The history of the world is no longer the biographies of great men. The Victorians, who needed heroes as an addict needs heroin, enshrined their worthies in multitomed tombs. Letters were reproduced verbatim, speeches were quoted at inordinate length, and eulogies were printed in extenso. If the public career was successful, the moral was ponderously pointed; if the private life was suspect, the veil was dutifully drawn. Superstars like Disraeli, Albert and Gladstone were celebrated in six, five and three volumes apiece, and most Cabinet Ministers could usually count on at least two - especially if, like Lord Randolph Churchill, their reputation was safer in their son's hands than in their own. Although Lytton Strachey assailed such pious pomposity by showing that the slenderest of books could sometimes be the weightiest, and that eminence was not necessarily next to Godliness, these pantheons in print were still being constructed on a lavish scale until the Second World War: four volumes (and still unfinished) for Salisbury, three for Joseph Chamberlain (likewise incomplete) and for Curzon, and a double-decker apiece for Asquith, Balfour, Campbell-Bannerman and Rosebery.
LRB 21 October 1982 | PDF Download