Astolphe de Custine
Astolphe de Custine; drawing by David Levine

Does biography count as history? The question seems impertinent, for no one has the authority to keep a count, ruling some genres in and others out as legitimate forms of scholarship. Serious historians often write excellent biographies, and biographers often win acclaim for their contributions to history. Yet biography occupies an uneasy place in the no man’s land between academic scholarship and the general readership; it straddles a fault line in contemporary culture, and it warrants attention by anyone who worries about the role of academic learning in the life of the republic, both the American republic and the republic of letters.

There seemed to be no problem fifty years ago. At that time, history was being revitalized by the historians associated with the journal Annales: économies, sociétés, civilisations, and by the efforts of Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre to shift the focus of historical study from political events to the development of entire societies. Febvre himself used the examination of individual lives to open up broad problems of sociocultural history in works such as The Problem of Unbelief in the Age of the Reformation: The Religion of Rabelais and Philippe II et la Franche-Comté. His example contributed to the flowering of biography in his field, “Ren and Ref”—Renaissance and Reformation—in the United States. From Felix Gilbert’s Machiavelli and Gucciardini: Politics and History in Sixteenth-Century Florence (1965) to William Bouwsma’s John Calvin: A Sixteenth-Century Portrait (1988) and Anthony Grafton’s Joseph Scaliger:A Study in the History of Classical Scholarship (1983), the vein of biography continued to produce pure gold.

But it ran dry in France. The next two generations of Annales historians concentrated on statistical indices of economic and demographic changes, social structures, collective mentalities, climate, ethnography, and material culture. By extending notions developed by Febvre and Bloch, they opened up important new territory; but they usually failed to people it with individuals. As it became more scientific, history became less human, or at least less concerned to pick up the scent of vanished humanity in the manner recommended by Marc Bloch: “The historian is like the ogre of fairy tales:where he smells human flesh, there he finds his quarry.”

This peculiar sense of smell remained strong among British historians. They, too, developed a broad-based social and cultural history, but they left room in it for idiosyncrasy and individual agency. A vivid biographical strain runs through the work of Christopher Hill, E.P. Thompson, Richard Cobb, and Lawrence Stone. It has its place in Past and Present, the British counterpart to the Annales, and the Times Literary Supplement, which devotes a special rubric to biography.

In America, however, academic historians found themselves increasingly drawn into the orbit of the social sciences, and their efforts to be scientific fell increasingly under the influence of economics. The publication of Fogel and Engelson’s Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery in 1974 marked a tendency to fill historical arguments with charts and graphs and to empty them of people.

Since then, the revival of cultural history and the so-called linguistic turn have moved scholarship in new directions, but academic history has continued to become more and more academic. Professors now write for one another rather than for the general public. They use esoteric language, burden their books with historiography, and try to score points in professional arguments instead of responding to the general public’s interest in the past. That interest exists. However bland and boring history may be in high schools, it continues to fascinate ordinary educated readers. They want to discover their origins, to find out how things came to be what they are, and to follow narratives composed of fact rather than fiction.

Biography provides a way to satisfy that demand. By focusing on one life, it eliminates the complications that weigh down accounts of entire societies, and it adheres to a narrative line that shows individuals in action. It restores agency to history, giving readers a sense of closeness to the men and women who shaped events. It deals with motivations and emotions. It even answers a voyeuristic desire to see through keyholes and into private lives. In short, it supplies everything lacking in academic history.

Of course, some academics have responded to this dilemma by embracing it. They become biographers and manage to satisfy both the general public and their professional peers. But those exceptions, noted often in these pages,1 only prove the rule: the pull of professionalization has drawn historians away from biography as a genre and left it largely in the hands of amateurs, that is, writers who have made a profession of biography, but are not trained, academic historians. As Crane Brinton once remarked, “books used to be written for the general reader. Now they are written by the general reader.”


Amateurs can write excellent history. Few of the greatest historians had Ph.D.s, and most Ph.D.s are vulnerable to the pressures of professionalism. But professional training inculcates an ethos of rigor in research and writing, which takes the form of an implicit contract between historians and their readers. In return for the reader’s attention, the historian accepts an obligation to adhere to facts. Of course, there are philosophical problems inherent in the notion of factuality, and no history can be written without resort to artifice, not merely in combining evidence but also in using words. Nonetheless, any historian who makes up evidence or presents fantasy as fact breaks the contract. He or she is guilty of bad faith.

I think bad faith lies at the bottom of the scandal caused by Edmund Morris’s Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan. By fabricating documents and inventing fictitious characters without warning his reader, Morris violated the ethos of professional history. But then he did not claim to be a professional. He had written a prize-winning life of Theodore Roosevelt, but he came to his biography of Reagan after a literary apprenticeship in genres like advertising and science fiction, just as Reagan came to the White House through Hollywood. Facts counted for little in the intersection of their worlds and in the confession of their version of authorized history.

But to dismiss Dutch as nothing more than another instance of bad faith attached to the Reagan presidency is to miss its larger significance. It exposes the shallow quality of historical consciousness in the United States today. While the academics go about their business, other citizens feed on a diet composed with fictitious additives. Biography, a genre where professional rigor can be allied most easily with general interests, turns out to be the most treacherous instrument in the historian’s bag of tricks.

If this diagnosis is correct, there is consolation to be had in serious biography written for the general reader by amateur historians. Anka Muhlstein’s life of Astolphe de Custine is just the thing for anyone in need of an antidote to Dutch. It supports its argument at every point with solid evidence, and it tells a good story. Admittedly, the two books do not lend themselves easily to comparison. Muhlstein recounts the life of an aristocrat in nineteenth-century France, drawing on correspondence, memoirs, and other sources long familiar to professional historians. She wrote her book in French; and although it has been translated beautifully by Teresa Waugh, it deals with a subject that would mean very little to most American readers. Morris took on a subject known to everyone. He followed his man around the White House and accumulated so much new material that he nearly drowned in it and saved himself only by falling back on his imagination. Nonetheless, to read Muhlstein in the wake of Morris is to see what popular biography ought to be.

Is there a formula? It used to be “the life and times”—that is, a strategy of relating the course of one person’s career to a broad array of social, cultural, and political phenomena. But those phenomena now lead off into the endless vistas opened up by the Annales historians. So the terms of the traditional formula have torn apart. The amateurs have seized on the lives, pulling in one direction, while the professionals have held fast to the times and tugged in the other.

Anka Muhlstein belongs to the amateurs. She makes no pretense to a professional command of all the complexities of European history during Custine’s life, which extended from 1790 to 1857, spanning three revolutions, two constitutional monarchies, two republics, and two empires. In her previous books, she treated a wide variety of subjects: the women of Louis XIV’s court, Queen Victoria, Baron James de Rothschild, and the explorer René Robert Cavelier de La Salle. She has no specialized field of research. She is a biographer and follows her instinct for interesting lives wherever it may lead.

In the acknowledgments to The Life of Astolphe de Custine, Muhlstein explains that she was looking for a new subject for a biography when a friend suggested Custine. A reading of Custine’s autobiographical novel, Aloys, aroused her interest, and he became more interesting as she got to know him better. In the end, as it appears in the biography, three aspects of his life stand out. First, his childhood: a famous grandfather, companion to Rochambeau in the American Revolution, general in the revolutionary army, executed at the height of the Terror; an extraordinary mother, heroic in the shadow of the guillotine, promiscuous in her love life, and tenacious in her hold on her son. Then his career in high society: a conventional marriage, inherited wealth, a minor role as a man of letters, an open existence as a homosexual protected from perse-cution by an aristocratic name, and scorn for social conventions. And lastly, a famous trip to Russia: introductions everywhere, confrontation with the police state of Nicholas I, access to the tsar, repulsion at the all-pervasive cruelty, and a passionate denunciation of despotism in the form of a best-selling travel book, Russia in 1839.


None of this is new. Previous historians, notably J.F. Tarn and Gaston Maugras, have published most of the documents concerning Custine’s writing and his relations with his family, particularly his mother, who seems to have been a more interesting and attractive character than Custine himself. His book on Russia did not outlive its notoriety long after its publication in 1843, although George Kennan gave it a second life by a book of his own, The Marquis de Custine and His Russia in 1839 (1971), which celebrated Custine’s account of Nicholas I’s tyranny as a prophetic parallel to the despotism of Stalin.

Anka Muhlstein therefore had little new ground to cover and, in the end, a rather small subject: Custine does not even rate a mention in the Petit Robert Dictionnaire universel des noms propres or an entry in The Oxford Companion to French Literature, and has only just made it into the recent Oxford Companion to Literature in French. The professionals had done their job; she had hers to do as an amateur. Her task was not to turn up new material through elaborate research but rather to bring a dead man back to life in a way that would speak to the general educated reader today. She succeeded admirably.

One quality that makes for success in this kind of writing is pace. Where an academic historian would pause over details, piling on material from fresh sources and arguing with the historiography, Muhlstein plunges ahead, carrying the reader with her. She documents all key points, so she never requires anyone to take anything on faith; but she moves fast and shows a great talent for selecting pertinent anecdotes and quotations. They can be culled everywhere from the vast production of memoirs and correspondence in the early nineteenth century. But most readers require a guide to take them through this material, someone who can lead them past the idle chatter to the most revealing evidence. Muhlstein does the job deftly and without wasting a word.

In introducing the theme of homosexuality, for example, she tells the story of the bishop of Clogher, which made a great impression on Custine during a journey through England with his lover, Edward Sainte-Barbe, in 1822. The bishop was caught while having sex with a soldier, arrested, threatened by an angry crowd, and finally escaped to Scotland, only to be recognized by a guest in a country house where he was serving as a butler. The newspapers had a field day with the scandal, but Custine was appalled—not at the bishop, but at his treatment in the press. If anyone’s private life could be exhibited before the public, what sort of liberty could survive? There seemed to be more freedom in monarchist France—or at least in the permissive circles of Parisian high society—than in the limited monarchy established by the British constitution.

Back in France, however, Custine ran up against the limits of permissiveness when he, too, was caught in a rendezvous with a soldier. He was not arrested, but he received a brutal beating by a homophobic gang from the soldier’s regiment. This episode set tongues wagging among the guardians of morality in le monde, Parisian high society. But instead of retreating before them, Custine staked out a position for himself as a new kind of mondain, an open homosexual, who knew everyone and went everywhere without making apologies about his sexualpenchant, as it was known. Not that he put a stop to the gossip. When he exited from a salon, he left behind a scent that marked him as anomalous. “The poor marquis,” said the comtesse Merlin, after he had scattered witticisms about her drawing room. “He is charming, but I cannot touch him. His hand disgusts me…. It’s limp and sticky.” After accompanying him to the theater, the famous actress Marie Dorval wrote him off as a “gentleman in petticoats.” Stendhal called him “Mme la marquise de Custine”; Sainte-Beuve described his country house as “pure Sodom and Gomorrah.” Paris tolerated Custine, but it expressed nothing but scorn for his homosexuality.

Toleration was better than persecution, and that was all Custine required. He sufficed unto himself. A mamma’s boy and a spoiled adolescent, he never went to school, never joined the army, never had a career at a time when young Frenchmen were conquering the world. While France went through upheavals, Custine remained on the sidelines. He did not even participate in politics, because there, too, he did not fit. He belonged to an aristocratic family that threw itself into the Revolution and was nearly extinguished by the guillotine. Unable to identify himself either with the Old Regime or with the radical movements after the Restoration, he passed as a legitimist—but a curious one—who described himself as a bundle of contradictions:

I, who am neither democrat nor royalist, but who am an aristocrat in the widest, and consequently the most liberal, sense of the word, believe that there is and that there will always be more wisdom and enlightenment in the ideas of a few superior men than in the opinions of the masses, and yet Icount myself a Christian.

Faced with such complexity, Muhlstein virtually eliminates politics from her story. She never mentions the revolution of 1830 and refers to the revolution of 1848 only in passing. The political landscape appears briefly at the beginning and the end of Custine’s adult life only to be eclipsed by episodes in his private life. In 1814, he spent some time in Talleyrand’s entourage at the Congress of Vienna, but he did not participate in the negotiations. He merely attended Talleyrand’s morning toilette, an experience that at least sharpened his power of observation. He described the old monster as a man who “has cut every wire connecting the soul to the physiognomy; his face is as if it were dead and has no more movement than a paralysed limb. It is enough to make one shudder. I am always tempted on entering his room to take to my heels.”

Having looked the devil in the face, Custine ran back to his mother. In his old age, he had an audience with another diabolical personage, Napoleon III. But nothing came of it, and Muhlstein has nothing to say about the Second Empire, except that it had no place for her hero: “It did not suit him to be in the limelight which, in the official world, would be inevitable. He knew it. Without the complete freedom of his private life, he would have been lost.”

The freedom of private life is the main theme of the book, and it turns on the question of homosexuality. The death of his wife, his infant son, and finally his mother in 1826 left Custine free to live as he chose. His choice was not merely to come out of the closet, as it would be termed today, but to move into a mansion at the heart of Paris and to receive all of Paris—that is, le tout Paris, or fashionable society—in company with Edward Sainte-Barbe. They gave dinner parties, concerts, poetry readings, and receptions, where aristocrats rubbed shoulders with the most famous figures of the Romantic era: Chopin, Berlioz, Balzac, Musset, Lamartine, Hugo, Stendhal, Heine, Sand, Gautier. No cage aux folles could be more gilded or more public. It was described in La Presse as a museum-like temple dedicated to aestheticism:

Look: here is a lamp found at Nola, a goblet brought back from Rome, a table made in Florence; this statue comes from Egypt, these vases from China, these carpets from Constantinople…. Enter the beautiful salon through the delightful oratory, so reminiscent of the Alhambra, but speak quietly, walk silently, for your arrival will interrupt an aria from Norma or from Orpheus, an inspiration of Berlioz or Chopin, a sublime ode, an ingenious fable, a profound remark, a piquant tale….

Sainte-Barbe’s place in all this is difficult to fathom. Custine paid for everything, and Sainte-Barbe seemed to come with the furniture, so accommodating and discreet that he was known as “the slave.” He was an English gentleman, poor but presentable, whom Custine had apparently picked up in the gay underworld of Paris. Muhlstein fails to produce a sketch of his character, presumably for lack of information. In the end, therefore, the love that united the two men remains a mystery. But it clearly existed, as Custine indicated, however indirectly, in his will, by which he left his entire fortune to “Monsieur Edward Sainte-Barbe, my best friend, who for thirty years has never left me, and who in all circumstances has given me proof of the sincerest devotion.”

A homosexual ménage established at the pinnacle of high society was an extraordinary phenomenon. Occasionally it turned into a ménage à trois, as in 1835, when it expanded to include Ignatius Gurowski, a handsome Polish exile, who cut a wide swath through several sex lives and eventually passed out of Custine’s life after running off with a Spanish infanta whom he abducted from a convent. There were other infidelities. But Custine and Sainte-Barbe held together as a couple, a model of male love at a time when homosexual relations were still treated as shameful secrets.

How did they do it? Muhlstein emphasizes two factors: Custine’s wealth and his aristocratic indifference to social conventions. She also treats “the casualness and daring” of his penchant as “a sure mark of his times” by relating it to general attitudes toward homosexuality. It represents a brief period of tolerance in a long history of persecution, a transitional era when homosexual relations had ceased to be a crime and had not yet become a sickness—the disreputable sort of disease that made life so difficult for Proust and Gide. This argument seems valid enough, but to make it Muhlstein gallops through two dozen centuries in eight pages, citing examples of patricians and libertines. She notes a tendency to perceive homosexuality “as a privilege of the aristocracy and the Church,” even at the moment of its decriminalization in the civil code of 1791. That view fits Custine perfectly, but it does not correspond to the complexities of social history.

Specialists in the booming field of gay and lesbian studies have turned up evidence of attitudes and behavior at all levels of society, some of them surprisingly permissive. The last sodomist to be broken on the wheel and burned alive, a defrocked monk who had assaulted and stabbed an errand boy, perished before a large crowd in the Place de Grève in 1783. But at that time the Paris police were treating homosexuality as a fairly common phenomenon among all social groups, and those who were caught often avoided drastic punishment for the crime that was called pederasty. They made 111 arrests during regular “pederasty patrols” between 1780 and 1783. Those arrested often wore a “pederastical uniform,” which included a large tie and shoes decorated with bows, in order to attract partners; and they included many workingmen, shopkeepers, and servants. When interrogated about their habits, they sometimes made surprising assertions such as “everyone takes his pleasure where he finds it” and “everyone is free.” And the police sometimes dismissed them with a warning.2

In short, various homosexual subcultures have existed in different times. Custine cannot be taken to represent a general pattern, but he dramatized one aspect of a very complex history. He also illustrates a second theme, which is equally suitable to the interests of twentieth-century readers. He wrote the first full indictment of Russia as an evil empire, a despotism based on fear.

Although Custine published a great deal, he was a one-book man. Russia in 1839 is the only work of his that was a success in his lifetime and that is still read today. It recounts his three-month journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow and a short stretch of wilderness that he described as deepest Siberia. In fact, he saw all of Russia as Siberia—as one vast penal colony utterly subjected to the arbitrary power of the tsar. Everywhere he went he encountered subjects cowed into silence and unremitting cruelty directed at men as at animals, reducing them all to the same level of bestiality. He feared that he, too, might disappear into some hellhole, like the Decembrists rotting below water level in the Kronstadt fortress. He pictured the police state of Nicholas I so vividly that Kremlinologists—not just George Kennan, but Walter Bedell Smith and Zbigniew Brzezinski—have celebrated his description as a prescient view of Stalinism.

Anka Muhlstein endorses that interpretation, but she deviates from it in an important respect. Instead of treating Russia in 1839 as a book that foresees Stalin’s terror, she presents it as one that looks backward to the Terror of the French Revolution. When Custine was four, a group of sans-culottes armed with guns and sabers burst into his mother’s apartment and carried her off to prison, where she remained for seven months, expecting at any moment to be guillotined like the other aristocratic prisoners, who disappeared one after another. She fell in love with one of them, Alexandre de Beauharnais, who gave her his ring before his final journey to the scaffold. Custine always wore that ring. He wore it in Russia, when he attended the wedding of Beauharnais’s son and a Russian archduchess on July 14, 1839, exactly fifty years after the taking of the Bastille, and he wore it on the previous day, the anniversary of his mother’s death, when he had a mass said for her in a Dominican convent.

Muhlstein drops these details into her narrative—deftly, briefly—and lets the underlying argument sink into the reader’s consciousness: the fear that Custine experienced everywhere in Russia derived from the trauma that he suffered as a child during the French Revolution. Perhaps that was the force that kept him on the sidelines whenever opportunity beckoned and he faced the possibility of taking part in the great events of the early nineteenth century.

Perhaps, too, there was another ingredient in the backward-looking quality of Russia in 1839. Robespierre had taken his concept of terror in large part from Montesquieu. Montesquieu had described fear as the main principle of despotism in De l’esprit des lois, and he had dramatized despotism as a peculiarly Oriental phenomenon in Lettres persanes. To an observer steeped in eighteenth-century literature like Custine, the government of Nicholas I corresponded exactly to the phantasm that had haunted the European imagination throughout the Enlightenment: Oriental despotism.

Or Orientalism tout court. In Russians, Custine perceived “men of pure Slavonic race,” with eyes of “oval Asiatic shape” and “changing hues, which vary from the green of the serpent, and the grey of the cat, to the black of the gazelle, though the ground color still remains blue.” Russia belonged to the East: “There is between France and Russia a Chinese wall—the Slavonic language and character. In spite of the notions with which Peter the Great has inspired the Russians, Siberia commences on the Vistula.”3 Animal cruelty, the exotic East, the Slavonic race—Custine saw Russia through the paintings of Delacroix and the stereotypes accumulated in a hundred years of literature.

Nonetheless, Russians have recognized themselves in Custine’s descriptions. The Russian novelist Viktor Erofeev, reviewing an abridged English edition of Russia in 1839 ten years ago in these pages, found a great deal of insight in Custine’s account of Russian traits such as deviousness and passivity in the face of overweening power. He quoted a remark by the chief of the secret police to Nicholas I: “M. Custine has only put into words those thoughts about us which everyone (including ourselves) has long had.”4

Was Russia in 1839, as Muhlstein claims, a “prophetic nightmare,” “an unclassifiable masterpiece,” a work so profound and powerful that it can be compared with De la démocratie en Amérique, Tocqueville’s account of his travels to the United States eight years before Custine’s trip to Russia? I think not. But Muhlstein writes to provoke such comparisons and to trigger thoughts about the nature of marginality, homosexuality, liberty, tyranny, love, and life. What more can one ask of a book? What does it matter if her work is called popular biography rather than scholarly history? Let us hope that it counts heavily enough to breathe new life into a genre that still needs reviving.

This Issue

February 10, 2000