Home  »  Volume IX: English FROM STEELE AND ADDISON TO POPE AND SWIFT  »  § 16. Merits of these Biographies

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

VIII. Historical and Political Writers

§ 16. Merits of these Biographies

The merits of Roger North’s biographies consist in their transparent candour, combined, as it is, with a shrewdness partly due to experience and partly to an innate insight, and in a naturalness of style which, at the same time, is always that of a well-bred scholar. He never shrinks from the use of an idiomatic phrase or proverbial turn, still less from that of an apposite anecdote; but they never have the effect of interrupting the pleasant, if somewhat sedate, progress of his narrative. The “minutiae” for which he goes out of his way to apologise are, of course, welcome in themselves to readers of later generations; but the effect of each biography, as a whole, is not trifling or petty, and the dignity of the theme—whether it be that of legal eminence, mercantile enterprise, or scholarly calm—is invariably maintained without any apparent effort. Here and there, although he is constantly referring to the fuller treatment a subject has received in his Examen, Roger North becomes lengthy; but the total effect of his Lives, as that of all biographies of real excellence, is not less entertaining than it is instructive for those who are open to the appeal of a human life intelligently, truthfully and sympathetically told.