The History of Biography in England
Carlyle says, “Society is founded on hero-worship,” and Emerson says, “There is no proper history; there is only biography.” Even though these two great men make a strong case for biography, the study of biography has or should have a very important place in any educational plan. The story of a person’s life is instantly interesting to all of us. We like to learn about how great people, who were just people like us, lived, moved, and had their being. We like reading about the little things they do every day. Their hardships give us strength, their successes fascinate us, and their problems make us laugh.
In the early days of English literature, there was no such thing as biography as we know it today. The bard sang songs about the brave things the hero did on the hunt or in battle to his fellow tribesmen who had gathered around the campfire. These songs told the story of how the tribe lived from one generation to the next through the actions of its heroes. But these songs and stories were not written down, so we only know about the early heroes through legends, songs, and folklore. Biography in England doesn’t really start until after the year 1500.
ELIZABETH AT HER AGE (1550-1625)
Biography makes its Debut
When printing came to England, it gave a boost to all kinds of writing, including prose and the beginnings of biography. William Roper’s life of his father-in-law, St. Thomas More, and George Cavendish’s memoir of Cardinal Wolsey are two good examples of biographies from the time. They can be seen as the beginnings of this type of writing. A plan to write about the lives of the poets of the time was never carried out, but at the time, there was a need to keep track of the lives of famous authors of the time.
Biography keeps getting better.
Biographies were first written during the Elizabethan Age, and they were still being written during the Puritan and Restoration times. Izaak Walton, who is best known for writing The Complete Angler, also wrote biographies. In fact, Walton’s five biographies of John Donne, Sir Henry Wotton, Richard Hooker, George Herbert, and Dr. Robert Saunderson, which were later published as Walton’s Lives, were the first of many biographies. Walton’s style is simple and charming, just like it was in The Complete Angler, and his Lives were very well received by the public.
Minutes of Lives by John Aubrey and Life of Cowley by Thomas Sprat are two other good biographies from the time. The second one was very popular at the time, but it had a bad effect on English biography for a long time. Sprat thought that a biography should teach people something. He focused on behaviour and left out all picturesque details and well-known stories. As a result, the biography was fake, stiff, and serious.
THE AGE OF JOHNSON AND CLASSICISM (1700-1780)
Biography Goes to Its Highest Points.
The moralising biographies that Sprat started during the Restoration Period were still being written in the early 1800s. The trends of the time in all kinds of literature also helped this type. Just as poetry and essays stayed true to their classic forms, biography also stayed a very fake and rhetorical thing.
By 1750, however, the general style of biographical writing had changed. Theophilus Cibber’s Lives of the Poets had interesting stories about the personal adventures of the poets he wrote about, and Mason’s Life and Letters of Gray was the first book to use letters to close friends to show what the writer was really like.
Boswell’s Life of Dr. Samuel Johnson.
Even though these newer forms were good, they don’t hold a candle to James Boswell’s Life of Dr. Samuel Johnson, which will always be remembered as the best biography from this time. In this biography, Boswell used his deep knowledge of the person he was writing about along with events and conversations that people at the time would have thought were unimportant. The end result was the most interesting biography in English, and maybe in any language. The book is more than just a biography. It is “a transcript of life—of men, women, conversation, character, manners, and wisdom—such as no novel has ever put together.”
Biography Is Patterned after Boswell’s Johnson.
Boswell’s work was the basis for most biographies during this time, and for all times after the time of Johnson. Even though the Romantic Age was mostly about poetry, there were a few important biographies that came out of it. Robert Southey is best known as a poet, but he also wrote a number of prose works. His lives of Nelson and John Wesley are two of his best. Life of Sir Walter Scott by John Lockhart was another biography from the time that went on to become a classic. After Boswell’s Johnson, this has been called the most impressive biography in English.
THE VICTORIAN ERA (1840-1900)
The Critical Biography
Even though prose was popular during the Victorian Era, there were not many great biographies. Carlyle’s lives of Cromwell and Frederick the Great may have been the most interesting. During this time, however, the literary biography or critical appreciation grew in popularity. This type of writing is a combination of an essay and a biography. It is sometimes called a biographical essay or a critical biography. The book Samuel Johnson by Macaulay is a good example of this kind of writing. This was written for the Encyclopedia Britannica’s eighth edition, which came out in 1856. In his short essay, Macaulay did in a small way what Boswell did in his famous biography. Other important critical biographies include Ruskin’s Modern Painters, Carlyle’s Essay on Burns, and Thackeray’s English Humorists, from which this book includes a selection.
THE TWENTETH CENTURY (1900-
The New Biography
It took until the 20th century to create the new biography, a type of writing that has become very popular very quickly in the last twenty years. Biographies that just tell what happened in a person’s life are out of date. It has been replaced by a method that is mostly based on what people think. The new biography is vivid, full of colour, full of drama, and interesting to both young and old people. Lytton Strachey is the best English writer of this new biography. Hilaire Belloc is also known for his biographies of important historical figures like Marie Antoinette, Wolsey, Crammer, Milton, Cromwell, Charles 11, James 11, and others. Wilfred Ward wrote a great book about Cardinal Newman’s life, and Evelyn Waugh wrote a beautiful book about Blessed Edmund Campion’s life.