Matter prefatory in praise of biography.
Notwithstanding the preference which may be vulgarly given to the authority of those romance writers who entitle their books “the History of England, the History of France, of Spain, &c.,” it is most certain that truth is to be found only in the works of those who celebrate the lives of great men, and are commonly called biographers, as the others should indeed be termed topographers, or chorographers; words which might well mark the distinction between them; it being the business of the latter chiefly to describe countries and cities, which, with the assistance of maps, they do pretty justly, and may be depended upon; but as to the actions and characters of men, their writings are not quite so authentic, of which there needs no other proof than those eternal contradictions occurring between two topographers who undertake the history of the same country: for instance, between my Lord Clarendon and Mr Whitelocke, between Mr Echard and Rapin, and many others; where, facts being set forth in a different light, every reader believes as he pleases; and, indeed, the more judicious and suspicious very justly esteem the whole as no other than a romance, in which the writer hath indulged a happy and fertile invention. But though these widely differ in the narrative of facts; some ascribing victory to the one, and others to the other party; some representing the same man as a rogue, while others give him a great and honest character; yet all agree in the scene where the fact is supposed to have happened, and where the person, who is both a rogue and an honest man, lived. Now with us biographers the case is different; the facts we deliver may be relied on, though we often mistake the age and country wherein they happened: for, though it may be worth the examination of critics, whether the shepherd Chrysostom, who, as Cervantes informs us, died for love of the fair Marcella, who hated him, was ever in Spain, will any one doubt but that such a silly fellow hath really existed? Is there in the world such a sceptic as to disbelieve the madness of Cardenio, the perfidy of Ferdinand, the impertinent curiosity of Anselmo, the weakness of Camilla, the irresolute friendship of Lothario? though perhaps, as to the time and place where those several persons lived, that good historian may be deplorably deficient. But the most known instance of this kind is in the true history of Gil Blas, where the inimitable biographer hath made a notorious blunder in the country of Dr Sangrado, who used his patients as a vintner doth his wine-vessels, by letting out their blood, and filling them up with water. Doth not every one, who is the least versed in physical history, know that Spain was not the country in which this doctor lived? The same writer hath likewise erred in the country of his archbishop, as well as that of those great personages whose understandings were too sublime to taste anything but tragedy, and in many others. The same mistakes may likewise be observed in Scarron, the Arabian Nights, the History of Marianne and le Paisan Parvenu, and perhaps some few other writers of this class, whom I have not read, or do not at present recollect; for I would by no means be thought to comprehend those persons of surprizing genius, the authors of immense romances, or the modern novel and Atalantis writers; who, without any assistance from nature or history, record persons who never were, or will be, and facts which never did, nor possibly can, happen; whose heroes are of their own creation, and their brains the chaos whence all their materials are selected. Not that such writers deserve no honour; so far otherwise, that perhaps they merit the highest; for what can be nobler than to be as an example of the wonderful extent of human genius? One may apply to them what Balzac says of Aristotle, that they are a second nature (for they have no communication with the first; by which, authors of an inferior class, who cannot stand alone, are obliged to support themselves as with crutches); but these of whom I am now speaking seem to be possessed of those stilts, which the excellent Voltaire tells us, in his letters, “carry the genius far off, but with an regular pace.” Indeed, far out of the sight of the reader,
Beyond the realm of Chaos and old Night.
But to return to the former class, who are contented to copy nature, instead of forming originals from the confused heap of matter in their own brains, is not such a book as that which records the achievements of the renowned Don Quixote more worthy the name of a history than even Mariana’s: for, whereas the latter is confined to a particular period of time, and to a particular nation, the former is the history of the world in general, at least that part which is polished by laws, arts, and sciences; and of that from the time it was first polished to this day; nay, and forwards as long as it shall so remain?
I shall now proceed to apply these observations to the work before us; for indeed I have set them down principally to obviate some constructions which the good nature of mankind, who are always forward to see their friends’ virtues recorded, may put to particular parts. I question not but several of my readers will know the lawyer in the stage-coach the moment they hear his voice. It is likewise odds but the wit and the prude meet with some of their acquaintance, as well as all the rest of my characters. To prevent, therefore, any such malicious applications, I declare here, once for all, I describe not men, but manners; not an individual, but a species. Perhaps it will be answered, Are not the characters then taken from life? To which I answer in the affirmative; nay, I believe I might aver that I have writ little more than I have seen. The lawyer is not only alive, but hath been so these four thousand years; and I hope G— will indulge his life as many yet to come. He hath not indeed confined himself to one profession, one religion, or one country; but when the first mean selfish creature appeared on the human stage, who made self the centre of the whole creation, would give himself no pain, incur no danger, advance no money, to assist or preserve his fellow-creatures; then was our lawyer born; and, whilst such a person as I have described exists on earth, so long shall he remain upon it. It is, therefore, doing him little honour to imagine he endeavours to mimick some little obscure fellow, because he happens to resemble him in one particular feature, or perhaps in his profession; whereas his appearance in the world is calculated for much more general and noble purposes; not to expose one pitiful wretch to the small and contemptible circle of his acquaintance; but to hold the glass to thousands in their closets, that they may contemplate their deformity, and endeavour to reduce it, and thus by suffering private mortification may avoid public shame. This places the boundary between, and distinguishes the satirist from the libeller: for the former privately corrects the fault for the benefit of the person, like a parent; the latter publickly exposes the person himself, as an example to others, like an executioner.
There are besides little circumstances to be considered; as the drapery of a picture, which though fashion varies at different times, the resemblance of the countenance is not by those means diminished. Thus I believe we may venture to say Mrs Tow-wouse is coeval with our lawyer: and, though perhaps, during the changes which so long an existence must have passed through, she may in her turn have stood behind the bar at an inn, I will not scruple to affirm she hath likewise in the revolution of ages sat on a throne. In short, where extreme turbulency of temper, avarice, and an insensibility of human misery, with a degree of hypocrisy, have united in a female composition, Mrs Tow-wouse was that woman; and where a good inclination, eclipsed by a poverty of spirit and understanding, hath glimmered forth in a man, that man hath been no other than her sneaking husband.
I shall detain my reader no longer than to give him one caution more of an opposite kind: for, as in most of our particular characters we mean not to lash individuals, but all of the like sort, so, in our general descriptions, we mean not universals, but would be understood with many exceptions: for instance, in our description of high people, we cannot be intended to include such as, whilst they are an honour to their high rank, by a well-guided condescension make their superiority as easy as possible to those whom fortune chiefly hath placed below them. Of this number I could name a peer no less elevated by nature than by fortune; who, whilst he wears the noblest ensigns of honour on his person, bears the truest stamp of dignity on his mind, adorned with greatness, enriched with knowledge, and embellished with genius. I have seen this man relieve with generosity, while he hath conversed with freedom, and be to the same person a patron and a companion. I could name a commoner, raised higher above the multitude by superior talents than is in the power of his prince to exalt him, whose behaviour to those he hath obliged is more amiable than the obligation itself; and who is so great a master of affability, that, if he could divest himself of an inherent greatness in his manner, would often make the lowest of his acquaintance forget who was the master of that palace in which they are so courteously entertained. These are pictures which must be, I believe, known: I declare they are taken from the life, and not intended to exceed it. By those high people, therefore, whom I have described, I mean a set of wretches, who, while they are a disgrace to their ancestors, whose honours and fortunes they inherit (or perhaps a greater to their mother, for such degeneracy is scarce credible), have the insolence to treat those with disregard who are at least equal to the founders of their own splendor. It is, I fancy, impossible to conceive a spectacle more worthy of our indignation, than that of a fellow, who is not only a blot in the escutcheon of a great family, but a scandal to the human species, maintaining a supercilious behaviour to men who are an honour to their nature and a disgrace to their fortune.
And now, reader, taking these hints along with you, you may, if you please, proceed to the sequel of this our true history.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:50