Biography Should Be Written by an Acute Enemy

Arthur James Balfour? Batman? Oscar Wilde? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Apparently, the crime-fighting superhero Batman is a quotation expert. I recall watching a rerun episode of the 1960s television series during which Batman was asked to identify the creator of an obscure quotation about biography, and he immediately answered correctly with the name Arthur James Balfour who was a British statesman. Would you please help me to find a citation?

Quote Investigator: Batman’s capacious memory was displayed during an episode broadcast on March 8, 1967. Batman (played by Adam West) wished to send a message to the villain King Tut, so he called a popular radio broadcaster Jolly Jackson (played by Tommy Noonan) to relay the message. Jackson demanded that Batman prove his identity by answering a difficult question about the ascription of a quotation. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Jolly Jackson: Alright listen. If you’re really Batman then you’re a very brainy guy, right.

Batman: Go on.

Jolly Jackson: Tell me who said, “Biography should be written by an acute enemy”?

Batman: Arthur James Balfour, born 1848, died 1930. He was quoted by S. K. Ratcliffe in the London Observer, January 30, 1927.

QI conjectures that the writers of the television show obtained this information from “Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations”. The 1938 edition contains the following entry: 2

Biography should be written by an acute enemy.
Quoted by S. K. RATCLIFFE in The London Observer, January 30, 1927

The citation in “Bartlett’s” was accurate. In 1927 “The Observer” published a piece by S. K. Ratcliffe containing the following: 3

Biography, I once heard Lord Balfour say, should be written by an acute enemy. If that were a principle to be rigidly applied (it obviously is not), there would be no place as biographer for Mr. Francis Hirst.

Yet, there are subtleties to this tale of provenance. As indicated further below the quotation under examination appeared with an anonymous attribution in 1913.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Biography Should Be Written by an Acute Enemy


  1. Batman Television Series, Season 2, Episode 24, Batman’s Waterloo, Broadcast date: March 8, 1967, Quotation spoken at 11 minutes 53 seconds of 25 minutes 11 seconds. (Viewed via Amazon Prime Video on August 10, 2021)
  2. 1938, Familiar Quotations by John Bartlett, Eleventh Edition, Edited by Christopher Morley and Louella D. Everett, Entry: Arthur James Balfour, Quote Page 687, Column 2, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified with scans)
  3. 1927 January 30, The Observer, John Morley by S. K. Ratcliffe, Quote Page 7, Column 3, London, England. (Newspapers_com)