Is biography still relevant?

Harvey circulation illustrationThe Guardian books podcast of 26 October 2012 poses the question of whether ‘biography is still a relevant form of writing’, despite its obvious popularity (apparently around 2,000 new biographies are published every year). Two of the books under discussion are historical biographies: Thomas Wright’s Circulation: William Harvey’s Revolutionary Idea: and Tom Reiss’s The Black Count: Revolution, Betrayal and the Real Count of Monte Cristo, the story of Alexandre Dumas’s father, the inspiration behind his famous novel. The authors speak about what drew them to their subjects, and the relevance that their stories have for contemporary readers.

Biography as ‘proper’ history

Earlier this year, Jonathan Steinberg asked ‘Why has biography become respectable as a form of history?’, in a fascinating article published in Times Higher Education. He links this development to the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the consequent impact on ‘the social science model of history’. This model had ‘ignored the power of human personality’, and biography is now addressing this failing. He concludes that ‘Biography can … be proper history if it asks the kinds of questions that an academic historian can define and offers evidence to support the answer’.

The article is a fuller exposition of Steinberg’s earlier post on the OUPblog, ‘Is biography proper history?’

The historians who shaped the profession over the last 100 years


A. F. Pollard

The IHR’s Making History project, completed in 2008, covers the history of the study and practice of history in Britain over the last hundred years and more, following the emergence of the professional discipline in the late 19th century. A major part of the project involved building up biographical profiles of leading British historians, selected according to various criteria: producing a seminal work that reshaped the field (E. P. Thompson’s Making of the English Working-Class springs to mind), helping to establish a new sub-discipline (see the work of W. G. Hoskins on local history or Eileen Power in the field of economic history), or contributing to the institutional organisation of the profession (A. F. Pollard with the Institute of Historical Research, T. F. Tout with the Manchester School of History).

Conrad Russell

Some became synonymous with a particular era (G. R. Elton and the Tudors) or served as the public face of history (though A. J. P. Taylor’s achievements were not limited to his television lectures), and although most worked in higher education, others worked in the museum sector (Sir Roy Strong) or had spells advising governments (Sir Alexander Cairncross). Some, like Raphael Samuel, were university lecturers but did much of their work outside academia. Living historians were generally not included unless it was possible for their careers to be judged in perspective. A full list can be found here.

Who else would you like to see included? Who have we overlooked? Let us know below.

Danny Millum

Richard Evans on Sir John Elliott’s ‘History in the making’

Richard Evans begins his review of John Elliott’s ‘History in the making’ (Yale University Press, 2012) with a self-deprecating assessment of the interest that lies in the lives of historians: ‘Historians don’t have a very good track record when it comes to writing autobiographies. The lives we lead are just too ordinary. Life in the ivory tower doesn’t usually make for exciting reading …’.

The exceptions that he identifies, the likes of A.J.P Taylor, Michael Howard and Eric Hobsbawm, are interesting first and foremost for their activities and experiences outside their chosen field of research. Ultimately, he concludes, Elliott is not such an exception, and indeed ‘History in the making’ is not really an autobiography at all. There is little of the man in its pages, but a great deal of intellectual engagement with his works.

The full review is available from the New Statesman at


Our conference image

The image chosen for our conference is the famous painting in the National Portrait Gallery of historians associated with the journal Past & Present. It was commissioned from the artist Stephen Farthing in 1999 and depicts Sir John Elliott, Christopher Hill, Rodney Hilton, Eric Hobsbawm, Lawrence Stone, Joan Thirsk and Sir Keith Thomas. The sitters were not gathered together to be painted, but their relationship to each other was carefully planned by the artist.

The image is reproduced by kind permission of the National Portrait Gallery, and you can find out more about it at

Biography and its importance to history

Jonathan Haslam

Biography at its best is a good read, and the older one gets, the more attractive and entertaining biography becomes. This is not hard to explain. Not only does it appeal to a natural human instinct for gossip, but it answers a real need within us to understand each other better. Youth may reach adulthood believing that people are easily understood. Yet experience sooner or later corrects such a pleasing, but deceptive, assumption. Trust can prove expensive, and not just to the pocket. And it is a noticeable achievement of biography in modern times to begin from the premise that human nature is complex.[1]

Winston ChurchillMany also take heart from pursuing in print the life of another for the inspiration and encouragement it offers in times of adversity. That applies to certain biographers, of course, as much as to readers. Winston Churchill wrote the life and times of his ancestor Marlborough at the nadir of his political career. One does not have to look far to see that certain parallels were in mind.[2]

Apart from curiosity common to all and encouragement open to all, two good reasons also exist for historians – certainly those in politics and international relations, if not in economic or demographic history – to take biography seriously.

First, history explains the interaction between man and environment over time. The state of mind, as well as the state of affairs, may be critical to explaining events. To that extent alone, it is a necessary focus for research. ‘Human error is a constant, and not an incidental, factor in history,’ Harold Nicolson wrote, somewhat tongue in cheek, having had an unparalleled experience in and grasp of modern diplomacy. ‘Everybody is an ass sometimes, and most people are asses all the time. Human will power is an intermittent factor, and history has been made more frequently at moments when people had no idea what they wanted than at those rarer moments when some individual wanted something definite.’[3]

Here, the biographer has an estimable advantage in focusing attention on recorded motivation, if not exclusively, then predominantly. Moreover, for those who work on state papers classified as top secret, the unwritten assumptions shared by those taking the decisions are critically absent. These may be uncovered only through interviewing individuals subsequent to events or through diaries and letters; Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain wrote only to his sisters to spell out his anti-Communist outlook. Here, the skills of the biographer and of the imagination are in greater demand than in working purely through public records.

Motivation is only one consideration, however. Knowledge of illness in a statesman at times of crisis is surely also of significant concern. What of Anthony Eden’s state of mind on narcotics during the disastrous Suez campaign?[4] President John Kennedy was heavily dependent upon the drugs prescribed to him by his doctor to alleviate excruciating back pain. That knowledge magnifies our image of his strength of character, particularly during the great international crises of 196162 .[5] It matters that Stalin’s brain was atrophying at an accelerated pace in his last years, which made him ever more paranoid; that the quick-witted Nikita Khrushchev was functionally illiterate and could not even write his own name on the documents he had to sign, yet, like Cassius Clay, had a phenomenal memory to compensate.[6]

Nicolson’s reflection that history is made more frequently by people who had no idea what they wanted underscores the importance of prevailing circumstances: the fact that human beings were ‘straws in the stream’ of history. The best biographer is thus also likely to be the better historian. This is epitomised in Nicolson’s own tender, but acute, portrayal of Lord Curzon.[7] A well tempered ability to appraise the role of the individual in history – history in microcosm – will require a powerful capacity to strike the right balance between agency and circumstances, not least, but not only, the material conditions prompting behaviour.

The second reason to take biography seriously follows from the admonition of E.H. Carr, another former diplomat who was also an accomplished biographer and historian: study the historian to evaluate the history. After all, ‘The historian, before he begins to write history, is the product of history.’[8] But why should this matter?

History, as written, results from judgements as to the significance of events. In this sense – here Carr reaches back to Benedetto Croce via R.G. Collingwood – the historian chooses, and ultimately determines, from a multitude of frequently conflicting sources what constitute the facts of history. This element is most striking in attributing cause and effect, the critical conclusion in history writing. And what surely makes the work cohere, what gives it an underlying framework – the anatomy of history, if you like – is imaginative reconstruction.

On this side of history lies an entirely subjective realm. Thomas Macaulay believed that history lay between two worlds: the world of science (in the larger, Victorian or continental sense of the word)[9] and the world of the imagination (‘the map’ and ‘the painted landscape’).[10] He thought it vital not to surrender to the then fashionable historical novelist the capacity ‘To make the past present, to bring the distant near, to place us in the society of a great man or on the eminence which overlooks the field of a mighty battle, to invest with the reality of human flesh and blood beings whom we are too much inclined to consider as personified qualities in an allegory…’[11]

To some, this may diminish the stature of the subject. The historian should not, however, be dismayed at this loss of status, even when confronted by the physicist as critic. He should never forget that eminent natural scientists also took leaps of the imagination – John Dalton guessed the constitution of the atom – when the evidence has yet to come in (in this case a century later).[12]

We should not seek to fight the problem. Instead, we should estimate as accurately as we can how wise is this or that historian’s judgement. How accurate are the insights? Are they not ultimately a product of the educated imagination? These we need to know. And what better way of finding out than through putting the historian under the lens.

Knowledge of the historian, and thus biography of historians, allows us a healthy corrective to pure subjectivism. It is often our only tool for scraping away the French polish to get to the unvarnished truth beneath.

Among historians, it is surely important for us to know, for instance, that Hugh Trevor-Roper, for all his snobbery and association with the establishment, was not unsympathetic to Marxist approaches to historical explanation.[13] And does it not matter that Isaiah Berlin did, in fact, purposefully forestall Trotsky’s biographer, Isaac Deutscher, from obtaining a Chair at Sussex University, despite repeated denials that he had done this?[14]  This and his ardent support for the US war in Vietnam certainly call into question his iconic status as a moral authority. This is not to suggest that we should, as a result, go a step further and indulge in biography as a hanging judge, like Lytton Strachey – ‘with a definite point of view’ on the Victorians – or, more recently, the journalist Christopher Hitchens, who put on the black cap for various miscreants, including Henry Kissinger and Mother Theresa. Such self-indulgence, however witty, is unlikely to lead to anything productive. The artist’s task, wrote Chekhov, is only to outline the problem, not resolve it. Likewise, the biographer is perhaps better employed ‘exposing’ rather than ‘imposing’ moral judgement.[15]

A key problem with full-scale biography, however, is that it takes a great deal of time to be done properly; from germination to full growth usually requires years of incubation. It is more like wine than tea. And it requires living with the subject to such an extent that he or she shares a good deal of one’s waking life. The time required and the temperament needed are not easily adaptable to youth nor current research assessment requirements for early publication, which dictate speed of research and hurried writing.

In academia, at least, biography is therefore seen as somewhat eccentric: a whimsical detour from well-travelled direct routes if not prompted by a generous commission, which is most unlikely with respect to biographies of historians. This may well be the reason for the loss of popularity of the genre bewailed by literary biographer Michael Holroyd.[16] What it does mean is that those writing biography as history are less likely to be academic historians, but rather those who have become professional biographers, like Adam Sisman, in their own right.

If it is, indeed, the case that historical biography is dying, this is not immediately apparent beyond these shores. In the United States, where issues of tenure do arise for professional historians, research assessment, as such, does not exist; so, once established, a biographer can afford to take his time. Thank goodness Holroyd is wrong.

Jonathan Haslam FBA is professor of the history of international relations at the University of Cambridge, a fellow of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, and a biographer, being author of The Vices of Integrity: E.H. Carr, 1892-1982 (London and New York, 1999). This article was first published in Past and Future (autumn/winter 2012).

[1]   The prolific French biographer André Maurois points to the crucial contribution of Dostoevsky in confronting us with man’s multiple personality (A. Maurois, Aspects de la Biographie (Paris, 1930), p. 51).

[2]    ‘Every taunt, however bitter; every tale, however petty; every charge, however shameful, for which the incidents of a long career could afford a pretext, has been levelled against him.’ For all his achievements, ‘fame shines unwillingly upon the statesman and warrior whose exertions brought our island and all Europe safely through its perils…’ (W. Churchill, Marlborough: his Life and Times (London, 1933), p. 17).

[3]    ‘How I write biography’, Saturday Evening Review, 26 May 1934.

[4] For the latest, see D. Thorpe, Eden: the Life and Times of Sir Anthony Eden First Earl of Avon 1897–1977 (London, 2003).

[5] R. Dallek, John F. Kennedy: an Unfinished Life (New York, 2003).

[6] See the author’s Russia’s Cold War: from the October Revolution to the Fall of the Wall (New Haven and London, 2011).

[7] H. Nicolson, Curzon: the Last Phase 1919-1925. A Study in Post-War Diplomacy (London, 1934).

[8]  E.H. Carr, What is History? (London, 1964), p. 40.

[9] This usage upsets some in the English-speaking world in a way it would not in other cultures accustomed to more general usage (for example, J. Searle, Minds, Brains and Science (Cambridge, Mass., 1984), p. 11).

[10]   ‘Hallam’, September 1828 (Macaulay, Essays, Vol. 1 (London, 1903), p. 113).

[11]   Ibid.

[12] P. Suppes, replying to comments on ‘The structure of theories and the analysis of data’, F. Suppe, ed., The Structure of Scientific Theories, 2nd edition (Chicago, 1977), p. 300.

[13]  A. Sisman, Hugh Trevor-Roper: the Biography (London, 2010).

[14] M. Ignatieff, Isaiah Berlin: a Life (London, 1999), p. 235. Denials were repeated to Tamara Deutscher on several occasions after her husband’s death and later reiterated to the author.

[15] Maurois, Aspects, p. 98.

[16] Guardian, 18 August 2011.