I decided to take Zhiv’s advice and continue reading David Cecil’s The Stricken Deer, a biography of William Cowper (I also wrote about the book here). I am maybe a third of the way through it at this point. It’s been interesting to read so shortly after finishing Claire Tomalin’s biography of Jane Austen because it’s allowed me to compare biographical styles from the 1930s and the 1990s, and they turn out, no surprise, to be very, very different.
Cecil, for example, is much more likely to make blanket statements about what humans are like than Tomalin is. Tomalin does a little of this too, but Cecil is strikingly willing to tell us just how people in general behave, with a confidence that I don’t think many writers today share or at least would be willing to express. It seems we’ve become (to make my own blanket statement) much more hesitant about our assertions. Cecil says things like this:
Youth can not take a consistently pessimistic view of its lot, for it thinks of its mode of existence, not as real life, but as the preparation for it. So that, however much it may deplore the present, it is hopeful about the future, which must be different, and will probably be pleasanter. But with maturity hope begins to flag. One has grown up and settled to a profession and made one’s friends, and the course one’s life will wend is clear before one. If one is still weighed down the the burdens of youth, it seems likely that one will carry them to the grave.
Now this seems like a very reasonable observation to make, and yet I can’t imagine many modern biographers going on about what happens to “one” quite so long. And there are lots of passages like this, passages that project a calmness and a confidence powerful enough that it makes one wish things really were that simple and obvious.
Cecil also never bothers to tell the reader where he got his information from or to express doubts about whether his interpretation is correct or to acknowledge other possible interpretations or conflicting views out there. This is another manifestation of the confidence that can pronounce on “how things are”; the style implies there’s no need for justification or explanation. Cecil doesn’t include notes or a bibliography either, although he explains in a short preface that he didn’t intend this to be a “definitive and documented” biography, so that exclusion makes some sense. But even so, I would guess that a modern biographer doing something similar to Cecil would mention what sources information came from and would make a point of discussing uncertainties of interpretation, as Tomalin does regularly. Instead what we get is a smooth and uninterrupted narrative, one written as though it were a novel or autobiography where the author had no need to offer verifying background information.
Generally this highly self-confident style would annoy me, but here I like it. It’s fun to listen to a voice of authority now and then, rather than having to grapple with questions and uncertainties all the time. And when the voice of authority is as charming and beguiling as Cecil’s is, that makes it even more enjoyable. In the back of my mind I know, of course, that what Cecil is telling me about Cowper might very well be open to debate, and I do wonder how much is speculation and how much comes from reliable sources, but still, I don’t mind a little simplicity and straightforwardness now and then.
Another difference between Cecil and modern biographers is how they handle issues of sexuality; in fact, I’d like to find a more modern biography of Cowper to see just how that biographer deals with Cowper’s possible impotence. Here is what Cecil says on the subject:
… obscure hints reach us of a more somber cause for Cowper’s youthful sufferings. It is alleged that he suffered from an intimate deformity, and from early years the thought of it preyed on his mind. The whole subject is mysterious. In later life his emotional experience was normal and developed perfectly spontaneously. On the other hand, he never was a passionate man; and there are certain facts in his later life for which such a deformity would offer a convincing explanation. If he was deformed there is no doubt that he must have learned about it early, possibly from the deriding lips of his tormentors. The effect on him must inevitably have been disastrous. Boys dislike above all things to be different from other people; nor was Cowper of an age to estimate coolly the relative importance of his abnormality.
The next paragraph begins, “at any rate,” and continues on with the narrative. Cecil refers to this subject a couple times in later passages, but always obliquely, and as though he’d prefer not to. Can you imagine a modern biographer discussing impotence without ever using the word itself and without getting precisely anatomical, not to mention psychoanalytic?
I have to rush through the rest of this book to get it back to the library, but the truth is, it’s an enjoyable, quick read, and I’m learning a lot — about Cowper and also about biography itself.