactly the brightest ornament. The reconstruction of Mrs. Fitzherbert’s encounter with Beau Brummell damns even more thoroughly the memory of both the ‘Prince of Fashion and the Prince of the blood.’ They were both damned quite effectively in their day, but we are often in danger of forgetting it because of the romance that has since partially veiled their true characters. We are not so sure, perhaps, of the accuracy of the scene between Mary and the Duke of Monmouth. Stuart, though she was, Mary’s behavior does not quite fit the character that has come down to us from other sources. Still, history is proverbially inaccurate, and only a poet can hope to fathom a woman’s soul.
Mr. Barrington has made a real advance in this style of writing and at the same time has given us several portraits of enduring value. It is to be hoped that he will explore still further in the eighteenth century—and perhaps next time he will seriously try his hand at one or two men!