Monthly Archives: December 2013

Crisis of Doubt: literary vs historical biography

William Hone, one of the 'reconverts' discussed in Larsen's book.

William Hone, one of the ‘reconverts’ discussed in Larsen’s book.

Timothy Larsen’s Crisis of Doubt: Honest Faith in Nineteenth Century England (OUP, 2006) is an interesting biographical project. In order to challenge the prevailing myth of honest Victorian thinkers inevitably suffering a crisis of faith and abandoning Christianity, Larsen tells of eight significant (and representative) reconversions running the other way, secularist leaders who returned to some form of Christianity, not on their deathbed but in their right mind, years before their deaths.

Does it work as biography? Does it need to? The account Larsen is trying to challenge is so ingrained that his entire book is singularly focused on constructing his alternative. Long after thinking there probably was something to his case, I found myself feeling ungripped by the biographies themselves. Reviewer Philip M. Davis, one of the critics Larsen is directly challenging, obviously felt the same way:

But he does not make these men or their lives very interesting. Nor can he give a reader insight into their inner lives—partly because their writing is not in any sense literary and does not allow a way in.Worst of all is the realization that their actual thinking (too often merely typical and predictable, however sincere)  is  not  actually  very  deep. Accordingly, despite  his  thesis, he  cannot find  here  the  relation  of  religion  and  compelling  thought: he  still  needs Tennyson or John Henry Newman—or at least W. H. Mallock or Francis William Newman.
That is to say, this is a book only for historians. Larsen won’t mind perhaps that it isn’t for the literary types. But my point is not that: it is that, sadly, Crisis of Doubt has no theological depth. (Catholic Historical Review 94, no. 2: 397-398. )

I don’t wish to stand between these two dueling gentlemen. Larsen makes a strong case; Davis suggests he’s missed a bigger point (crisis of faith and crisis of doubt as part of the same phenomenon), and what’s more, his review is one of those superbly written demolition jobs which can’t help but sway a reader who hasn’t quite made up their mind on a book.

No, their duel aside: what of this claim about biography? Davis suggests that there is biography for historians, and then there is biography for literary types. And, to a large extent, it relies on the biographical subject. Biographical subjects who are not ‘in any sense literary’ do not allow the biographer ‘in’. Mere thinkers – and apparently shallow ones in this case – give no clue to their inner lives. And that is what makes for mere historical biography, as opposed to literary biography.

Given the biographical subject I am considering taking up, I hope he’s wrong. I hope the reason Larsen’s writing is not gripping as biography is the fact he is not attempting to write good biography but to make a point. The more literary biographer should have a sense of wonder at the unfolding of a person’s life, and invest it with a more beautiful kind of prose. (I wonder to what extent this is possible in an academic context – in, say, writing for a PhD?)

Furthermore, Larsen makes only limited use of letters or diaries; if they exist, they could give us a greater sense of these figures’ inner lives.

Martin Thomas faces this problem in writing the biography of anthropologist R.H. Mathews – the man gives nothing away, not even in the many letters and diaries Thomas manages to unearth. The man is ‘self-contained’; his diaries ‘are utterly devoid of reflection’. Thomas casts his whole narrative as a quest for his elusive quarry, and it works very well. Yet not every biographer faced with the unrevealing subject can take this option. I suppose I hope I will be able to, if I need to.

Davis’s review of Larsen, then, intensifies two key dilemmas for me in preparing to write a biography. Firstly, properly understanding the difference between what he calls a ‘literary’ and a ‘historical’ approach to biography. Secondly, to what extent do I need to select a biographical subject who reveals their inner life?