THE DECLINE OF THE MEMOIR.
ON every hand there are signs that an age of memoirs is upon us. There have been such periods before, when the memoirs of some "person of quality" and the "remains" and "additional remains" of some divine were the most com- mon outputs of the Press. Then biography was a decent mark of respect, less necessary than a tombstone, but of a rank with the mutes and weepers. My lord was scarcely gone from his earthly tenement when his confidential secretary or his domestic chaplain had begun the work, which in time came into print with a frontispiece wherein Muses wept over their patron's bier. It was all an innocent convention, and the products, save in some few cases where the subject had made history, have departed into limbo. After all, the chaplain did his work with care and leisure, and the books had dignity if they lacked interest. To-day we are in a different case. No sooner does a notable man die than his memoir is forthcoming, and the same newspaper which prints an account of his funeral advertises his Life in two volumes with photo- graphs. Any one with the smallest pretensions to fame may count on a hastily written biography; and the fashion goes further, for the majority make it their business to forestall the biographer and publish their annals in their lifetime. It is ungenerous to find fault with the good people who keep diaries and long memories, for we owe them many pleasant hours ; but the fashion is a dangerous one, and there are sad examples of its degradation. To- have known •eminent men and women is well, and to remember their sayings better; but more than this is required for the making of a good book. The truth is that a man's life is now regarded as a commercial asset. While he lives publishers pester him for his memoirs, and after his death there is always some willing scribe for the work. And the great public likes it, and money is made, and every one is satisfied. Soon it will be a sacred duty to one's family to have memoirs ready for publication, and some day an enlightened Chancellor of the Exchequer will exact Estate-duty on this as on other personal assets.
We confess to a catholic liking for memoirs of every sort, provided they be done well. From the small craft of anecdote-books and table-talk, and the elegant brigaatines of diaries and collections of letters, to the great three-deckers of a Horace Walpole and a Boswell, we find the class one of the most entertaining in literature. We would sharply distinguish the memoir from the biography. The latter is a stiff and comprehensive work, conducted in a scientific spirit, with excursions in psychology and dissertations on ethics, and, speaking generally, a rounded philosophy. The true biographer must not make an idol of his subject ; be must discriminate and criticise ; and he must make a laborious search after truth. Hence biography—in this severe sense— is rarely abused, for only the great are its objects, and the man who essays it is, as a rale, a serious and competent person. But the memoir is a lesser work, though not necessarily in avoirdupois weight, for it may ran to a dozen volumes. It is biography in undress, the private, domestic, temperamental side of life, depicted from a near point of view, and not with the scientific aloofness of biography. It may take the shape of reminiscences, when from a record of preferences and impressions a man's character stands re- vealed, or its form may be the impersonal memoir published after death. It is a chronicle of little things, since three parts of life are made up of them, but the little things most have the meaning which Dr. Johnson claimed for them. "There is nothing, Sir, so little for so little a creature as man. It is by studying little things that we attain the great art of having as little misery and as much happiness as possible."
Let all this be granted, and let a man have the best dis- position in the world towards the class ; yet the odds are that the modern memoir will prove too much for him. For one thing, there are too many. The smallest notable in any walk of life must have this tribute to his merits, and the garrulity of the memoirist is rarely proportionate to the man's fame. Ent such books are for the friends, it will be said ; the stranger need not read them. True, but the practice corrupts the whole art, and where one good book might be written there will be twenty had ones. With the great names the case is even worse. All daily newspapers, we understand, keep certain biographies in type for years, to be prepared against a" sudden call"; and it would almost appear as if the publishers accepted a memoir and delayed it till its subject's death, when it might issue with exquisite fitness a wreath for the great man's tomb and a sop to public curiosity. Greatness must be a dreary busi- ness for a man nowadays, with the consciousness that a crowd of dull, incompetent biographers will bespatter him with their epithets before the breath is well out of his body. And so come the pithless memoirs which drive better work from the field. The public are in a hurry and must be waited on. While Mr. X's name is atill in the papers it wants to know all about his education and his family, his recreations, his taste in wine, his opinions on his contemporaries. The habit is part of the vulgar curiosity which gives personal journalism its vogue ; and indeed this type of memoir is simply a systematised and padded journalism. When we read to-day that Lady S gave a dinner party at which Mr. M was a guest, or that Mr. A has gone with the Duke of B to the Hindu Koosh, we are morally certain that some day we shall read all about the conversation at the dinner and the sport or the expedition in some gossipy memoir. Here again we would disting4ah. All this may be interesting, possibly even of first-class historical worth; our complaint is that the atmosphere of journalism is apt to blur the vital and the trivial in one undistinguished chaos.
The memoir has become too common and too careless, and all grievances culminate in the great complaint that it. is rarely literature. For literature involves distinction, conscience, and a nice discrimination. Its bounds are very wide, but for that reason its limits, when they appear, are impassable. There is all the difference in the world between the gossip of a Nora and a Boswell and the chatter of the hack journalist. In the case of men who have filled a great place, there may be an historical interest apart from the artistic. It may be valuable for the future student to know where Metternich or Bismarck dined on some particular night, though the dinner itself was dull. But such cases must be the exceptions ; with the common celebrity we want a direct human interest. We would not for the world miss one of Johnson's comments or Pepys's confessions. When the little Secretary to the Admiralty chronicles his repentances and his pecca- dilloes, the humours of Lady Castlemaine, the excellence of his wife's pasties, and the glories of his "new summer black bombazine"; when Swift talks of Sir Patrick and Lady Masham's children, and the dinners at Mrs. Vanhomrigh'e; when Horace Walpole draws his acrid, unforgettable portraits of the men and women he knew ; when Boswell builds up from scattered anecdotes and broken conversations the most complete figure of a man in English letters,—then we know the value of the "little things" which are the foundation of a memoir. But the detail must be illustrative of character, that, illuminating commonplace which cannot be over-valued, or it must be in itself a contribution to the gaiety or edification of the world. Greville gives us the stock-pot of history; Mr. Fronde's memoir of Carlyle, with all its faults, has a profound psychological interest ; while Sir Algernon West—to descend to lesser instances—has a keen eye for humour and the proper manner. These are instances of detail which is just:fied ; but how often is all justification absent? The shoals of biographies of dull, pompous, priggish people, which have no possible historical interest, and none of
the savsat of wit, books without form or true matter, sandy deserts of infinite triviality,—what is to be said of them ? Even when the subject is all that can be desired and the author capable, the modern custom of haste leaves the work crude and incomplete. Now and then the perfect memoir, such as Sir Henry Cunningham's sketch of Lord Bowen, arises to roint the contrast; but for the rest, we have our Church dignitaries, our minor travellers, our heroes of the turf, and our inconsiderable litteratenrs,—each in two volumes with portraits.
Some day, as we have ventured to predict, there will be an 1?.state-duty upon this form of wealth ; but till that enlightened hour, let us insist upon the fact that memoir- writing is an art and not a catalogue. The memoir is an essay in the science of selection, as difficult a form as any in literature. In our own country it has been done supremely well ; all th.s more reason, therefore, why we should protest against its decline. In the first place, let it be restricted in subject. In the second place, let it be regarded as literature, and not as the casual skimmings of daily journalism. And above all things, let its matter be compressed and assorted. The touchstone of selection may be as varied as possible, but let the selection be there. A men (or his biographer) must be indeed possessed of extraordinary self-conceit if he thinks that every petty detail of his daily life is of interest to posterity when crudely and boldly set forth. If life "de- mands an art," so does the memoir.