Paul Johnson

And Another Thing | 10 May 2008

Literary woodlice boring needless holes in biographical bedposts

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.

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