Jewish World Review May 13, 2008 / 8 Iyar 5768
Literary woodlice boring needless holes in biographical bedposts
By Paul Johnson
http://www.JewishWorldReview.com | Are there too many biographies? Thomas Carlyle thought so 150 years ago. ‘What is the use of it?’ he wrote growlingly. ‘Sticking like a woodlouse to an old bedpost and boring one more hole in it?’ He was then engaged in his 13-year task of writing the life of Frederick the Great, and spoke from a full and bitter heart. Since then over a million more biographies have been written in English alone. The public is to blame, as it is to blame for any other excesses, distortions, omissions and duplications in the book trade. I have been encouraged to write biographies, and have done six. Publishers will tell you that three in particular will always sell, no matter how many times they have been done before: lives of Byron, Mary Queen of Scots and, above all, Napoleon.
Here again, I am a sinner. At the urgent entreaty of a publisher, who wanted it for a ‘series’, I wrote a short life of Napoleon. I knew the period pretty well, and had already made up my mind about the brute on most points, so it took me only a month. But it has been reprinted many times, translated into numerous languages, gone into big print and disc, etc, and I suppose made me a tidy sum. Also, and most important of all, writing it gave me great pleasure. One of the fascinating things about this man is that new bits of information and memorabilia are always turning up. Some years ago, for instance, a reader sent me a piece of the material used in making him a dress-coat. Genuine? Who knows? There are more items from his wardrobe, or bits of them, floating around and being washed ashore in old curiosity shops than there are fragments of the True Cross.
Last week I had a letter from a gentleman well into his nineties, who had read my Napoleon in the big print edition. He says that in the 1920s he talked to an elderly solicitor, the uncle of a boy he knew at school. This man, born not later than the 1850s, was called Arnott, and was a direct descendant (probably grandson) of the Dr Arnott who was one of the five surgeons, the others being Shortt, Livingstone, Burton and Mitchell, who were present at a post-mortem examination of Napoleon’s body, carried out shortly after his death on St Helena, by the Florentine doctor Francesco Antommarchi. All five signed the report, identifying the cause of death, which was a matter of controversy then and ever since. It appears it was a traditional belief in the Arnott family that Surgeon Arnott, after the post-mortem, abstracted Napoleon’s heart and took it home with him when he left St Helena. Unfortunately, on the voyage, the ship’s rats got at it and ate it.
If true, and I give the story exactly as I received it, the tale makes a curious ‘double’ in French history: the hearts of both of France’s most notorious tyrants met a grisly fate. It was a custom of the French monarchy that, whenever the bodies of the kings were buried, vital organs, including the heart, were preserved at the Capetian family church, St Denis. During the Revolution, the church was broken into and ransacked of its treasures. Some royalist, however, managed to rescue the heart of Louis XIV, presumably in its reliquary, and took it into exile with him. It ended up at Nuneham, seat of the Harcourt family, a curious dried-up, shrivelled thing of dark and repulsive appearance, which was shown to visitors. One day it was produced for the entertainment of a Cambridge professor, a zoologist who, unknown to Lord Harcourt, was notorious for eating bits of the exotic animals he studied. This monster said, ‘I have eaten many strange things in my life, but I have never eaten the heart of a king.’ Whereupon he grabbed the loathsome piece of matter, popped it into his mouth and, after a perfunctory chew, swallowed it. His Lordship was outraged, but could do nothing. I may say that this kind of behaviour by Cambridge professors of the rougher sort is not wholly unknown — one can imagine Dr Leavis doing something similar. But it is odd to think of the last surviving morsel of Le Roi Soleil ending up in a Cambridge academic tummy. No odder, however, than Napoleon’s heart being devoured by Atlantic rats.
Relics of the famous are by no means so uncommon as one might suppose. For instance, during the gestation period of the magnificent Pilgrim edition of Charles Dickens’s letters (the last of the 12 volumes appeared in 2002), many hundreds of new letters came to light, bringing the total to 14,252. In the last volume alone, containing 1,151 letters, 427 were published for the first time. Roughly the same proportion applies to the famous Leslie Marchant edition of Lord Byron’s letters in 12 volumes, totalling over 2,900 letters, over 1,700 more than the most complete previous edition. In both cases, some of the newly discovered letters were of the highest importance. It has been the same story with the enormous Duke University edition of the letters of Thomas and Jane Welsh Carlyle, of which 35 volumes have so far been published, taking the story up to 1859. There will be, I imagine, over 60 volumes in all, and new letters appear almost every week. Such valuable bits of paper are to be found in all kinds of places, though strongboxes in the offices of old-established firms of solicitors — carried on from partner to son, to grandson and great-grandson — are the most likely. One such box revealed 35 letters from Dickens to John Forster, his closest associate throughout his life. I am hopeful that, sooner or later, a cache of Dickens’s letters to Ellen Ternan will be uncovered, clearing up many mysteries (and probably starting new ones too). We know Dickens wrote to her constantly, and though the Victorians were fearful incendiaries of private letters, even if she had a bonfire of Dickens’s after his death in 1870, some must have survived, as they always do. When Victoria herself died in 1901, her heir Edward VII carried out a monstrous holocaust of her possessions and papers but a good deal of material, happily, escaped his little piggy eyes. Nine volumes of her adult letters were published between 1907 and 1932, plus a supplementary volume of 1938 and two volumes dealing with her girlhood. My friend Kenneth Rendell, the great authority on collecting historical documents, writes in his authoritative volume, History Comes to Life, that autograph material of the Queen is ‘common’ and ‘documents, usually appointments, are fairly readily found’, but her letters ‘have become more scarce... she is very popular with collectors and there is great interest in her’. (By contrast, there is ‘little interest’ in autograph writings of Edward VII.)
Looking at historical personages from the viewpoint of the salerooms provides a revealing perspective. Rendell says of Disraeli that his autographic writings ‘are very actively collected and can be very difficult to find’. On the other hand, Gladstone’s ‘are much less collected than those of Disraeli, and both availability and price reflect this lack of interest’. Rendell says that the outstanding figure of the modern age among those collected is Winston Churchill, comparable only to Napoleon. Churchill’s immensely long career and the vast number of documents (including signed photos) he generated during it means the material is vast — all the same demand is such that any Churchill document other than routine is ‘extremely rare’. This prompts a thought. I am in my eightieth year, and only write short books now. Is it technically and humanly possible, I wonder, to write a really good short biography of Churchill? I may be tempted to try.
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Eminent British historian and author Paul Johnson's latest book is "American Presidents Eminent Lives Boxed Set: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Ulysses S. Grant". Comment by clicking here.
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© 2006, Paul Johnson