Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The way biographies ought to be written

The best paragraph of one of the best biographies I've come across in the Dictionary of National Biography:
[Titus Oates] was later described as a dull, unlovable child who suffered from convulsions, a runny nose, and a tendency to dribble. In 1664 he attended Merchant Taylors' School in London as a free scholar under the tuition of William Smith, whom he later accused of playing a part in the Popish Plot. Smith found Oates a dullard and, discovering that Oates had cheated him of his tuition fees, subsequently expelled him. In 1665 he attended a school at Seddlescombe, some 6 miles from Hastings, and in June 1667 he went up to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, where he gained a further reputation for stupidity, homosexuality, and a 'Canting Fanatical way' (Elliot, 1–2). Oates transferred to St. John's College in 1669, but fared no better. He left Cambridge without a degree in 1669, but having become skilled in mendacity.
Damn. That shit's old school. (For those with a subscription, the rest of the bio is equally awesome.)

10 comments:

Renaissance Girl said...

"skilled in mendacity." If biographies WERE written without the canonization urge, probably more of them would incorporate this phrase....

Doctor Cleveland said...

I like that if you hit "DNB archive" and read the original 19th-c. entry, what you get isn't quite as personal or bilious as the new one.

slantgirl said...

most of the Caius members that I met while at the Uni could equally be accused of "stupidity, homosexuality, and a 'Canting Fanatical way'"...

squadratomagico said...

Ohmigod, that's so awesome! Thanks so much for sharing!

name that movie... said...

Very well, where should I begin?  My father was a relentlessly self-improving boulangerie owner from Belgium with low-grade narcolepsy and a penchant for buggery.  My mother was a fifteen-year-old French prostitute named Chloe with webbed feet.  My father would womanize, he would drink, he would make outrageous claims, like he invented the question mark.  Sometimes he would accuse chestnuts of being lazy.  A sort of general malaise that only the genius possess and the insane lament.  My childhood was typical.

Summers in Rangoon, luge lessons.  In the spring we'd make
meat helmets.  If I was insolent, I was placed in a burlap bag and beaten with reeds.  Pretty standard, really.  At the age of twelve I received my first scribe.  At the age of fifteen, a Zoroastrian named Vilma ritualistically shaved my testicles.  There really is nothing like a shawn scrotum.  At the age of eighteen, I went off to evil medical school.

Concord Fowling Pieces said...

Titus Oates, informer, was born at Oakham, Rutland

Sounds like a notorious character. :)

Piers said...

I rather like Stephan Collini's review of the new DNB from when it came out:

http://www.lrb.co.uk/v27/n02/coll01_.html

He spends a bit of time near the end playing around with the word search function looking for the reuse of particular descriptions: those who will not ‘suffer fools gladly’; are possessed of a 'forceful personality'; or are 'attractive to women.'

Unfortunately, it turns out that Titus is the only individual described as 'skilled in mendacity', but mendacity itself turns up 13 hits, including Dame Ruth Railton, whose husband's "delusions of power and influence were matched by [her] extraordinary capacity for fantasy and mendacity. NYO members would recall that ‘she once settled a difference of opinion on the interpretation of Stravinsky by announcing crushingly, “Why, I danced at the first performance of The Rite of Spring!”"

Flavia said...

I love you people.

And thanks especially, Piers, for the link and your own, um, research. Another excellent old-school bio.

bitternsweet said...

I don't know which is funnier -- the Titus bio or name that movie's Dr. Evil bio -- but, oh, I laughed ...

Whew.

medieval woman said...

Just gave you an inspiration award at Chez Bloggez Moi!