Telling Lives, 1798-2016

Module code: EN3163

Module co-ordinator: Dr Felicity James

What does 'life-writing' mean? In this module we will explore biography and autobiography in British literature from the late 18th century to the present day and ask what does it mean 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 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.

Topics covered

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. Throughout the module we will also discuss examples of contemporary life-writing such as Alexander Masters' Stuart: A Life Backwards (2006).




  • Essay, 5,000 words (100%)
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