Life Stories

Life Stories

In the past two decades there has been much interest in life-writing as a distinctive field of literary and historical study, concentrating on the representation of real historical lives in biography, autobiography, and other modes such as diaries, letters, and memoir. UCL English has an unusually high number of biographies to its name. As well as some pre-eminent literary figures (René Weis’s Shakespeare, Ardis Butterfield’s forthcoming Chaucer), these include Chris Laoutaris’s current work on the life of an extraordinary Tudor woman, Lady Elizabeth Russell, and also experiments in new biographical modes (Philip Horne’s Henry James: A Life in Letters or Rosemary Ashton’s 142 Strand, about the celebrity nineteenth-century authors associated with the publisher who lived at that address). John Mullan has written the Introduction to a new Oxford World’s Classics selection of an eighteenth-century work of multiple biography, Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the Poets. Many members of the Department contributed to the new Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Another aspect of our work on Life Stories is about how lives get turned into popular myth, whether during or after their actual time of existence (Helen Hackett’s Shakespeare and Elizabeth: The Meeting of Two Myths, Kasia Boddy’s study of a Waterloo hero's nineteenth-century celebrity and subsequent fading from fame, Neil Rennie’s Pocahontas, Little Wanton: Myth, Life and Afterlife, and his forthcoming book on real and imaginary pirates). Juliette Atkinson's Victorian Biography Reconsidered explores how many biographers resisted the ‘Great Man’ approach to life-writing by celebrating ‘hidden’ lives. The Shakespeare in History MA programme highlights the many mythologisations of ‘the bard’ in subsequent centuries. In larger terms, much of our teaching as well as research is engaged with questions of myth: with the recycling and remaking of popular, literary, and theological stories (Richard North’s case for the influence of Beowulf on the Icelandic Saga of Grettir the Strong, Marilyn Corrie’s study of the representation of divine destiny in Malory’s Morte Darthur, and Sarah Wood’s of subjectivity in the different versions of William Langland’s Piers Plowman). Eric Langley’s Narcissism and Suicide in Shakespeare and his Contemporaries shows how the Ovidian Narcissus is refigured in sixteenth-century English works to stress the reflexive component (‘himself himself’) that joins self-love and self-murder. ‘Life Stories’ also implies a focus on the overlaps between real and fictional modes of biography and thus engages with histories and theories of narrative forms. Any life involves, during as well as after, stories told about it, by the liver of it and others, and such stories will necessarily draw on typical narratives or myths that the culture imposes or offers. By the same token, openly fictional narratives will also consolidate or challenge the real-life biographical stories which have plausible currency in their time. Departmental work within this area includes Rachel Bowlby’s Freudian Mythologies: Greek Tragedy and Modern Identities, and ongoing research by Kasia Boddy (on the ‘Great American Novel’), Michael Sayeau (on the modernist non-event), and Hugh Stevens (on the history of gay identities).