Recent Biographies and Memoirs
To delineate, to interpret, and to reveal by every legitimate means, is the work of the writer of biography. Such a task must be, ideally, objective. According to the best rules of the game. the exploitation either of his subject or of himself is forbidden the biographer. His, enthusiasm, if be has it. will stream out; but, like a welldirected searchlight, it will illumine, not himself, but Ins subject. Oh! if you had thought once about yourself, cries llazlitt in Ids fine essay, ‘Whether Genius Is Conseious of Its Powers.’ or anything but the subject, it would have been all over with the glory, the intution. the amenity, the dream had fled, the spell had been broken.’
Mr. Francis Haekett’sHenry the Eighth: A Personal History presents our first ease in point. Here is a magnificent historical pageant which glows with the confusion and color of Henry’s own Field of the Cloth of Gold. Here, notably in the tine paragraphs devoted to the contrast between the central ideas of the twelfth and the sixteenth centuries, or in the memorable sketch of Turquenmda, or in the careful treatment of Catherine Howard, is language. which equals dial of Macaulay and of Fronde at their best indeed, at moments surpasses theirs because of greater subtlety. Mr. Hackett’s ability for painstaking labor is astonishing; years of research and of thought have unquestionably gone to make a book which is not only a gorgeous spectacle and ah unforgettable study of human character, but a most readable and clear portrayal of sixteenth-century political and diplomatic intrigue. Since these things are so, what a pity that Mr Hackett should so often direct his searchlight away from Henry VIII. or bis six wives, or Wolsey, or Francis, or Charles, lo throw into bold relief bis own unbowed bead! A noisy or presumptuous word, a erode comparison, a smart comment in bad taste, or a sacrilegious phrase, which wants to stay out, but is unceremoniously hauled in by the heels these famish Mr. Hackett s bright pages and surely diminish his qualifications as a portrait painter and as a biographer.
The past weeks have seen the publication of two Russian diaries, the titles of which lure the admirers of Russian literature Countes Tolstoy and Madame Dostoyevsky, the one during twenty-eight years of her married life from 1862 to 1891, the other for a brief live mouths from April to August in the first year of her marriage, kept diaries, which in this time, auspicious for ‘human documents, are only now appearing in English under the titles The Diary of Tolstoy ’s Wife and The Diary of Dost over s Wife. One eagerly anticipates further and more intimate portrayal of the two great Russians by the persons best qualified to give it, but one is disappointed Except for twenty pages, which Him at recording ‘Lyova’s mental activities between 1870 1881 Countess Tolstoy ’s diary is a chronicle of depression, anger. occasional self-loathing, suspicion, and ever-present jealousy. It is true that the record covers a period of twenty-eight years, and that the entries, comparatively few in number, were, according to the editor, probably made ‘only when she felt, particularly angry or depressed.’ But the weary reader long before, the large hook is finished iforeed to wonder why and wherefore its publication, since it adds practically nothing to mil knowledge of I olstoy and gives only an unpleasant and perhaps unite inaccurate portrait of the Countess, whose commendable care of her large family and ceaseless deciphering and copying ol her husband ’s manuscripts become unfortunately negligible in the fury of her railings against her unhappy lot. Vs an antidote Sydney Smith’s letter to Countess Grey here springs to mind: ‘You never say a word of yourself, dear Lady Grey,’ he writes. ‘You have that dreadful sin of anti-egotism.’ Would that Countess Tolstoy might have profitably shared in that wrongdoing!
Madame Dostoyevsky’s diary strikes an admirably different note. To be sure this document, too, sheds little light on the work of her great husband, who had only just completed crime and Punishment and was even then writing The Heathers Karamazov. His tendency to epilepsy and his craze for roulette do not satisfy us, who would like to know more of the inception and creation of Alyosha and Ivan. And yet the keeper ol this diary is so gay and courageous, so normal and so patient, that one cannot resent its publication on the grounds of uselessness. Madame Dostoyevsky was plentifully endowed with that common sense which. Voltaire reminds us, is not. so common; and her saving sense of humor, her resiliency, and her eye for accurate detail mitigate not a little our sense of disappointment upon closing the book.
Mr. Osberl Burdett in The Brownings is another biographer who finds it difficult to be objective. His task has been to reconstruct from the letters of Robert, and Eliznbeth Barrett Browning the story of their acquaintance, friendship, and love. Although he claims in his preface that his work is a ‘joint study of the pair, as a unity, and suggests that his purpose is critical as well as biographical, surely the critical teat tires are for the most part negligible. Fully one third of the book is devoted to the respective youths of the pair and another third to a romantic tale evolved from the love letters. As has been suggested, Mr, Burdett is too much addicted to comment, to a kind of brooding philosophizing at once cocksure and didactic, platitudinous and sentimental. One feels like quoting to him the immortal saying of Mr. Tappertit in Barnaby Radge.: I here are strings in the human heart that had better not be wibrated.’ This intrusion inevitably diverts the attention FROM the subjects at hand and does not increase one’s respect for the scholarly abilities of the biographer. Without it the value of the book would be immeasurably increased.
The biographical worth of these studies is. I must believe, seriously impaired by the lack of detachment on the part of the author. It is, therefore, reassuring in the extreme to consider ot her books in which the biographer loses himself in his subject., and by so doing, according to the Gospel dictum, reveals himself in a manner far more convincing.
First among these comforting volumes is Lewis Mumford’sHerman Melville, a study ol his life and thought. There are many things in Mr. Mumlordߡs work which are worthy of praise: his good and various writing, that mastery of rhythms and of diction which ran upon Occasion enhance so distinetly a given situation; his careful use of detail; the aptness of his quoted material; his generous but never overdone enthusiasm; the studied design of his every chapter. He will make Melville a mystic, particularly in Moby Dick; and one cannot too highly commend the plan of his book, which, with its symbolic chapter headings, suggests from the very start the end in view. One would perhaps hesitate to call Ids study brilliant; but it is surely competent and adequate, sensitive and line, dignified and interesting.
The lately published Letters of Katherine Mansfield. edited in two beautiful volumes by J. Middleton Murry, present a paradox in effect. Extremely personal, even intimate, as they are, they yet strangely enough do riot strike one as introspective or self-centred. It is as though Katherine Mansfield, her own biographer, were portraying her mind and spirit as quite apart from her suffering body and anxious heart. The one outstanding, ever-present feature of these letters is her repeated insistence upon detail the sea like quilted silk, the strange, bright light, the palm trees after rain, ‘standing up like stiff bouquets before the Lord, the little, red-sailed boats, the double daffodils in English gardens. Like Keats’s ideal of poetry, her prose, both in the stories and in the letters, surprises hy a fine excess, Does she not herself in an early letter, written in May Ittto, explain, or at least suggest, the transcendent meaning of such detail in her life? ‘Do you, too,’ she writes, ‘feel an infinite delight and value in detail Mot for the sake ol detail, but for the life in the life of it?’ Surely, to her such images were Ideas, transcendent, spiritual, infinite, and such life was Life, timeless and everlasting.
Miss Repplier shall be The last biographer to receive our praise, which, so far as she is concerned, is perennial. She is never dull or smart, introspective, platitudinous, or sentimental. In her Père Marqette she leaves little to be desired. That her method is incurably that of the essayist does not in the least distress her seasoned readers. What more enjoyable than to browse with her over old maps marked terra Incognita and Terra Inhabitabile, without any hurry to get to Bore Marquette? What better than to read and reread Pere Le Jeune’s inimitable description of Ihe skunk Which he mentions in the Jesuit Relations, ‘not on aeronnt. of its excellenee, hut to niake of it a symbol of sin? I’ere Marquette in her skilled hands is himself an heroic and beautiful figure, whose ‘life’s rhythm was one with the rhythm of the forest that engulfed him and the vast river that bore him to his fate. A of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius as well as of Chirst. he lived his life of thirty-eight years, thinking of Good and acting for man.
Such a book as this is refreshing and delightful. Although not exhaustive in scholarship, it is careful and accurate. Its detail is memorable, its style easy and natural, its humor never-failing, its swift and keen thrusts of satire salutary and wise. And is Miss Repplier absent, did we say? Yes and no. She is absent in tliat she neither swaggers nor stmts nor sentimentalizes nor calls attention to herself by the manifold tricks of many of her contemporaries. She is absent, as Abbe Dimnet iabsent in The iironti Sixtrrs, because she, like him, is concerned not with hersell, but with her subject. Hut she is inevitably and forever present, as ate all our best writers. new and old, who are too wise to be presumptuous, too humorous to be didactic, and too thoughtful to be spendt lirifts of words.
MARY ELLEN CHASE
Henry the Eighth: A Personal History, by Francis hackett. New York : Horace Liveright. Illus. $5.00.
The Diary of Tolstoy’s Wife, edited by S. L. Tolstoy. Translated by Alexander Werth, New York: Pavson N clarke, Ltd. $3.50.
The Diary of Dostoyevsky’s Wife, edited by Rene Fillup-Miller and Dr, Fr. Kckslein. New York: Macmillan Co. $7.00. The Brownings, by Osbert Burdett. Heston: Houghton Mifflin Co. $4.00.
Herman Melville, by Lewis Mumford. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co. $3.75.
The Letters of Katherine Mansfield, edited by J. Middleton Murry. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 2 vols. $7.50,
Pere Marquet te: Priest, Pioneer and Adventurer, by Agnes Kepplier. New York: Doubleday, Doran & Co. $8.00.