‘Flash Histories’, a recent symposium at the University of Bristol, brought together historians, creative writers and heritage professionals to explore short-form history. Topics included history as poetry, museum labelling, and the value of brief lives in an age of blockbuster biography, which was the focus of a presentation by Dr Philip Carter, head of digital at the Institute of Historical Research.

In Biblical terms, the good life is three score years and ten. And for modern publishing it might be said that a good life – or at least good biography – is three score pages multiplied by ten.

For many history publishers, historical biography is now big business, and big biographies of 600 pages or more are even bigger business. With heft comes gravity and the right to call oneself ‘definitive’ or the ‘last word’.

Here are three recent examples currently on display in many bookshops. First, Richard Evans’ biography of Eric Hobsbawm which runs to 783 pages; then there is Julian Jackson’s life of Charles de Gaulle (928 pages), and lastly Fiona MacCarthy’s study of Walter Gropius which comes in at a svelte 560 pages.

Big biographers like these adopt different stances when it comes to length. Richard Evans acknowledges that his is a ‘very long book’, explaining this with reference to his subject’s longevity and a decision to let Hobsbawm tell the story in his own words – of which there were many. By contrast, Julian Jackson sidesteps direct reference to the scale of his survey, noting only the prior existence of three even longer lives of de Gaulle: at 1,000, 1,500 and 3,000 pages respectively.

But big is not the only way. There’s also a rich, alternative in the shape of biographical brevity. Short lives have a long history and are of increasing relevance, appeal and value to contemporary historians. It’s a contribution we’re at risk of missing if we over-associate historical life writing with blockbuster biography.

In providing these perspectives on brevity, it’s helpful to refer to the work of the 17th-century English antiquarian, John Aubrey (1626–97). A man of insatiable curiosity, Aubrey’s now known as an author of short biographical sketches – later collated and posthumously published, appropriately, as Brief Lives.

Brevity for Aubrey often meant no more than a page or two (even for luminaries like Descartes or Erasmus), and he never went beyond the 12 pages dedicated to his longest life, Thomas Hobbes. From Aubrey’s work, it’s possible to highlight several principles that shape biographical brevity and account for its historical value and modern-day popularity.

First, brevity in biography relates most obviously to its published length: being the short ‘sketch’ or ‘pen portrait’ life, rather than the multi-volume monument recently handed out to figures like de Gaulle.

John Aubrey was an exemplary exponent of the short form, but he was certainly not the first to embrace the concise life. Others in his circle were similarly drawn to brevity. From his fellow antiquary – Anthony Wood – came the notion of brief life as historical reference. With his Athenae Oxoniensis (1691–92), Wood created the ‘snippet life’ – a sort of Who’s Who for Oxford University graduates of the day.

A short time later we see the rise of ‘national biography’, first with Andrew Kippis’s mid-Hanoverian Biographia Britannica, and then in the late 19th century with Leslie Stephen’s Dictionary of National Biography.

For his landmark project, Stephen’s watchword was ‘condensation’, with the dictionary intended to serve as a ‘literary condensing machine’. As he told would-be authors on announcing the project: ‘Philosophical disquisition and picturesque description are obviously out of place … There is a kind of diffuseness, too, which comes from simple verbosity, due chiefly to the fact that copying is easier than condensing.’

For Stephen, brevity had many advantages. It kept the focus; it enabled the radical editing of fussy and florid authors; and it avoided excessive sentiment (the DNB’s maxim being ‘no flowers by request’).

Moving beyond length, John Aubrey also provides a useful guide to other notions of brevity. Many of his Brief Lives were composed from what later readers regarded as gossip: a recollection here, or a candid observation there. Aubrey’s embrace of partiality gave legitimacy to life writing as insight via glancing observation. It’s a powerful approach, long favoured by writers of short biographical reference.

Alongside his brief surveys of greats such as Descartes and Erasmus, Aubrey also championed the value of the ordinary life – perhaps of note for a single act or event, but still a figure worthy of record. It’s often the case that such events were tragic, leading to memorialisation – as with, say, the two contemporary Edwardians, suffragette Emily Wilding Davison and Wallace Hartley, bandleader of the Titanic –both now known for a single fatal act which occurred several months apart in 1912.

Bunhill Hill Fields burial ground: site of Thomas Emes’ non-return in 1708

On other occasions, brief lives could be both tragedy and farce. In May 1708 members of a millenarian sect, the French Prophets, predicted that Thomas Emes, a recently deceased believer, would rise again after his death. On the allotted day, the late Emes drew a large crowd to Bunhill Fields, and duly failed to show up for his own second coming. However, this was enough to get him noticed. As his very short DNB life concludes: ‘Emes’s fame rests not so much on any activity during his lifetime, but on the absence of it following his death.’

John Aubrey’s further contribution to brevity was his appreciation of all things small and occasional (and their distillation in brief lives), as an important aspect of a society’s historical knowledge. Aubrey’s gossip was documentary record not triviality.

Just as Thomas Emes’s non-appearance has its humorous side, so it’s also an insight into the curious world of the French Prophets, and of the expectations of the crowd that gathered at the graveside – just in case.

Brief lives are valuable therefore not simply for their intrinsic interest. Rather, they possess another kind of power when they’re gathered together and inter-connected. The value of treating biography as relational is especially evident now in historians’ interest in social network analysis. Networks demonstrate the potential of even the sparest biography when located in its personal context. Here the life is often as (or more) valuable for its situation within a network as for its individual integrity.

Lastly, brief lives are integral to many recent historical surveys which, while not group biographies or prosopographies, or even stories of complete lives, are nonetheless intensely person-focused. These histories, built of brief lives broadly defined, take several forms.

In certain circumstances, personal genealogy can be enhanced and contextualised to create a bigger picture – as with Alison Light’s recent history of peripatetic labour, Common People. The History of an English Family.

Others seek to give voice to everyday lives as agents within a historical narrative. Recent examples include Clair Wills’ history of post-war immigration, Lovers and Strangers, while Helen Parr’s Our Boys combines family biography and autobiography as a framing device for her new history of the Falklands’ conflict.

Taking this genre shift one step further, Sarah Knott’s Mother deploys both personal memoir and historical anecdote to prise open those aspects of historical ‘mothering’ (sleep deprivation, keeping dry, cleaning up) that can really only be captured in passing human asides.

What John Aubrey’s contemporaries labelled ‘gossip’, we are now increasingly minded to cast as a new history of anecdote. It is this unorthodox approach to Knott’s subject matter that in part gives rise to the ‘unconventional history’ of her sub-title.

Notwithstanding its breaking of new ground, this book is also a collection of brief lives, briefly told through anecdote. Take away the scaffold of research methodologies and there is still much that such recent, valuable histories can trace to a 17th-century progenitor of biographical brevities.

Dr Philip Carter  (left) is head of digital at the Institute of Historical Research (IHR) at the School of Advanced Study, University of London, where he oversees IHR Shorts, the institute’s new publication series for concise histories.


A longer version of this post is available on the IHR’s On History blog.