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.


The more things change...

.. the more they stay the same. Perhaps it’s a special curse afflicting historians and writers of historical fiction, but I keep seeing resonances between the late Elizabethan period and our current political climate. Not straight lines, not full reproductions, but echoes and shimmery reflections.

Who knew what and when did they know it

Devin Nunes

A perennial political question. Sometimes I find it hard to remember why it matters. But here I am, on a morning in late February, reading the Washington Post in accordance with my daily habit, including this article about a memo about another memo. It’s all about the Trump-Russia collusion issue, which is tedious to watch play out in real time, but has potentially very important consequences.

Here’s the article, hope you can still read it. It’s “What we learned from the Democratic response to the Nunes memo — and what we didn’t,” by Philip Bump, February 25, 2018. I’ll give you the second paragraph for the gist:

“Understanding the memo released by the Democratic members of the House Intelligence Committee requires the context of Nunes’s original memo, released to great fanfare earlier this month in an effort to paint the FBI’s investigation into Russian interference as politically biased. Nunes presented a scenario in which a Trump campaign staffer, Carter Page, faced federal surveillance on the basis of information collected by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, who was working indirectly for the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton’s campaign through a research firm called Fusion GPS.”

This whole issue hinges on who knew what at what time. Not exactly the same as my Elizabethan example, but in the same realm.

Who said what to whom and when

As Queen Elizabeth approached her sixth decade, her courtiers began speculating about her Elizabeth-I-Allegorical-Posuccessor. Not openly — that would be treason — but since she refused to name a successor for fear it would result in her immediate assassination, speculation was all they had. The smart money was on King James VI of Scotland, so the most astute courtiers began cultivating his good will early on.

These astute courtiers included, obviously, Lord Burghley, the Queen’s Lord Treasurer, himself a very old man, but with a son’s future to secure (Robert Cecil.) Also eager to advance apace was the dashing Earl of Essex, the Queen’s favorite and a most impatient man. The earl was aided by his astute and articulate older sister, Penelope Rich, whose sole biography I was reading last night: Maud Stepney Rawson’s Penelope Rich and Her Circle (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1911.)

That biography quoted at length a letter (pp 234-235) to Lord Burghley from Thomas Fowler, one of his many informants, writing from Edinburgh in 1589. Fowler lightly conceals his subjects with nicknames — standard practice in those days. The language has been modernized by Ms. Rawson.

King James in 1606

“Your Lordship may be pleased to know that I learn that Mr. Richard Douglas, coming last from London, brought down one Ottoman (Robert Dale.) The said Mr. Richard… himself delivered a letter from the Earl of Essex to His Majesty, with credit: both these (gentlemen) were in commission from the Earl to deal largely with His Majesty, to assure him of the Earl’s service and fidelity, and Ottoman to carry back the answer, what was not meet to be committed in writing. … the said Mr. Richard hath a long scroll as an alphabet of cipher to understand them [the letters] by. I can tell few of their names, but the Queen’s Majesty is Venus, and the Earl the Weary Knight, as I remember, but always that he is exceedingly weary, accounting it a thrall that he lives now in, and wishes the change. [borderline treason!] She [Penelope] is very pleasant in her letters, and writes the most part thereof in her brother’s behalf, so as they should be showed to Victor (King James) which they were; and the dark parts expounded to him…. The said Ottoman had many secret conferences with the King, which pleased him exceedingly; and Mr. Douglas won credit where before he had none…”

The smoke from this gun is hugely more obvious than the fog surrounding Donald Trump’s financial relationships in Russia and Central Asia, but the “who sat next to whom and spoke for how long about what” style of evidence seems strikingly similar to me, but then the Elizabethans didn’t have an internet and they weren’t very sneaky about code names either.

What boots it, when all is said and done?

In the event of Elizabeth’s death in 1603, it mattered a lot who had said what to which friend of King James and when that What had been said to that Who. It turns out that Robert Cecil had gotten in earliest and made all the right pitches. He had the advantage of his father’s extensive network of eavesdroppers eager to do themselves a favor by writing poste haste. The over-hasty Earl of Essex had already gotten his head cut off for over-reaching by the time James came south. Penelope Rich’s husband divorced her, but she didn’t like him anyway. 

And it will matter a lot if it turns out that Trump really does or did owe a bunch of Russians a bunch of money at any time leading up to the 2016 presidential elections. It will matter a lot if any of his crew solicited the help of Russian troll-masters in manipulating American votes. Who sat next to whom at which event? Could matter.

I remind myself of the letters flying back and forth from England to Scotland throughout the last decade of the sixteenth century now whenever I open up another article about the latest step in this appropriately long and detailed Russian collusion investigation.

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