Telling Lives, 1798-2016

Module code: EN3163

Module co-ordinator: Dr Felicity James

What does 'life-writing' mean? This module explores biography and autobiography in British literature from the late eighteenth century to the present day and asks what it means to tell stories about ourselves and others.

What is the boundary between biography and fiction? Can a 'life' – including all its difficult, controversial, and boring bits – ever really be written? Moving across time and genre, we will look at examples of memoir, fictionalised (auto) biography, diary, family history, and spiritual autobiography to question how a private life might be made public. We'll also explore issues of identity and gender. Do these have any relevance for the ways in which we consume others' lives?

You will be encouraged to experiment with your own biographical writing by incorporating the techniques of a range of modern-day examples, from literary biographies and celebrity memoirs to blogs and online diaries.


We'll start with an overview of approaches to biography and life-writing, looking at institutions such as the Dictionary of National Biography. From there, we'll consider Mary Wollstonecraft's unfinished autobiographical novel Maria: Or the Wrongs of Women (1798) and then discuss William Godwin‘s poignant remembrance of his wife, Memoirs of Wollstonecraft, which raises questions about the boundaries between life and narrative, genre and gender. We will read the adventurous narratives of Mary Seacole and Olaudah Equiano in conjunction with postcolonial critical appraisals and think about the overlap between fiction and biography/autobiography in relation to Charlotte Brontë (Jane Eyre) and Elizabeth Gaskell (Life of Charlotte Brontë). We will then discuss Virginia Woolf‘s biographical fiction Orlando (1928), and use traditional biography (by Hermione Lee) and fiction (for example, The Hours by Michael Cunningham) to discuss the ways in which Woolf's own life has been interpreted. Examples of contemporary forms of life-writing will be discussed throughout the module, such as Alexander Masters' Stuart: A Life Backwards (2006).


In addition to actively participating in seminars, you will give one ten-minute presentation – which might be a close reading of a key text or an introduction to a critical approach – and produce an independently researched 5,000-word piece of writing.

By the end of the module, you'll be able to:

  • Analyse, in a sophisticated, clear, and concise manner, the form, style, and content of a range of primary texts
  • Describe and analyse different critical and theoretical approaches and different forms of life-writing
  • Communicate succinctly and well your own familiarity with life-writing developments and a range of texts, demonstrating their continuing relevance to present-day critical and biographical practice


  • One 5,000-word essay