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Biography: Fact or Fiction?

Biography: A Brief History by Nigel Hamilton

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Figure 1. Detail of St. Thomas Aquinas, from the Demidoff Altarpiece, tempera on poplar by Carlo Crivelli, 1476; in the National Gallery, London.

How, then, can the term “biography” remain today so limited in its definition, and the history of biography as a basic feature of Western civilization remain so neglected and marginalized at most universities in the world? (Hamilton, 280)

So asks Nigel Hamilton towards the end of this brisk trot through a two-thousand-year history of the biography form, and while he doesn't specifically answer the question, he suggests—via #MichikoKakutani at the #NewYorkTimes—that society (and therefore universities) hold a prejudice against the "permeable boundaries between fact and fiction" (Hamilton, 281); a hallmark that came to define Twentieth– and Twenty-first–century biography.

Hamilton's book is short, though still longer and more democratic than Hermione Lee's Very Short Introduction, which I published a dinky review of in October (see link below). More democratic because the author enthusiastically includes multiple media in his definition of biography, though like Lee, the chronology of his narrative is book-based, moving from Greco-Roman "Lives", through the Old and New Testament, to hagiographies (Lives of the Saints), Renaissance literature and dramaturgy (#Vasari, #Shakespeare), into Romanticism via #SamuelJohnson, Victorian "choristers" (more on this later), the backlash from #VirginaWoolf and #LyttonStrachey against their forebears, and ultimately into new territory with the moving image, the danger of state-run propaganda, censorship (and the eradication of it in the Anglosphere), and into a Twenty-first-century hodgepodge free-for-all, which could now be updated to include social media. (For the remainder of this review I am, like Hamilton, talking about print biographies, while nodding to some other forms).

Before turning to the fine line that biography must tread between fact and fiction (artifice might be a better word), I wanted to turn to another argument that Hamilton makes throughout the book, which gathers momentum towards the end. He writes:

I argue that the pursuit of biography, controversial in its challenge to received ideas of privacy and reputation since ancient times, is integral to the Western concept of individuality and the ideals of democracy, as opposed to dictatorship or tyranny. (Hamilton, 2).

This is an interesting idea, though it is not persuasively argued in Hamilton's text. In fact, the author mentions on a number of occasions how democracies "clung... to their laws of libel, making criticism of living people impossible (Hamilton, 179), going so far as to add in another instance: "#Victorian expansionism added yet another burden to biography, since imperialism, too, contributed to the demand for patriotic and exemplary, rather than honest, lives." (Hamilton, 111). Therefore, a biographer did not need to live under a dictator to feel restraints to his or her vision or craft.

Indeed, the author, in some very interesting sections, tells us that throughout its history, biography was at the mercy of censorship laws, libel laws, taste, literacy (or illiteracy) and many other factors that influenced how it was researched, written, published and received. (I would add here, who wrote it; who had the education, time, and resources, a room of their own; Hamilton does refer to the inherent patriarchy of the form; but more could be made of this).

Hamilton singles out key sea-changes to the form, where a writer managed to break free from cultural restraints and what went before (e.g. #ThomasAquinas, Jean-Jacques #Rousseau, #MichaelHolroyd), though it was often one step forwards and two back, as was the case with Victorian biographers, who Hamilton calls "choristers, singing the praises of successful men…" (Hamilton, 126). The lack of diversity, honesty and complexity in Victorian biography, was, Hamilton writes, Victorian fiction's gain:

Vices were uniformly excluded—to the delight of fictional writers. For them, the failure of print biographers—even portrait painters and other biographical artists—to produce truthful rather than idealized portraits was a heaven-sent opportunity, inspiring them to write the greatest “biographical” novels of all time. (Hamilton, 116).

Evidently, Victorian biographers—and it was a thriving business—"laundered" their own lives and the lives of their peers; something that their children, including Virgina Woolf railed against. For Woolf—the daughter of a biographer—biographers were not mere historians, they could be"an artist" (Hamilton, 116).

Now, I'm not about to take on Virginia Woolf. I believe that biographies can be an art and that biographers can, in a way, be artists; understood as a person skilled in the act of creation and interpretation. However, given that biographies are also historical documents, I would hesitate to suggest that they should be works of pure art or fictive (unless they establish themselves as this in the first case). It is one thing to borrow tropes, styles, and techniques from fiction and use these in the biography form, but I don't think a biographer should purposefully misrepresent a life by addition or omission of materials. And while I acknowledge that biography is a form of documentary and portraiture, and in the visual arts, artists take all kinds of freedoms (in material, colour, form etc.) to capture the essence or likeness of a person, all of these different modes have different rules, strengths, limitations, and baggage that feeds into how they are produced and also how and where they are encountered once finished.

This is an unfinished thought from me, because again, different media require different comments on the biographical work they are undertaking. It's not easy to compare like-for-like a book, #film, #sculpture, #podcast, or #comicbook.

To return to Hamilton to end (the author; not the musical). This is a fun and engaging book that you will zip through. I appreciate the links and arguments Hamilton makes between biography and democracy, and biography and patriarchy, as well as his attempt to modernise the expansiveness of genre, and the different modes it can take. One notable gap is coverage of post-colonial biography.

Given its print, material, visual and inter- and multi-disciplinary forms, as well as the varied historical contexts that biography exists in and caters to, its probably impossible to write a biography of the biography (which, certainly, Hamilton was not trying to do; well, he kind of was); especially because the form is alive and kicking, with no signs of retiring any time soon. Social media presents exciting potential for the field of studies, which is now more broadly called life writing or life studies, but I have yet to read an extensive account of the key concerns of the discipline for today, and like Hamilton, would love to see the discipline gain more visibility and focus in third-level education.


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