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Historical Biography

Daniel Snowman asks whether historical biography can be considered a serious contribution to history and assesses the latest trends in the field.

Diaries and day books of the Brontë sisters, Brontë Parsonage Museum, Haworth, West Yorkshire. © Bronte Parsonage Museum, Haworth, Yorkshire / Bridgeman Images

Once upon a time historical biographies were written by men and were mostly about (‘Great’) men: from Plutarch and Suetonius on the grandees of the ancient world, to Vasari on the artists of Renaissance Italy, Boswell on Johnson, Aubrey’s Brief Lives, Carlyle on Frederick the Great, Morley on Gladstone, Trevelyan on Garibaldi and Churchill on Marlborough. Many still are. I think of Ian Kershaw’s authoritative life of Hitler or Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Stalin, for example, or Jonathan Steinberg’s Bismarck and several recent (or imminent) books about Napoleon and various US presidents (not to mention the many biographies of leading cultural figures by Michael Holroyd, Richard Holmes, A.N. Wilson, Peter Ackroyd and others). No doubt the trend has been boosted by this year’s First World War centenary and the appearance of new studies of men associated with it: Guy Cuthbertson’s Wilfred Owen or the third and final volume of John Röhl’s biography of Kaiser Wilhelm.  

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