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About this book

Biography is the oldest way of writing about historical events, and one of the most popular. Looking at the complex relationship between the discipline of history and the writing of lives, Biography and History:
• is the first work to explore the significant place of biography within historical writing at the present time
• combines a discussion of the history of biography with an extended analysis of contemporary approaches to biography
• links developments within history to the wider interest in auto/biography and life-writing, and to literary methods
• suggests that there are some distinctive features in the ways in which historians handle biography.

Original and insightful, this is an essential introduction to a growing, and increasingly important, field of study and research.

Table of Contents

2. A History of Biography

Any attempt to understand the relationship between history and biography needs to take into account not only changing ideas about the nature of history as a form of knowledge and understanding but also the changing ways in which biography has been understood, thought about and written. These changes can be seen in the ways in which lives were presented and most particularly in terms of the aspects of individuals’ lives either that biographers have chosen to explore or that have been deemed inappropriate for any kind of discussion. The question of how a life should be understood and depicted is important not only to those who write biography, but also to those who read it. Their views have not always been the same. Thus while one can see very marked changes in the areas of an individual life that biography might encompass from the late seventeenth century to the present, changing ideas have sometimes been signalled by an outcry from readers at a biography which seems either to reveal too much or to lack appropriate discretion and decorum in dealing with the private or intimate life of its subject.
Barbara Caine

4. Auto/biography and Life Writing

The introduction of the term ‘life writing’ to describe and encompass a wide range of different forms of personal writing has been a very important development in the humanities and social sciences. It emerged in the 1970s and clearly contained an explicit critique of the fairly rigid and restrictive nature of earlier approaches to biography in terms of both its subject matter and its form. The idea of life writing also allowed a new way of looking at a range of different kinds of writing, such as letters and diaries, which had little place in the established literary canons. The literature which was studied in university departments was confined to what were seen as the most significant genres, such as drama, poetry and fiction. It offered no place to informal or unpublished work. In the course of the 1970s, feminist scholars demanded a recognition of these forms of writing in which women engaged as part of literature. At the same time, others were demanding a further extension of the field of literature to include both autobiography and biography. ‘Life writing’ offered an umbrella term which could encompass all of these different forms of writing, connecting them to each other through their concerns with and revelations of individual lives.
Barbara Caine

6. Changing Biographical Practices

Although there is clearly some new and experimental work being done in contemporary biography, there are marked differences of opinion about how extensive it is and how best to measure the nature and the extent of the changes in biographical practice. In the view of some writers, the continuities in the form of most biography point to a lack of change. The contemporary novel, for example, has largely abandoned the chronological structure and the unified narrative so prevalent in its nineteenth-century predecessor, but biography has not followed suit. Even the demands of the ‘new biographers’ for the selection of detail and economy of size have been rejected, so the ‘nineteenth- and twentieth-century biographies look increasingly alike. Stuffed with corroborating materials, recent volumes have bulked up to resemble their Victorian ancestors.’1 But even here, as Richard Holmes notes, there is some development: ‘It is true that the traditional form of major Life and Times biographies, often in two volumes, are still being written’, he concedes,
Yet clearly, something is happening at the cutting edge. There is a widespread questioning of the traditional forms and chronology, and a fascination with briefer and more experimental work. There is renewed interest in marginal and subversive subject matter. The ‘monolithic’ single Life is giving way to biographies of groups, of friendships, of love affairs, of ‘spots of time’ (micro biographies), or of collective movements in art, literature or science.
It is new subjects, Holmes suggests, and the interest now being taken in previously neglected lives and in groups of people who are held together for a historic moment by a common endeavour, place or ideal which have driven the change. Their stories often do not fit into a traditional ‘womb-to-tomb story’ and hence have led to the development of unusual narrative forms.2
Barbara Caine
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