On biography

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.


Filed under Books, Nonfiction

11 responses to “On biography

  1. Patrick Murtha

    Music critic John Steane has a marvelous comment on the use of “one.” He is talking about the first edition of his book “The Grand Tradition” (about opera singing):

    “I feel the shadow of [literary critic] F.R. Leavis in some habits of expression [that I employed]. One is ‘one.’ Leavis used this a lot: ‘one’ was aware of such-and-such and ‘one’ was duly impressed or dismayed. The usage is insidious in its assumption of centrality. It supplants the first person singular and so may appear to be less self-centered. But ‘I’ is only me, and comparatively modest. ‘One’ is (more or less) ‘the normal sensible human being,’ with whom naturally you (the reader) will identify yourself. It is, as I say, insidious; conceited too.”

    Cecil was a very near-contemporary of Leavis, so maybe this usage was “in the water” at that time. But ever since I read Steane’s comment, I have always tried to keep his insight in mind when using “one.”


  2. Prior to reading your posting, if someone were to ask me who William Cowper was, I would simply say, “This guy who wrote several hymns”… because this is ALL I know of him. My theological background and training in the Christian ministry means I have personally sung many a Cowper lyric in my time.
    But your posting makes me realize that there was much more to him than hymn, so to say.


  3. I’m intrigued by the use of generalisations. I wonder to what extent this was feasible in earlier times because people were extremely class conscious, xenophobic and racist and generally tribal animals? The multi-cultural, liberal society wasn’t even dreamed of and there was still such a thing as the ruling class. Cecil probably had a pretty good idea of ‘how things were’ for people like himself. Still, I guess it’s the colonising attitude writ large. I’m very much enjoying your forays into different kinds of biography, Dorothy, and learning so much!


  4. I think that’s a rare combination in an author — the ability to be “all-knowing” and still charming. I don’t read very many biographies, but this does sound quite interesting.


  5. I find the biographer’s discreetness here charming. The modern biographers’ urgency to tell us all, and reveal “new, never before told!” minute details about an author or other famous personality is a turn off to me. It speaks of wanting to sell books more than respect for the subject they write about, or a passion for accuracy and balance.

    While I am interested in someone’s art, and how their personal life may have affected their work, I don’t think every personal detail is fair game for public consumption. Sorry for the soapbox!


  6. zhiv

    Very exciting. First off, I love the fact that you’re reading and, more importantly, enjoying this book. After your last post I took a quick Wikipedia glance at David Cecil, which was interesting and well worth doing, as it explains a lot. That would be Lord Edward Christian Davis Gascoyne-Cecil, just for the record, the younger son of the 4th Marquess of Salisbury, and an Oxford fellow and later professor from 1939 to 1970. I recognize the title of his 1934 book Early Victorian Novelists, which I might have on my shelves somewhere, and you might be interested to know that he followed it up with a book on Jane Austen in 1936. So I think it’s safe to say that we’re in Evelyn Waugh/Brideshead Revisited territory here, although I don’t know anything about either of those topics, having a vague impression of young Brit aristocrats walking around castles between the wars. So I suppose that Cecil came by the privileged “one” rather honestly. The interesting thing, however, is that this was his first book–he was all of 27 when he published The Stricken Deer. And it was a prize-winner too, taking the James Tait Black Memorial for biography, and no doubt putting Cecil on the map. The winners of these prizes make an interesting list, both from the 20s, where Geoffrey Scott’s Portrait of Zelide is a great biography I’ve heard, and you have two VWoolf’s, Bell’s and Lyndall Gordon’s, but no Hermione Lee, and Richard Holmes Dr Johnson and Richard Savage is on there too. And you might like to know that Claire Tomalin won it for her book on Charles Dickens and Ellen Ternan. Lastly, I’ll note that it takes a little digging to get back to your post on Brian Lynch and The Winners of Sorrow, and I’m curious to read your comparisons. Cowper sounds like fun, in a sorrowful way I guess.


  7. Thanks to zhiv for the enlightening info on Cecil. I still don’t know who Cowper was but I enjoyed reading your take on the 1930s biography of him. ‘One’ does wonder how things would have been different if he’d had the benefits of multiculturalism (not to mention doubt).


  8. Patrick — thanks for the John Steane quotation; I think he’s absolutely right that the usage implies a kind of self-centeredness that is troubling. It erases the possibility of other people’s differing experiences, and Cecil’s writing definitely has that effect — he’s assuming he understands “the way things are.” I can see the problems with the usage, although at the same time I’ll admit that it has its appeal — I suppose it can be a comforting kind of style and reassuring, unless you don’t recognize yourself in his descriptions.

    Cipriano — I’m sure I’ve sung many a Cowper hymn too, which is amusing to think about. But yeah, he was really popular during his time, and I think it was for his poetry, not his hymn lyrics. He’s definitely an interesting figure!

    Thank you Litlove! I’m enjoying my forays into biography too. I’m sure you’re right that Cecil did have a pretty good idea of how things were for people like him — what’s interesting is when he starts describing 18C evangelicals, a very different sort of person, and is equally certain of himself. He seems to have them all figured out. So yeah, it’s the colonizing attitude writ large, as you say, and I’m sure it WAS very common at the time.

    Lisa — yeah, it’s not easy being a charming know-it-all! He does it pretty well though 🙂

    Debby — Cecil is quite the opposite of someone wanting to expose salacious details for the sake of selling books! He makes as little of Cowper’s sexuality as he possibly can. I suppose it’s possible to be more detailed and probing than Cecil is here and still be respectful, but it so common for biographers to fail miserably at the respect part.

    Zhiv — thanks so much for the information on Cecil! I was aware he was a lord, but hadn’t gotten any farther. How fascinating that he published the book when he was 27! I wonder if that explains some of the overheated style, or if that style stayed with him in all his books. I’ll bet his Early Victorian Novelists book is interesting, both for the information on the novelists it contains but also for the 1930s perspective. And how fun it would be to read his Austen book after reading Tomalin’s! Now that James Tait Black list is one I’ll have to look up — it sounds like a great source of future reading. Finally, I’ll edit my post to include a link to my review of the Lynch book — thanks for pointing that out.

    Couchtrip — I think most people don’t know who Cowper was! But he was a popular poet in the late 18C and influential at least for a while into the 19C. I’d like to read up on him more myself.


  9. What an interesting comparison between Cecil and Tomalin! Fascinating to see how biography has changed and to speculate about how the changes came about. We no longer accept authority like we used to, I think postmodernism did away with that once and for all.


  10. Interesting point about his ‘confidence’. It made me think of a writing teacher who was very firm that we should avoid language like ‘in my opinion’, ‘I feel that…’, and such. “Anything we write is our opinion and the reader knows that already,” was the teacher’s reasoning. Of course this leaves some people thinking the writer is a little cocky, but it removes a lot of wishy-washy sentiment. Perhaps a lot of modern writers don’t buy into that philosophy.


  11. How interesting to compare two biographers writing in completely different generations. It’s interesting to see how perspectives and approaches to subject matter change. I bet you can really see how the two cultural periods influenced how each author writes. Interesting, too, on Cecil’s background–I was curious if he was a writer or literary critic or what.


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