- Purchase/rental options available:
Eighteenth-Century Studies 36.1 (2002) 119-122
[Access article in PDF]
How We Write Lives
Morris Brownell. The Prime Minister of Taste (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001). Pp. ix, 228. $55.00.
Kathryn King. Jane Barker, Exile (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000). Pp. xv, 280. £45.00.
Maximillian E. Novak. Daniel Defoe: Master of Fictions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001). Pp. xi, 680. £30.00.
When the late twentieth century's literature in English comes to be assessed, biography will surely stand out as the premier art. Never before have so many been written so well and imaginatively, bringing us new approaches and biographies of marriages, "nobodies," horses, cod, and God. Biographies dominate the book review pages of periodicals, and only self-help books compete in sales. Although academic biography presents special difficulties and restrictions, it shares in this golden age, and these three biographies represent today's diversity well. Maximillian E. Novak's Daniel Defoe: Master of Fictions is a traditional life from the works, Kathryn King's Jane Barker, Exile a state-of-the-art biography of a woman, and Morris Brownell's The Prime Minister of Taste an example of the recent, delightful studies of a single aspect of a life in the manner of Richard Wendorf's Sir Joshua Reynolds: The Painter in Society. [End Page 119]
A sure grasp of a wider variety of contexts than ever before is now de rigueur in biography, and these authors deliver superbly. Novak brings a lifetime of reading and studying Defoe to this biography. He moves effortlessly among Defoe's works, demonstrating a sure grasp of their contents, making connections, and keeping up a running commentary on which opinions are life-long, changed by circumstances, or apostasy. He also understands the significance of the works within the most important literary, political, and social movements of the eighteenth century, as is illustrated by his characterizations of important but lesser-known works such as The Consolidator and The Memoirs of the Church of Scotland. His knowledge of eighteenth-century references to and attacks upon Defoe will never be matched. Novak even finds a poem that has Defoe coming in second in a contest to become poet laureate (507). He chooses to work almost exclusively with eighteenth-century sources, ignoring almost entirely, for instance, the work of Joel Baer, Geoffrey Sill, Lincoln Faller, J. Alan Downie, and especially pure literary critics including John Richetti, Robyn Weigman, Hans Turley, and Sandra Sherman. He handles Mandeville, Deism and, most egregiously, slavery this way and refers to minor, obscure plays such as D. Dilke's The Lover's Luck to illustrate the "new social spirit that came over with William" (104). In another decision worthy of debate, Novak basically uses the old, pre-Furbank and Owen canon. I am in much closer agreement with Novak than with Furbank and Owen and have said so in print. Novak says that I ignore problems with the canon (481-2 and 482n. 41), but I argued matters of canon in the notes to Daniel Defoe: His Life rather than in the text (see, for instance, 592-3n. 38). Yet it seems to me that over the next decades the serious work that needs to be done on Defoe attribution will continue (and unless Furbank and Owen have changed their methods, they are not doing it); therefore, the longevity of the biography would have been protected by a more cautious approach. Defoe wrote so much, and so much that he wrote is known, even during the years of his most disputed publication (1711-1719), that for instance the Defoe scholar need not pay much attention to minor, disputed pamphlets on Harley's demise. I just do not buy all those Secret Histories. Perhaps paradoxically—or even perversely—I applaud his sturdiness in writing about works that have withstood (in my opinion) Furbank and Owen's best shots. Among them are the four books about Peter the Great and Charles XII of Sweden that accompany Defoe's extensive writings about these men and their wars in the Review. Furbank and Owen consistently attack attribution...