On bias in biographies

There’s no such thing as an objective biography, not even of someone as well-studied as Francis Bacon. Sometime in the latter half of the 20th century, British biographers turned against their subjects, especially when the subjects had been lauded by Victorian or Edwardian biographers. These modern works express their disgust for the Elizabethan-ness of their subjects at every turn. Every act is seen as purely self-serving, cynical, and craven. They use the words “anxious” and “anxiety” a lot in ascribing motive or emotional states, conditions rarely documented in the historical record and therefore absolutely and only a matter of authorial interpretation.

It’s ok for me to do that; I’m a novelist. But biographers purport to be expounders of historical truth.

The supposedly self-serving Bacon

Francis Bacon, 1617, by Paul Van Somer I (1576/78 – 1622). I’ll grant you he looks a little anxious here. He generally seemed to dislike having his portrait painted – though he kept doing it.

My ire is most often raised on this account by the well-written, well-researched, yet biased biography of Francis Bacon by Lisa Jardine and Alan Stewart, Hostage to Fortune (New York: Hill and Wang, 1998.) I’ve whinged about this book before, but here I am again, checking on what Francis was up to in 1590-91 for Let Slip the Dogs (June, 2018), and arguing with every  paragraph.

For instance, on pages 123-124, they tell us about Bacon’s advice letter about the religious controversies stirred up on the left – radical Protestants – by Martin Marprelate. (This is the setting for my third Bacon mystery, Publish and Perish.) Bacon wrote an eloquently balanced Advertisement in which he chided both the established church and the reformists for their extreme responses to one another.

The Advertisement was never published, but many copies remain, so it must have been widely circulated. It was certainly well-regarded. It was so well received, in fact, that over time, both sides used it to support their positions.

This happens to Francis Bacon a lot, over the centuries. I would say it happens thanks to his gift for being able to see above and beyond the immediate fray to larger principles and more important consequences. His exceptional temperament and intelligence allowed him to understand both sides without being the partisan of either. I see his balance as praiseworthy, in other words.

Jardine and Stewart see it as form of cowardice. “Francis Bacon’s desire to tread the via media in his argument [in the Advertisement] may simply have been due to his customary anxiety to offend no party who might ultimately be useful to him for preferment.”

See the difference? The fact is that Bacon wrote an article about religious controversy in which he pointed out the faults of both sides with some sympathy for each. More facts are that later works were published by partisans on each of the two conflicting sides citing Bacon’s moderate work in support of their views. Whether Bacon’s moderation was laudable rationality or fearful self-preservation is a matter of interpretation.

Anxiety and the Renaissance man

Here’s another example of the kind of thing that causes me to throw books across the room (mentally; we don’t want to scare the dog.) This is from Anna Beer’s lame biography of Bess Throckmorton, My Just Desire (New York: Ballantine Books, 2003.) Ms. Beers doesn’t like Sir Walter Ralegh at all, mainly because he’s a man, I think, but also because he’s a famous man who has been admired by stupid people for Far Too Long.

Bess Throckmorton Ralegh, ca. 1600, Robert Peake the Elder (ca. 1551-1619). She’s about 35 in this portrait, the age Ralegh was when they were married.

Sir Walter and Bess Throckmorton began a secret affair sometime before the summer 1591, when she was 26 and he was 37. We know it started before that, because Bess fell pregnant in late June. Sir Walter was the Queen’s favorite at this time. Bess was a Gentlewoman of the Privy Chamber. The affair would be considered a personal betrayal of the Queen’s trust for both parties. It was madly reckless, in other words. They must both have been possessed by an unquenchable lust!

Beer tries to paint Bess as a victim, which my style of feminism considers outrageous. Sure, Bess had fewer options in life than Sir Walter Ralegh and that’s not fair, by modern standards. But by the standards of Bess’s time and probably Bess herself, it was just the way the world works. She caught the Queen’s Favorite, let us not forget, in spite of not having any money or property whatsoever. The clothes she stood up in, a few pieces of furniture, and that was all. She was 26 and not yet married with no offers on the table, as far as we know.

Anyway, we’re in the part where the couple are getting secretly married, probably in November, 1591, trying to beat the stork while keeping it all secret for as long as possible. Beer wonders how Bess could hide her pregnancy for so long, though I think you could pack a lot of belly underneath a well-tailored farthingale.

Beer also wonders what attracted Bess to Sir Walter, having evidently never seen one of his many portraits. The guy was a babe! Plus he was very tall, plus he was the Queen’s Favorite, smarter than most people in that high-IQ court, braver than your average bear, high energy, witty, and oh yeah — rich. All the Gentlewomen of the Privy Chamber must have been angling for a little one-on-one time with Sir Walter!

Poor restless Ralegh!

Beer writes, “Ralegh’s money, however, did not make him any more settled in himself, or less anxious [italics mine] about possible threats to his position. Always busy, he continued to move restlessly from one part of the country to another and abroad, in September alone proceeding from Cornwall, to court in London, and then to Ireland.”

Sir Walter and son, ca. 1602, Artist unknown. Sir Walter’s about 46 here. Queen Elizabeth is still alive, but the writing is on the wall: he’ll be losing her protection someday soon. Does this look anxious to you?

See that scare word, “anxious?” Anxiety plays no part in my characterization of this extraordinary man. Narcissism does; you have be damn confident to put yourself in a little wooden ark and sail off across the sea in search of a new England. And there’s no greatness without narcissism.

But anxious? That’s a diminishing word, a belittling word. A strong person is concerned, aware, interested, involved; a weak person is anxious, fretful, worried.

Ralegh didn’t move “restlessly” from one place to another at that time in his life. He moved purposefully. The Queen had granted him 40,000 acres of land in Ireland after his participation in suppressing the Desmond Rebellions (viewed positively by his peers in his time.) She had also made him Warden of the Stannaries (tin mines), Lord Lieutenant of Cornwall, and Admiral for both Cornwall and Devon. He was hugely admired by the people of those counties in his time and was the go-to guy for disputes between ship owners, captains, and crews. The man had work to do; that’s why he moved around. He was an important man at the top of his game — not anxious!

So you’re thinking, “Jeeps, Anna; over-sensitive much?” Perhaps, perhaps. These are only two examples, presented in exquisite detail here, but the general trend is repeated and reinforced on every page of these biographies. It’s a constant drip of disdain and disapproval for the biographical subject, teaching us, the readers, to despise the said subject and regard him as a selfish, cynical, manipulator. I object as a novelist to the cheap and shallow characterizations and I object as a scholar to the relentless editorializing unsupported by the documentary evidence.

‘Nuff said.

Just for fun, here are the ruins of a tin mine in Cornwall. Lovely! I’d leave the court to take breaks out here too.


Monstrous Adversary: The 17th Earl of Oxford

(This post appeared on 3 March, 2017, at the English Historical Fiction Authors Blog.)

Edward de Vere (12 April 1550 – 24 June 1604) was the 17th Earl of Oxford and not, by contemporary17th-earl-of-oxford accounts, a very nice man. Charles Arundel, once one of the earl’s closest friends, attributed these qualities to him:

  1. atheism
  2. pathological lying
  3. subornation
  4. murder by hire
  5. sedition
  6. sexual perversion including pederasty
  7. chronic inebriation
  8. nursing of private grudges (especially against members of the Howard family)
  9. lèse majesté. (treason committed against a sovereign power.)

For comparison, an article at Psychology Today list the major characteristics of a psychopath:

  1. cold-heartedness: being callous and showing a lack of empathy.
  2. lack of ‘social emotions’, like shame, guilt, remorse.
  3. irresponsibility and blaming others for events that are actually their fault.
  4. insincere speech, ranging from glibness to pathological lying.
  5. a grandiose sense of self worth; boastfulness.
  6. pathologic egocentricity: selfishness.
  7. inability to plan for the future, lack of realistic long-term goals.
  8. violence; a low tolerance for frustration.

If you read Alan Nelson’s well-grounded biography (see reference below), you’ll probably recognize the earl in that psychology article.

A wilful child

Little Edward was a chip off the old block. His father was a violent, wilful, and inconsequential man who never sat on the Privy Council or earned the Order of the Garter. His son likewise failed to achieve any honors from his queen or his peers over the course of his fifty-four years.

When the 16th earl died in 1562, twelve-year-old Edward became a ward of Lord Burghley, the Queen’s Lord Treasurer and also Master of the Court of Wards. (Also Francis Bacon’s uncle.) Burgley ran a sort of School for Orphaned Earls in his spacious house on the Strand. Others in his care were Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, and Roger Manners, Earl of Rutland. A selective group!

hutton-swordplayBiographer Nelson suggests that the rebelliousness of Burghley’s wards stemmed from their frustration with the stodgy and pious atmosphere of Burghley House, where the boys were kept to a strict schedule with plenty of prayers. Essex and Southampton went so far as to rebel against the Queen herself in 1603.

But Oxford was more than merely rebellious. His first recorded act of violence was the killing of an undercook in 1567. Oxford was seventeen. He and a friend had been practicing with rapiers, the new weapon from the Continent. The exciting new weapon allowed the fighter to thrust and stab, rather than artlessly hacking away.

When the undercook chanced to walk across the yard, Oxford, wanting to test his new toy, drove the steel through the man’s thigh. The poor fellow died a few hours later. Burghley hastened to repress the scandal, managing the process so that the coroner’s official report stated that the undercook had been drunk and ran himself upon his lordship’s rapier while Oxford was merely  holding it in his hand, thus committing suicide. A masterpiece of spin!

Spare the rod and spoil the earl

Oxford received little punishment for the many acts of violence that punctuated his life. Nelson’s book examines several murders committed by Oxford’s men, presumably at his behest: “a massed attack on the residence of a personal enemy was, as we shall learn, Oxford’s modus operandi“.

Queen Elizabeth ignored that sort of thing among those of noble blood. But she tossed the earl into the anne-vavasourTower in 1581 for impregnating Anne Vavasour, a Maid of Honor. Anne was Towered as well, after delivering Oxford’s bastard son. Oxford never contributed anything toward the support or education of the boy.

This is hardly surprising, since he contributed next to nothing to the care of his three legitimate daughters, fruit of his union with Anne Cecil, Burghley’s daughter. Burghley brokered that match himself, eager to ally his upstart family with the ancient nobility. Alas, Oxford was no catch. Somehow he got it into his head during Anne’s first pregnancy that the child could not be his. True, he was in Italy during much of the relevant period, but not long enough to justify his accusations — seen as wicked and bizarre at the time. Oxford refused to see his wife or even live with her for five years. In spite of this callous behavior, Lord Burghley continued to defend him and supply him with funds on demand.

The wages of sin

Oxford ran through money like a socialite on a spree on Rodeo Drive. His estate was worth £12,000 in 1575. When he died in 1604, he left more debts than assets. He spent money on clothes, weapons, books, travel (especially to Italy, which he loved), retainers (a gang of violent men), and lush living.

He liked to host grand dinner parties, at which he would regale his friends with boasts and scandalous talk about his rivals and his intimate relations with the queen. He bragged that he had been offered £1,000 a year by the Pope, presumably for aiding the cause of returning England to the Catholic fold. He claimed the beauteous Countess of Mirandola had traveled 50 miles to share his bed.

He formed lifelong grudges against any man who rose in the queen’s esteem, like Sir Philip Sydney, Sir Walter Ralegh, and the Earl of Leicester. He sent an armed man to assault Sir Walter in a narrow lane behind the tennis courts at Whitehall. Unsuccessfully, needless to say. Sir Walter was no easy target.

The vampire earl

In 1584, the earl accused his best friends of treason — conspiring with Rome. History doesn’t tell us why; a rash whim or bitter humour, one supposes. The erstwhile friends rushed to testify against him to save their own skins. Charles Arundel is the one who called him “my monstrus adversarye Oxford, who wold drinke my blud rather than wine, as well as he loves it.”

signature_Edward_de_Vere_Earl_of_OxfordOxford believed in satanic magics and weird prophesies. He flirted with Catholicism, doubtless attracted by the pomp and mystery, as well as the sheer danger of dancing with the enemy. He claimed to have had visions, some holy, others profane.

All in all, he was a truly appalling example of humanity, although Nelson manages to identify one positive trait. “[H]e was of course a fine calligrapher.” Lovely handwriting; perhaps the saddest of all epitaphs.


Hutton, Alfred. 1892. Old Swordplay: A glance at the systems of fence in vogue during the XVIth, XVIIth, and XVIIIth centuries, with lessons arranged from the works of various ancient masters for the practical study of the use of the picturesque arms borne of forefathers. London: H. Grevel & Co.

Nelson, Alan. 2003. Monstrous Adversary: The life of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. Liverpool University Press. [Amazon link.]


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