By Peter J. Conradi - Financial Times
Biography lost vigour under Queen Victoria. It was the epoch of solemn lives and letters, in which British worthies were to be dignified and whitewashed for a growing national pantheon. That, at least, is what we might conclude from Eminent Victorians (1918) by the debunking Lytton Strachey, who saw himself as chief reinvigorator of the genre.
Strachey flattered himself as an iconoclast. Elizabeth Gaskell’s life of Charlotte Brontë in 1857 – to pick just one example – may have started a process of sanctification but not all Victorian biography created a stained-glass figure. You would never realise from Strachey’s account how big an outcry John Gibson Lockhart caused with his life of Walter Scott after 1838, nor the controversy that greeted James Anthony Froude’s study of the historian Thomas Carlyle in 1882. Each of these courageous books was published within a few years of their subject’s death and each met with a turbulent reception.
Still, few would deny that biography since Strachey has been practised with more licence and invention; British biography, in particular, is now exceptionally thriving, varied and interesting. It is hard to imagine Christopher Hitchens’ short and acrid meditation on the life of Mother Teresa, The Missionary Position (1995) – which portrays her as an evil-minded, rapacious Albanian dwarf – being published before Strachey lit his flare-path and established for ever that biography can legitimately mock, diminish and demote.
Full story at FT