Studies of a Biographer/National Biography

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search
Studies of a Biographer by Leslie Stephen
National Biography



Mr. Sidney Lee has recently (February 1896) delivered at the Royal Institution a lecture upon National Biography. No one has a better right to speak upon the subject. He has been sole editor of the later volumes of the Dictionary of National Biography, and, as I can testify, had a very important share in preparing every previous volume. He spoke, therefore, from considerable experience, and if I were to deal with his subject from the same point of view, I should have little more to do than say 'ditto' to most of his remarks. I would not contradict even his statistics, although, as a matter of fact, they differ to some extent from my own calculations—I put that down to the known perversity of arithmetic in general. But I also think that in dealing briefly with a large subject, he left untouched certain considerations which are a necessary complement to his argument. I shall venture from this point of view to say something of a matter in which I have some personal interest.

When the old Biographia Britannica was coming out, Cowper made the unpleasant remark that it was

A fond attempt to give a deathless lot
To names ignoble, born to be forgot.

If that was a fair judgment, what are we to say to the modern work, which includes thousands of names too obscure for mention in its predecessor? When Mr. Lee speaks of the 'commemorative instinct' as justifying his undertaking, the enemy replies that a very small minority of the names deserve commemoration. To appeal to instinct is to repudiate reason and to justify monomania. Admitting, as we all admit, the importance of keeping alive the leading names in history, what is the use of this long procession of the hopelessly insignificant? Why repeat the familiar formula about the man who was born on such a day, was 'educated at the grammar school of his native town,' graduated in such a year, became fellow of his college, took a living, married, published a volume of sermons which nobody has read for a century or two, and has been during all that time in his churchyard? Can he not be left in peace, side by side with the 'rude forefathers of the hamlet,' who are content to lie beneath their quiet mounds of grass? Is it not almost a mockery to persist in keeping up some faint and flickering image of him aboveground? There is often some good reading to be found in country churchyards; but, on the whole, if one had to choose, one would perhaps rather have the good old timber crosspiece, with 'afflictions sore long time he bore,' than the ambitious monuments where History and its attendant cherubs are eternally poring over the list of the squire's virtues and honours. Why struggle against the inevitable? Better oblivion than a permanent admission that you were thoroughly and hopelessly commonplace. I confess that I sometimes thought as much when I was toiling on my old treadmill, now Mr. Lee's. Much of the work to be done was uninteresting, if not absolutely repulsive. I was often inclined to sympathise with the worthy Simon Browne, a Nonconformist divine of the last century. Poor Browne had received a terrible shock. Some accounts say that he had lost his wife and only son; others that he had 'accidentally strangled a highwayman,'—not, one would think, so painful a catastrophe. Anyhow, his mind became affected; he fancied that his 'spiritual substance' had been annihilated; he was a mere empty shell, a body without a soul; and, under these circumstances, as he tells us, he took to an employment which did not require a soul: he became a dictionary-maker. Still, we should, as he piously adds, 'thank God for everything, and therefore for dictionary-makers.' Though Browne's dictionary was not of the biographical kind, the remark seemed to be painfully applicable. Browne was only giving in other words the pith of Carlyle's constant lamentations when struggling amidst the vast dust-heaps accumulated by Dryasdust and his fellows. Could any good come of these painful toilings among the historical 'kitchen middens'? If here and there you disinter some precious coin, does the rare success repay the endless sifting of the gigantic mounds of shot rubbish? And yet, by degrees, I came to think that there was really a justification for toils not of the most attractive kind. When our first volume appeared, one of our critics complained of me for not starting with a preface. A preface saves much trouble to a reviewer—sometimes the whole trouble of reading the book. I do not, however, much regret the omission, for the real utility of our undertaking, as it now presents itself to my mind, had not then become fully evident. I am not about to write a preface now, but I wish to give a hint or two of what I might or ought to have said in such a performance had I clearly perceived what has been gradually forced upon me by experience.

The 'commemorative instinct' to which Mr. Lee refers has, undoubtedly, much to do with the undertaking; but, like other instincts, it requires to be regulated by more explicit reason. The thoroughbred Dryasdust is a very harmless, and sometimes a very amiable, creature. He may urge that his hobby is at least a very innocent one, and that we have no more call to condemn a man who has a passion for vast accumulations of dates, names, and facts than to condemn another for a love of art or natural history. The specialist who is typified in O. W. Holmes's Scarabee, the man who devotes a lifetime to acquiring abnormal familiarity with the minutest peculiarities of some obscure tribe of insects, does no direct harm to his fellows, and incidentally contributes something, however minute the contribution may be, to scientific progress. We must respect the zeal which enables a man to expend the superabundant energy, which might have led to fame or fortune, upon achievements of which, perhaps, not half a dozen living men will appreciate either the general value or the cost to the worker. Dryasdust deserves the same sort of sympathy. He has, no doubt, his weaknesses. His passion becomes a monomania. He spends infinite toil upon work which has no obvious interest, and he often comes to attach an absurd importance to his results. Such studies as genealogy or bibliography have but a remote bearing upon any of the vital problems suggested by the real historian. We shudder when we read that the excellent Colonel Chester spent years upon investigating the genealogy of Washington, and accumulated, among many other labours, eighty-seven folio volumes, each of more than 400 pages of extracts from parish registers. He died, it is added, of 'incessant work.' The late Mr. Bradshaw, again, a man of most admirable character, and very fine intellectual qualities, acquired, by unremitting practice, an astonishing power of identifying at a glance the time and place of printing of old books. He could interpret minute typographical indications as the Red Indian can read on a dead leaf or blade of grass the sign of the traveller who made it. Certainly one is tempted to regret at first sight that such abilities were not applied in more obviously useful fields. What do we care whether one or another obscure country squire in the sixteenth or seventeenth century had the merit of being progenitor of Washington? Can it really matter whether a particular volume was printed at Rotterdam or at Venice—in the year 1600 or ten years sooner or later? I will not discuss the moral question. At any rate, one may perhaps urge, it is better than spending brain-power upon chess problems, which is yet an innocent form of amusement. Such a labourer may incidentally provide data of real importance to the political or literary historian: he reduces, once for all, one bit of chaos to order, and helps to raise the general standard of accurate research. He is pretty certain to confer a benefit, if not a very important benefit, upon mankind; whereas, if he fancied himself a philosopher, he might be wasting his labour as hopelessly as in squaring the circle. He is at least laying bricks, not blowing futile soap-bubbles.

The labours of innumerable inquirers upon obscure topics have, as a matter of fact, accumulated vast stores of knowledge. A danger has shown itself that the historian may be overwhelmed by the bulk of his materials. A century or two ago we were content with histories after the fashion of Hume. In a couple of years he was apparently not only to write, but to accumulate the necessary knowledge for writing, a history stretching from the time of Julius Cæsar to the time of Henry vii. A historian who now does his work conscientiously has to take about the same time to narrate events as the events themselves occupied in happening. Innumerable sources of knowledge have been opened, and he will be regarded as superficial if he does not more or less avail himself of every conceivable means of information. He cannot be content simply with the old chroniclers or with the later writers who summarised them. Ancient charters, official records of legal proceedings, manor rolls, and the archives of towns have thrown light upon the underlying conditions of history. Local historians have unearthed curious facts, whose significance is only beginning to be perceived. Calendars of State papers enable us to trace the opinions of the great men who were most intimately concerned in the making of history. The despatches of ambassadors occupied in keenly watching contemporary events have been partly printed, and still lie in vast masses at Simancas and Venice and the Vatican. The Historical Manuscripts Commission has made known to us something of the vast stores of old letters and papers which had been accumulating dust in the libraries of old country mansions. When we go to the library of the British Museum, and look at the gigantic catalogue of printed books, and remember the huge mass of materials which can be inspected in the manuscript department, we—I can speak for myself at least—have a kind of nightmare sensation. A merciful veil of oblivion has no doubt covered a great deal. Yet we may feel inclined to imagine that no fact which has happened within the last few centuries has been so thoroughly hidden that we can be quite sure that it is irrecoverable. Over two centuries ago a lad unknown to fame wrote a thesis in a Dutch University. I stumbled upon it one day and discovered a biographical date of the smallest conceivable interest to anybody. But it gives one a queer shock when one realises that even so trumpery and antiquated a document has not been allowed to find its way to oblivion. Happily some University theses have been lost, but as the process of commemorating proceeds with accelerated rapidity, it almost seems as though we had made up our minds that nothing was ever to be forgotten.

It may be doubted whether this huge accumulation of materials has been an unmixed benefit to history. Undoubtedly we know many things much more thoroughly than our ancestors. Still, in reading, for example, the later volumes of Macaulay or Froude, we feel sometimes that it is possible to have too much State-paper. The main outlines, which used to be the whole of history, are still the most important, and instead of being filled up and rendered more precise and vivid, they sometimes seem to disappear behind an elaborate account of what statesmen and diplomatists happened to think about them at the time—and, sometimes, what such persons thought implied a complete misconception of the real issues. But in any case one conclusion is very obvious, namely, that with the accumulation of material there should be a steady elaboration of the contrivances for making it accessible. The growth of a great library converts the library into a hopeless labyrinth, unless it is properly catalogued as it grows. To turn it to full account, you require not only a catalogue, but some kind of intelligent guide to the stores which it contains. You are like a man wandering in a vast wilderness, which is springing up in every direction with tropical luxuriance; and you feel the necessity of having paths carried through it upon some intelligible system which will enable you to find your way to the required place and tell you in what directions further research would probably be thrown away.

Now it is to this want, or to provide the means of satisfying one part of this want, that the dictionary is intended in the first place to correspond. It ought to be—it is not for me to say how far it has succeeded in becoming—an indispensable guide to persons who would otherwise feel that they were hewing their way through a hopelessly intricate jungle. Every student ought, I will not say to have it in his library, but to carry it about with him (metaphorically speaking) in his pocket. It is true that, in a physical sense, it is rather large for that purpose, though fifty or sixty volumes represent but a small fragment of a decent library; but the judicious person can always manage to have it at hand. And then, though in its first intention it should be useful as an auxiliary in various researches, I shall venture to assert that it may also be not only useful for the more exalted purpose of satisfying the commemorative instinct, but—I do not fear to say so, though my friends sometimes laugh at my saying—it may turn out to be one of the most amusing works in the language.

I will start, however, by saying something of the assertion which is more likely to meet with acceptance. The utility of having this causeway carried through the vast morass of antiquarian accumulation is obvious in a general way. The remark, however, upon which Mr. Lee has insisted, indicates a truth not quite so clearly recognised as might be desirable. The provinces of the historian and the biographer are curiously distinct, although they are closely related. History is of course related to biography inasmuch as most events are connected with some particular person. Even the most philosophical of historians cannot describe the Norman Conquest without reference to William and to Harold. And, on the other side, every individual life is to some extent an indication of the historical conditions of his time. The most retired recluse is the product at least of his parents and his schooling, and is affected by contemporary thought. And yet, the curious thing is the degree in which this fact can be ignored on both sides. If we look at any of the ordinary collections of biographical material, we shall constantly be struck by the writer's unconsciousness of the most obvious inferences. He will mention a fact which in the hands of the historian might clear up a political problem, or which may be strikingly characteristic of the social conditions of the time, without, as Mr. Herbert Spencer would say, noting the 'necessary implication.' A contemporary of course takes things for granted which we see to be exceptional; or he may supply, without knowing it, evidence that will be useful in settling a controversy which has not yet come to light. In the ordinary books such facts, again, have often been repeated mechanically, and readers are not rarely half asleep when they look at their manual. Thus I have sometimes noticed that a man may be in one sense a most accomplished biographer; that is, that he can tell you off-hand a vast number of facts, genealogical, official, and so forth, and yet has never, as we say, put two and two together. I have read lives giving minute details about the careers of authors, which yet prove unmistakably that the writers had no general knowledge of the literature of the period. A man will know every fact about all the people mentioned, say, in Boswell, and yet have no conception of the general position of Johnson, or Burke, or Goldsmith in English literature. He seems to have walked through a great gallery blindfold, or rather with some strange affection of the eyes which enabled him to make a catalogue without receiving any general impression of the pictures. The great Mr. Sherlock Holmes has insisted upon the value of the most insignificant facts: and if Mr. Holmes had turned his mind to history instead of modern criminal cases, he would have found innumerable little incidents which only require to be skilfully dovetailed together to throw a new light upon many important questions. More can be done by the man of true historical imagination the man who appreciates the great step made by Scott when he observed that our ancestors were once as really alive as we are now and who finds in those countless neglected and apparently barren facts, vivid illustrations of the conditions of life and thought of our predecessors. We all know how Macaulay, with his love of castle-building, found in obscure newspapers and the fugitive literature of the period the materials for a picture which, with whatever shortcomings, was at least incomparably brilliant and lifelike. Now, the first office of the biographer is to facilitate what I may call the proper reaction between biography and history; to make each study throw all possible light on the other; and so to give fresh vitality to two different lines of study, which, though their mutual dependence is obvious, can yet be divorced so effectually by the mere Dryasdust. And this remark supplies a sufficient answer to one question which has often been put to me. What entitles a man to a place in the dictionary? Why should it include 30,000 instead of 3000 or 300,000 names? Mr. Lee has given an answer which is, I think, correct in its proper place; but, before referring to it, I must point out that there is another, and what would be called a more 'objective' criterion which necessarily governs the solution in the first instance. In order, that is, to secure the proper correlation between the biographer and the historian, it is plainly necessary to include every one who is sufficiently noticed in the ordinary histories to make some further inquiry probable. To give the first instance that occurs, Macaulay tells a very curious story about a certain intrigue which led to the final abolition of licensing the Press in England. The fact itself is one of great interest in the history of English literature. The two people chiefly concerned were utterly obscure: Charles Blount and Edmund Bohun necessarily vanish from Macaulay's pages as soon as they have played their little drama. But it is natural to inquire what these two men otherwise were, who were incidentally involved in a really critical turning-point. A reference to the dictionary will not only answer the question, but help to make more distinct the conditions under which English writers won a most important privilege. The historian can only deal with the particular stage at which an obscure person emerges into public, but the significance of the event may start out more vividly when we can trace his movements below the surface. Now to help in this search the biographer has before him an immense mass of material already partially organised. Nobody who has dipped into the subject is ignorant of the immense service rendered by Anthony a Ward in the famous Athenæ Oxonienses. It gives brief, but very shrewd, accounts of all men connected with Oxford, and records the results of a laborious personal inquiry during his own period, which, but for him, would have been forgotten. For the same period we have all the collections due to the zeal of various religious sects; the lives of the Nonconformists ejected in 1662; the opposition work upon the 'sufferings of the clergy' under the Commonwealth; the lives of the Jesuits who were martyred by the penal laws; and the lives of the Quakers, who have always been conspicuous for preserving records of their brethren. Besides these, there are, of course, many old biographical collections, including the dictionaries devoted to some special class—the artists, the physicians, the judges, the admirals, and so forth. The first simple rule, therefore, is that every name which appears in these collections has at least a presumptive right to admission. An ideal dictionary would be a complete codification or summary of all the previously existing collections. It must aim at such an approximation to that result as human frailty will permit; in other words, it is bound first to include all the names which have appeared in any respectable collection of lives, and, in the next place, to supplement this by including a great many names which, for one reason or another, have dropped out, but which appear to be approximately of the same rank. The rule, it is obvious, must be in part the venerable 'rule of thumb,' but it gives a kind of test which is a sufficient guide in discreet hands.

The advantage of this does not, I hope, require much exposition. I will only make one remark. Every student knows the vast difference which is made when you have some right to assume the completeness of any research. I may look into books, and search libraries on the chance of finding information indefinitely. But if I have a book or a library of which I can say with some confidence that, if it is not there, the presumption is that it does not exist, my labour has a definite, even though it be a negative, result. That, for example, is the sufficient justification of the collection of every kind of printed matter in the British Museum. It is not only that nobody can say beforehand what bit of knowledge may not turn out to be useful, but that one has the immense satisfaction of knowing that a fact not recorded somewhere or other on those crowded shelves must be, in all probability, a fact for which it is idle to search further. No biographical dictionary can be in the full sense exhaustive; an exhaustive dictionary would involve a reprint of all the parish registers, to mention nothing else; but it may be approximately exhaustive for the purposes of all serious students of any of the various departments of history. In a great number of cases, moreover, this can be achieved with a tolerable approximation to completeness. We take, for example, any of the more important names around which has been raised a lasting dust of controversy. A dictionary ought, in the first place, to supply you with a sufficient indication of all that has been written upon the subject; it should state briefly the result of the last researches; explain what appears to be the present opinion among the most qualified experts, and what are the points which seem still to be open; and, above all, should give a full reference to all the best and most original sources of information. The most important and valuable part of a good dictionary is often that dry list of authorities which frequently costs an amount of skilled labour not apparent on the surface, and not always, it is to be feared, recognised with due gratitude. The accumulation of material makes this a most essential part of the work; for we are daily more in want of a guide through the wilderness, and a judicious indication of the right method of inquiry gives often what it may be hard to find elsewhere, and is always a useful check upon our unassisted efforts. When you plunge into the antiquarian bog you are glad to have signposts, showing where previous adventurers have been engulphed; where some sort of feasible track has been constructed, and who are the trustworthy guides. Moreover, for a vast variety of purposes, the dictionary, though only second-hand authority, may be quite sufficient for all that is required. In following any of the countless tracks that may lead through history, you meet at every step with persons and events intruding from different regions. The man of letters may be affected by a political intrigue; a soldier may come into contact with men whose chief activity belongs to literature or science. The most thoroughgoing inquirer has to take a vast number of collateral facts upon trust; and it may save him infinite trouble to get the results of special knowledge upon what are to him collateral points.

This, to which I might add indefinitely, corresponds to what I may call the utilitarian aspect of a dictionary: the immediate purpose to which it may be turned to account by students in any historical inquiry. It should be a confidential friend constantly at their elbow, giving them a summary of the knowledge of antiquaries, genealogists, bibliographers, as well as historians, upon every collateral point which may happen for the moment to be relevant. But, so far, however well done, it must be admitted that it is bound to be rather dry. To be reduced to a specimen put in a museum is not a very cheering prospect, and offers little satisfaction for the commemorative instinct. Now I have to add that within certain limits the dictionary may be of importance in that direction too. I do not expect that a future Nelson will exclaim, 'Victory, or an article in The Biographical Dictionary!' I have never found my own appetite for labour stimulated by the flattering hope that I might some day be the subject instead of the author of an article. If I thought that my posthumous wishes would be respected, I should beg to be omitted from the supplement. But, for all that, the dictionary article may do much to keep alive the memory of people whom it is good to remember. Nobody will expect the poor dictionary-maker to be a substitute for Boswell or Lockhart. The judicious critic is well aware that it is not upon the lives of the great men that the value of the book really depends. It is the second-rate people—the people whose lives have to be reconstructed from obituary notices, or from references in memoirs and collections of letters; or sought in prefaces to posthumous works; or sometimes painfully dug out of collections of manuscripts, and who really become generally accessible through the dictionary alone—that provide the really useful reading. There are numbers of such people whom one first discovers to be really interesting when the scattered materials are for the first time pieced together. Nobody need look at Addison or Byron or Milton in a dictionary. He can find fuller and better notices in every library; and the biographer must be satisfied if he has put together a useful compendium of all the relevant literature. The conditions of his work are sufficiently obvious, and of course exclude anything like rhetoric or disquisition in criticism. He may indicate but cannot expatiate. He has before him an ideal which he very well knows is never quite realised. Condensation is not only the cardinal virtue of his style, but the virtue to which all others must be sacrificed. He must be content sometimes to toil for hours with the single result of having to hold his tongue. I used rigidly to excise the sentence, 'Nothing is known of his birth or parentage,' which tended to appear in half the lives, because where nothing is known it seems simpler that nothing should be said; and yet a man might have to consult a whole series of books before discovering even that negative fact. The poor biographer, again, has to compress his work even at the cost of much clumsiness of style. I am painfully aware of the hideous sentences which I have constructed in trying to say in ten words what, as I fancied, might make quite a pretty passage if spread over a hundred. I have groaned over some charming anecdote which seemed to beg for a few little dramatic accessories, and wedged it remorselessly into its allotted corner, grievously perplexed by the special difficulty in our language of making the 'he's' and 'she's' refer to the proper people without the help of the detestable 'latter' and 'former.' Perhaps—so one thinks when looking at some modern biographies—the training in condensation is not altogether bad. But the problem is to condense without squeezing out the real interest. The dictionary-writer cannot dilate; but he is bound so far as he can to make the facts tell their own story. He is not to pronounce a panegyric upon heroism, but he ought so to arrange his narrative that the reader may be irresistibly led to say bravo! It is possible to make a story more pathetic by judicious reticence, though the writer who depends upon such a method needs especially appreciative readers. He must tell a good story so as to bring out the humorous side without indulging in open hilarity, though he knows painfully that many readers will not take a joke unless it is labelled 'funny,' and some will not take it till it has been hammered into their heads by repeated strokes. It follows that the ideal article should not be condensed in the sense of being reduced to the bare dates and facts capable of being arranged in mechanical order. The aim should be to give whatever would be really interesting to the most cultivated reader, though leaving it to the reader to put the dots over the i's. The writer must often make the sacrifice of keeping his most important reflection to himself; but it is not the less important that they should be in his mind. Imagine a mere antiquary and a competent student to tell within the same limits the life of some eminent philosopher or divine. The difference may be enormous between the writer who sees what are the really cardinal facts and the writer to whom any and every fact is of the same importance: and yet both narratives may appear at first sight to be equally dry and barren. I remember how a life was ridiculed by a literary critic because it explained a certain vote at the Salter's Hall Conference. The critic, who probably knew all about Denis and Curll and the pettiest squabbles of authors, had never heard of Salter's Hall, and asked who cared for such trifles, or what it could possibly matter how anybody had voted on the occasion? Yet the conference marks a very important point in the religious history of the day, and to know how a man voted may be to define his position in a very serious controversy. The writer, that is, must give the significant facts, but has often to leave the discovery of their significance to the reader. But in order that he should appreciate their significance, he must have far wider knowledge than he can expound. The dry antiquary will often omit the vital and insert the merely accidental: he will fail to arrange them in the order or connection which makes them explain their meaning. He will resemble the witness who should fail to mention a bit of evidence which may be incidentally conclusive of a case because he is not able to appreciate its bearing. And, therefore, though the two lives might be in appearance equally dry, one may teem with useful indications to the intelligent, while the other may be as barren as it looks. The life of the divine, for example, should be given by one who has studied the theology or ecclesiastical history of the day, and who therefore knows the significance conferred upon a particular action or expression of opinion by time and place. He must abstain from exposition beyond narrow limits, and, of course, from controversy. He must not expatiate upon the bad influence of the heresy; or attempt to show that it was a heresy. He must content himself with a pithy indication of its historical position on the development of the time; give a sufficient summary to show how the doctrine is to be classed in its relation to the main currents of thought; and indicate the way in which it has since been judged by competent writers, and what is the view now taken by experts. All this, which might, of course, be illustrated in other departments of biography, shows that the writer ought to be full of knowledge, which he must yet hold in reserve, or of which he must content himself with using to suggest serviceable hints. He will show incidentally why, and in what relations, certain books are worth reading or certain events worth further study; and often, no doubt, will feel the restraint decidedly painful.

Lives well written under these conditions may, I hold, really satisfy the commemorative instinct. For the great names we shall look elsewhere: the minute names, the mere rank and file of the great army, are constantly of great use; but rather because they come into the narratives of other lives or supply data for broader histories, than because of the intrinsic interest of the story itself. But there is also an immense number of second-rate people whose lives are full of suggestion to any intelligent reader. The life in such cases should have the same kind of merit as an epitaph, though under less exacting conditions. The epitaph should give in the smallest possible number of words the very essence of a man's character and of his claims upon the memory of posterity. The life which may spread over two or three pages should aim at producing the same effect: and very frequently may give adequate expression to everything that we can really afford to remember of the less prominent actions. I will venture one illustration. There is no class of lives which has a more distinctive character than the lives of our naval heroes, from the Elizabethan days to our own. As I am not criticising the execution of the dictionary, but only indicating its main purpose, I will say nothing in praise of the particular contributor who has imbedded in its pages something like a complete naval history of the country. But I may say this: to the mere literary reader, the ideal of a sailor is represented by such books as Southey's Life of Nelson; or still more vividly perhaps by the novels of Captain Marryat or Smollett, or by Kingsley's Westward Ho! or possibly Miss Austen's Persuasion. We are all supposed to know something of the great admirals, upon whom R. L. Stevenson wrote a charming article. But any one who is attracted by the type, would do well to turn over the dictionary and look up the long list of minor heroes, who stood for their portraits to Marryat and his fellows; the men who cut out ships in harbour, and fought men-of-war with merchantmen; and lay in wait for galleons and suppressed mutinies, and had desperate single combats with French or American frigates: the Trunnions and Amyas Leighs and Peter Simples of real life, who certainly are to the full as interesting as their imaginary representatives. Many of them have hitherto only existed, as it were, in fragments: their lives have to be put together from despatches and incidental references in memoirs and histories; but when reconstructed, these lives form a gallery more interesting than that at Greenwich Hospital. They have got into a little Walhalla; and I think that no one will doubt who makes the experiments either as to their deserving their places, or as to the fact that the commemoration gives a very real satisfaction to our desire to keep the memory of our worthies in tolerable repair.[1]

And, finally, this may help to justify my daring remark that the dictionary is an amusing work. This, of course, is true only upon certain conditions. The reader, as I have intimated, must supply something for himself; he has to take up the dry specimens in this great herbarium, and to expand them partly by the help of his own imagination till they take something of the form and colouring of life. Perhaps, too, it must be added, that he should know the great art of skipping, though some excellent friends of mine have told me that they read through every volume as it appears. Their state is the more gracious. Yet no man is a real reading enthusiast until he is sensible of the pleasure of turning over some miscellaneous collection, and lying like a trout in a stream snapping up, with the added charm of unsuspectedness, any of the queer little morsels of oddity or pathos that may drift past him. The old Gentleman's Magazine is charming in that way, but I do not know that one can find a much better hunting-ground than the dictionary. I take down a volume—honestly at random—and simply dip into it to see what will turn up. I range, as it happens, over all the centuries from Caradoc (Caractacus, the Romans called him), who fought against a Roman army backed by an elephant corps, before A.D. 50, to a gentleman of the same name, who became Lord Howden, and died in 1873; from Carausius, who was a bit of a pirate and something of an emperor, in the third century, and whose biographer pathetically observes that the exact dates of his life and adventures are 'not absolutely certain,' to Carlyle, in whose case the full blaze of modern biography has left not even the minutest detail untouched. There is Canute, who is not here introduced to the tide—the biographer finds out, by the way, that an anecdote is simply the polite name of a lie—and mediæval churchmen, like the admirable Chad, thanks to whom, according to Scott, the fanatic Brooke got his deserts at Lichfield, and William de St. Carilef, whose character, we regret to say, is still puzzling, though exactly eight hundred years have passed since he became a fair subject for discussion. Let us hope that it will be cleared up in time. We have that Catesby who to most of us is known by that famous doggerel so much more impressive than the orthodox historical phrases about 'the cat, the rat, and Lovel our dog,' and the other Catesby who wished to try what would certainly have been a most interesting philosophical experiment of blowing King and Parliament into the air and seeing what the country would think of it. In Tudor times are the three Catherines who had the satisfaction of calling Henry viii. husband, and three Carolines to match them in the eighteenth century. There is the Elizabethan statesman Cecil, the great Lord Burghley, and the Robert Carr (Earl of Somerset) who introduces us to the darkest tragedy of the time of James i., and Lucius Cary (Lord Falkland), who still goes about 'ingeminating peace' to remind us of the great civil war; and John Carteret (Earl Granville), who, in the jovial Hanoverian days, was at the head of the 'drunken administration.' Though some of these are sufficiently celebrated figures to be set forth in the standard histories, they have all, I think, a personal interest which repays a visit to them in their homes. At the opposite end of the scale we have the names which, though they primarily represent mere oddities, incidentally light up odd social phases. Here is Margaret Catchpole, a real heroine of romance, who stole a horse and rode seventy miles to visit her lover, and after being transported for an offence which excited the compassion of her judges, became one of the 'matriarchs' to whom our Australian cousins trace their descent. There is Bampfylde Moore Carew, the volunteer gypsy, who anticipated Borrow in the previous generation, and gives us a passing glimpse into the vagrant life in old English lanes and commons. There is John Case, astrologer, who, as Addison tells us, made more money by his poetry than Dryden had done in a lifetime. It consisted of the couplet,

'Within this place
Lives Doctor Case,'

and is apparently an early triumph of the great art of advertising. There is the worthy Cat, who had an 'educated and thoughtful mind,' whose story illustrates the early growth of clubs, and whose name has been preserved by the new style of portraits. There is the modern hero, Ben Caunt, to illustrate the halo which lingered round the last days of prize-fighting. I venture to contribute a fresh anecdote to his life. I once made a pilgrimage to the place where Milton wrote the Allegro and Penseroso. The name of the poet seemed to have vanished, but a bust of the great Ben Caunt showed that the spirit of hero-worship was not extinct. Its possessor told us the story with legitimate pride. A son of the hero had brought it in a cart to an admirer after the original's death. He stopped at an inn to refresh himself 'with a bottle of soda-water,' with the result that he upset the cart at the next turning, and the bust fell upon him and killed him on the spot. The bust happily survived, and remains to kindle the enthusiasm of the villagers. Should not a Caunt be remembered as well as a Milton? He represents a type which had been characteristic, at least, of the days of the men of Trafalgar and Waterloo. A more respectable memorial of that time was the sturdy Carew (Hallowell was his name at the time) who gave to Nelson a coffin made from the mainmast of the Orient, to remind the great man (it was suggested) that he was still mortal. The reminder was hardly needful, one would think, just after the battle of the Nile. Perhaps a more interesting glimpse of the same period is given by the history of Richard Carlile, the freethinker, who suffered over nine years' imprisonment for spreading opinions offensive to most of his neighbours, but of whom it is said—and, I think, justly—that he did more than any man of his time to promote the freedom of the Press. His career, at any rate, is curiously illustrative of the final struggle in that cause. If you prefer a martyrdom in a different cause, you may look at the life of Edmund Castle, who made 'an epoch in Semitic scholarship.' He was a man of property who chose to labour eighteen or nineteen hours a day at a lexicon—a dictionary-maker again! He lost his health, suffered (it does not quite appear how) fractures and contusions of his limbs, almost lost his sight, and spent all his money. He published his immortal work by subscription, and had to wait for months at the place of sale before he could get a small part of his edition sold. The poor man got a little preferment at last towards the end of his life; but certainly scholars will not grudge him some sympathy. I will, however, go no further. I see many more suggestive names. The Cartwrights, for example, include an important inventor of machinery, a famous dentist, a great Puritan divine, a Romanising bishop, the Colonel Newcome of the old reformers, and a once brilliant dramatist. I do not think that my dip into one volume has produced a result differing much from the average. My readers must judge whether it goes to justify my statement. To me it seems that at every haul one finds some specimens which, though they require the reader to do his part, are full of suggestions to the moderately thoughtful reader. 'What a knowledge of human nature you must have acquired!' has been said to me, with a touch, I know, of sarcasm. Perhaps I might, if the B's had not tended to turn the A's out of my head, and if a succinct record of a man's main performances were the same thing as a knowledge of the man himself. But this I may say; that I have received innumerable suggestions for thought, and had many vignettes presented to my imagination, which to a man of any thought or imagination should have been full of interest. If, that is, I had been a Macaulay, I should have approximated to that word perception of the historical panorama which he had to construct by assimilating the raw materials of history. Macaulay had faults which have been so frequently exposed, that the critic should perhaps be now chiefly anxious to insist upon his astonishing power in his own province. And certainly, I think that, though we should wish to see many aspects of history to which Macaulay was blind, nothing could be more delightful than to see the past as clearly, brightly, and graphically as Macaulay saw it. Nothing but a prodigious memory and a keen imagination could enable us to do that. But the dictionary well used, read thoughtfully, with the constant attempt to put flesh and blood upon the dry skeleton of facts, will, I believe, be the best help to enable any one to get as near as his faculties will permit to that desirable consummation. And, though the commemorative instinct may not be fully gratified, I think that no one can ramble through this long gallery without storing up a number of vivid images of the lesser luminaries, which will have the same effect upon his conceptions of history as a really good set of illustrations upon a narrative of travels. And, finally, I will say, what has often been a comfort to me to remember, that great as is the difference between a good and a bad work of the kind, even a very defective performance is immensely superior to none at all.

  1. I am glad to see that, in this observation, I coincide with the author of Admirals All, who has been good enough to say a word for the dictionary in this respect. I am happy that the poetic has confirmed the prosaic judgment. Only I must add that the compliment which he pays to the editor of the dictionary is rather due to Professor Laughton, the author of the lives in question.