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  • English Biography in the Seventeenth Century: A Critical Survey
  • Peter McCullough (bio)
Allan Pritchard . English Biography in the Seventeenth Century: A Critical Survey. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2005. 297 pp. ISBN 0-802-03889-1, $60.

This is a book that lives up to its title. Prof. Pritchard has produced an eminently readable, well researched survey that deservedly replaces its only significant predecessor, Donald Stauffer's English Biography before 1700 (Harvard UP, 1930). The balance, depth, and accessibility of Pritchard's work will guarantee it a similarly long shelf-life. Most impressive is the author's deft ability to balance objective description and insightful criticism—not unlike a good biography. Pritchard devotes his first four chapters to religious biography, the most dominant form in the first half of the century, turning next to chapters on individual writers and other major types of biographical subjects: Walton's Lives, public figures, writers, Thomas Fuller's Worthies, Anthony Wood's Athenae Oxoniensis, Aubrey's Brief Lives, family history, and Roger North's Lives of the Norths. This structure is gracefully handled—the chronological arrangement of the largely topical chapters sustains an evolutionary argument without unnecessary repetition or restatement.

The book will serve two main purposes for students and scholars: first, as a reliable narrative of the evolution of biography (excluding autobiography) in the period 1600–1700; second (and perhaps more frequently), as a reference work for situating any given biography within the varied traditions and genres of biographical writing practiced in the period. The latter should make this book required reading for any scholar—historian or literary critic—who plans to use early modern biography as evidence. For here Pritchard's careful anatomies of the conventions and decorums of the various forms (in particular those prominent in the earlier part of the century) should inspire a healthy caution against mistaking generalized exemplarity or conventionally praised attributes as facts unique to any given biographical subject. For example, armed with Pritchard's knowledge of just about every clerical biography (funeral sermons included) written before 1640, anyone should avoid the assumption that John Donne had a monopoly on the fantasy of dying in the pulpit, preaching like an angel, or orchestrating an unforgettable death-bed scene; or that Lancelot Andrewes was unusual for catching the eye of a famous schoolmaster, studying to the point of illness, or inviting comparison with the bishops of the early church.

While surveying in fulsome and entertaining detail the varieties of seventeenth century biography, Pritchard also offers both some trenchant revisions of literary history and a clear evolutionist thesis about the form. Most welcome in the former are his sensitive calls to take more seriously (in literary and biographical terms) the works of John Hackett (whose life of bishop John Williams, written in 1657 though not published until 1693, is, at 450 folio [End Page 745] pages, "perhaps the longest biography that had been written of an English-man" [100]); of Thomas Fuller and Anthony Wood (the great precursors to the Victorian achievement of the DNB); of the oft-neglected tradition of family history marked by John Smyth, Sir Hugh Cholmley, and Gervase Holles's mid-century efforts; and of the culmination of the latter tradition in Robert North's magisterial account of his three distinguished brothers.

Although a survey, Pritchard's book does not shy away from critical analysis. His demolition of Peter Heylyn's life of archbishop William Laud (Cyprianus Anglicus, 1668) as the worst-case scenario of "biography over-whelmed" by partisan history is as memorable as it is deserved (97). But, as readers of this journal will instantly recognize, the critical perspective from which such judgments are ventured is unambiguously Johnsonian. The principal thesis that emerges in these pages is the assertion of qualitative progress through the century—from early practitioners who wrote ill-formed, largely unsatisfying accounts trapped in the early conventions of moral exemplarity, to those whose more modern biographical method captures, indeed celebrates, individuality as Dr Johnson would see fit: "'to give a complete account of the person whose life he is writing, and to discriminate him from all other persons by any peculiarities of character or sentiment he may happen...


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