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Dark Safari: The Life Behind the Legend of Henry Morton Stanley John Bierman (Sceptre, 1990)

Abandonment, rejection, betrayal. These were the themes that haunted the inner life of the swaggering, assertive little man known to the world as Henry Morton Stanley… For Stanley, a mere mask was insufficient protection; he fabricated for himself a suit of armour, which it has taken almost a century to penetrate. (Opening paragraph)

Henry Morton Stanley was famously the journalist who “found” the missionary explorer David Livingstone. He is a classic subject for the debunking-a-Victorian-hero genre, because – if Bierman is to be believed – Morton was a compulsive liar, a storyteller who invented versions of his life to suit his purposes.
I’m only part-way through the book, but want to offer some initial reactions to its first part, “Self-Invented Man”. The book was a serendipitous find in a booksale; I was only vaguely aware of Stanley as a historical figure, but I am fascinated by the possibilities of Victorian biography. It exists outside the lifespan of anyone alive today (bar the handful of people born before 1900), so it is an archival genre of biography, yet it almost feels in touching distance: the world of the Victorians was a world my grandparents were familiar with, even if they didn’t directly live in it.

Bierman writes well, with requisite wit. He has just the right tone to write Stanley’s story. He has also chosen a fascinating subject.

The gift Stanley left his biographer was an autobiography and other writings which are demonstrably false. Early sections of Bierman’s biography read as an extended commentary on Stanley’s autobiography. A key passage of Stanley’s account is presented and then debunked. As one example, Stanley presents himself as a youthful hero in the children’s workhouse, standing up to the tyrannical master, a rebel campaigning for justice. Bierman finds a contradiction in Stanley’s own account – why, then, was Stanley left in charge of the other children when the master was away? – and deploys corroborating evidence (interviews with other inmates, the workhouse records themselves) to argue the reality was that Stanley was actually the teacher’s pet.

Unlike a biography I recently finished (that of South Australian author, Matilda Evans) Bierman has a wealth of material to work with, and I find the debunking process gripping. The contradictions and fabrications in Stanley’s account reveal so much about the subject’s character and the age in which he lived.

The choice of subject is surely paramount for the biographer. There are so many historical figures who cry out for attention, and yet before embarking on a biography of them, the question probably has to be: what traces have they left behind? What raw materials are there to work with? (Unless, perhaps, the greatest biographer can coax blood from a stone and produce a great biography of a subject who has left little behind. It would have to be a convincingly and fascinatingly speculative account.)