Monthly Review (1804)

Monthly Review, 2nd Series 43 (January 1804), 92-93.

  It is sometimes started as a question, whether history or biography be the more improving study: but it would be more proper to inquire whether a narrative of general political events, or of the lives of eminent individuals, ought to be preferred. In the lives of public characters, no doubt, much political information will naturally intermix itself; and even general history, unless it be studied in detached portions, will make but very slight and transient impressions on the reader’s mind. On this account, biography, as it is the most interesting form of detached history, will often prove the most instructive and eligible mode as it regards political history; and with respect to illustrious individuals in private life, little needs to be said to point out the usefulness of the candid and impartial biographer. It is in instances of this nature, in which the events recorded have a close affinity to human life in general, that history becomes in a peculiar manner “philosophy teaching by example.” This, however, is a branch of modern literature, in which, comparatively speaking, little has been done. Undoubtedly, it presents a very wide and laborious field; but it is a field, which, if cultivated by a skillful and careful workman, would furnish for his reward a very rich and copious harvest.     

     The fair editor of this compilation certainly merits the favor of the public, by this laudable attempt to bring under one view the scattered narratives of many celebrated characters in the walks of female life. As, however, all cannot obtain places in such a work, some of the lives, which are here introduced, might have been as well omitted; especially where the moral conduct of the parties is not [93] calculated to win the youthful fair to the cause of virtue. In other instances, as in the life of Catherine of Russia and Madame Roland, it would have been desirable to have somewhat compressed the narrative; for they are allowed to occupy too large a portion of the volumes. On the whole, too, as this publication is principally intended for the use and instruction of young persons, we should have preferred to have seen the vicious and defective traits of several females, who make a figure in this work, more shaded from the view, and barely recorded in terms of severer disapprobation. It is, indeed, no advantage to the cause of virtue to disguise the truth, or to describe human characters as faultless: yet the less the reader is invited to dwell on lascivious examples, the better. Let the just and appropriate merit of females, as well as males, be marked by their biographer, but let their demerits be specified only to be condemned.