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About this book

Looking at the complex relationship between the discipline of history and the writing of lives, this key textbook provides an original and insightful introduction to a growing and increasingly important area of historical scholarship and research. Examining key works that have changed the nature of biography, Barbara Caine also explores the way biographical narrative and life stories have become a central preoccupation for history.

Outlining the main features of contemporary historical biography, this is an ideal companion for undergraduate and postgraduate students taking courses on Historiography, Theory and History, Theory and Methods, Historical Methodology, History and Life/Biographical/Autobiographical Writing, and Life-Writing courses on English or Creative Writing degrees.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction

Abstract
Although debate on this subject continues, the central place that biography occupies in the writing and the study of history is accepted now in a way that has not been the case since the mid nineteenth century. One can see this very clearly in the numerous roundtables, lectures and symposia on biography that have been hosted by major journals, conferences and institutions like the London-based Institute for Historical Research in the last eight to ten years. To be sure some of these discussions have served to question rather then to recognise the place of biography in history. David Nassaw, in introducing the roundtable on biography in the American Historical Review, argued that biography ‘remains the profession’s unloved stepchild, occasionally but grudgingly let in the door, more often shut outside with the riffraff’.
Barbara Caine

2. 1 Historians and the Question of Biography

Abstract
Although debate on this subject continues, the central place that biography occupies in the writing and the study of history is accepted now in a way that has not been the case since the mid nineteenth century. One can see this very clearly in the numerous roundtables, lectures and symposia on biography that have been hosted by major journals, conferences and institutions like the London-based Institute for Historical Research in the last eight to ten years. To be sure some of these discussions have served to question rather then to recognise the place of biography in history. David Nassaw, in introducing the roundtable on biography in the American Historical Review, argued that biography ‘remains the profession’s unloved stepchild, occasionally but grudgingly let in the door, more often shut outside with the riffraff’.
Barbara Caine

3. 2 A History of Biography

Abstract
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 that biographers have either chosen to explore or 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. 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 that seems 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. 3 Collective Biography

Abstract
Despite the immense importance of collective biography for historians, until recently little has been written about it. The dominance of literary concerns in most theoretical discussions of biography has meant that attention has been almost exclusively focused on individual biography. In recent years, however, there has been a very considerable interest amongst social scientists and educationalists in the ways in which collective biographies allow new insights into the construction of subjectivities. In some cases, this has been inflected with a feminist concern to undertake such work collectively and to include reflection on the author’s own experiences within the work.1 For historians too, collective biography is immensely important. Many of those who have been engaged in writing it, moreover, have seen their own work as an essentially historical endeavour, either in itself or in terms of the resource it provides for other historians. In deciding who should be included in the British Dictionary of National Biography in the late nineteenth century, for example, Leslie Stephen, its first editor, insisted that pride of place needed to be given to details about the lives of those individuals in current standard British histories: the dictionary was clearly designed to augment historical knowledge and study.
Barbara Caine

5. 4 Auto/Biography and Life Writing

Abstract
Although debate on this subject continues, the central place that biography occupies in the writing and the study of history is accepted now in a way that has not been the case since the mid nineteenth century. One can see this very clearly in the numerous roundtables, lectures and symposia on biography that have been hosted by major journals, conferences and institutions like the London-based Institute for Historical Research in the last eight to ten years. To be sure some of these discussions have served to question rather then to recognise the place of biography in history. David Nassaw, in introducing the roundtable on biography in the American Historical Review, argued that biography ‘remains the profession’s unloved stepchild, occasionally but grudgingly let in the door, more often shut outside with the riffraff’.
Barbara Caine

6. 5 Interpreting and Constructing Lives

Abstract
‘My God, how does one write a biography?’ Virginia Woolf asked one of her close friends in 1938 as she wrestled with the problem of writing the life of Roger Fry, another very close friend who had died some four years earlier.1 Woolf commented frequently in her diaries and letters on the difficulties she faced in this task: on the tedium of being submerged in factual material for days on end; on the pain of reading some of the letters; on the prohibition she faced from Fry’s sisters and friends on dealing with aspects of Fry’s sexual and emotional life which were integral to her understanding of him; on the impossibility of rendering a person as complex as Fry and with as many different facets to his personality in a single work. The issues that Woolf faced in her own struggles with writing this biography and her sense of how different biography was, and how much more limited and constricted than the writing of fiction, reflect quite closely the ideas that she had earlier discussed in a number of essays throughout the 1920s and the early 1930s.
Barbara Caine

7. 6 Changing Biographical Practices

Abstract
Although there is clearly some new and experimental work being done in contemporary biography, there is a marked difference of opinion about how extensive it is. In the view of some writers, the continuities in the form of most biography, and especially in political biography, point to a lack of change. Some biographies now follow a thematic rather than a chronological structure, and even new political biographies sometimes begin with a significant episode or one that illustrates a character rather than with an account that follows a trajectory from birth to death. Nonetheless, for the most part biography has not abandoned the chronological structure and the unified narrative so prevalent in its nineteenth-century predecessor in the way that the contemporary novel has. Even the demands of the ‘new biographers’ for selection of details and economy of size have been rejected, so the ‘ nineteenth-and twentieth-century biographies look increasingly alike. Stuffed with corroborating materials, more-recent volumes have bulked up to resemble their Victorian ancestors.’ 1 But there is also, as Richard Holmes notes, some development.
Barbara Caine

8. Conclusion

Abstract
Although debate on this subject continues, the central place that biography occupies in the writing and the study of history is accepted now in a way that has not been the case since the mid nineteenth century. One can see this very clearly in the numerous roundtables, lectures and symposia on biography that have been hosted by major journals, conferences and institutions like the London-based Institute for Historical Research in the last eight to ten years. To be sure some of these discussions have served to question rather then to recognise the place of biography in history. David Nassaw, in introducing the roundtable on biography in the American Historical Review, argued that biography ‘remains the profession’s unloved stepchild, occasionally but grudgingly let in the door, more often shut outside with the riffraff’.
Barbara Caine
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