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Some Thoughts On Biography
by [?]

We have heard from a man who witnessed the failure of Miss Baillie’s ‘De Montford,’ notwithstanding the scenic advantages of a vast London theatre, fine dresses, fine music at intervals, and, above all, the superb acting of John Kemble, supported on that occasion by his incomparable sister, that this unexpected disappointment began with the gallery, who could not comprehend or enter into a hatred so fiendish growing out of causes so slight as any by possibility supposable in the trivial Rezenvelt. To feel teased by such a man, to dislike him, occasionally to present him with your compliments in the shape of a duodecimo kick–well and good, nothing but right. And the plot manifestly tended to a comic issue. But murder!–a Macbeth murder!–not the injury so much as the man himself was incommensurate, was too slight by a thousand degrees for so appalling a catastrophe. It reacts upon De Montford, making him ignoble that could be moved so profoundly by an agency so contemptible.

Something of the same disproportion there is, though in a different way, between any quarrel that may have divided us from a man in his life-time and the savage revenge of pursuing the quarrel after his death through a malicious biography. Yet, if you hated him through no quarrel, but simply (as we all hate many men that died a thousand years ago) for something vicious, or which you think vicious, in his modes of thinking, why must you, of all men, be the one to undertake an edition of his works, ‘with a life of the author’? Leave that to some neutral writer, who neither loves nor hates. And whilst crowds of men need better biographical records whom it is easy to love and not difficult to honour, do not you degrade your own heart or disgust your readers by selecting for your exemplification not a model to be imitated, but a wild beast to be baited or a criminal to be tortured? We privately hate Mr. Thomas Hobbes, of Malmsbury; we know much evil of him, and we could expose many of his tricks effectually. We also hate Dean Swift, and upon what we think substantial arguments. Some of our own contemporaries we hate particularly; Cobbett, for instance, and other bad fellows in fustian and corduroys. But for that very reason we will not write their lives. Or, if we should do so, only because they might happen to stand as individuals in a series, and after warning the reader of our own bias. For it is too odious a spectacle to imprison a fellow-creature in a book, like a stag in a cart, and turn him out to be hunted through all his doubles for a day’s amusement. It too much resembles that case of undoubted occurrence both in France and Germany, where ‘respectable’ individuals, simply as amateurs, and not at all with any view to the salary or fees of operating, have come forward as candidates for the post of public executioner. What is every man’s duty is no man’s duty by preference. And unless where a writer is thrust upon such a duty by an official necessity (as, if he contracts for a ‘Biographia Britannica,’ in that case he is bound by his contract to go through with the whole series–rogues and all), it is too painful to see a human being courting and wooing the task of doing execution upon his brother in his grave. Nay, even in the case where this executioner’s task arises spontaneously out of some duty previously undertaken without a thought of its severer functions, we are still shocked by any exterminating vengeance too rancorously pursued. Every reader must have been disgusted by the unrelenting persecution with which Gifford, a deformed man, with the spiteful nature sometimes too developed in the deformed, had undertaken ‘for our fathers in the Row’ an edition of Massinger. Probably he had not thought at the time of the criminals who would come before him for judgment. But afterwards it did not embitter the job that these perquisites of office accrued, lucro ponatur, that such offenders as Coxeter, Mr. Monck Mason, and others were to be ‘justified’ by course of law. Could he not have stated their errors, and displaced their rubbish, without further personalities? However, he does not, but makes the air resound with his knout, until the reader wishes Coxeter in his throat, and Monck Mason, like ‘the cursed old fellow’ in Sinbad, mounted with patent spurs upon his back.