Biography: A Very Short Introduction
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Hermione Lee is one of the leading literary biographers in the English-speaking world, the author of widely acclaimed lives of Edith Wharton and Virginia Woolf. Now, in this Very Short Introduction, Lee provides a magnificent look at the genre in which she is an undisputed master--the art of biography. Here Lee considers the cultural and historical background of different types of biographies, looks at the factors that affect biographers, and asks whether there are different strategies, ethics, and principles required for writing about one person compared to another. She also discusses contemporary biographical publications and considers what kind of "lives" are the most popular and in demand. And along the way, she answers such questions as why do certain people and historical events arouse so much interest? How can biographies be compared with history and works of fiction? Does a biography need to be true? Is it acceptable to omit or conceal things? Does the biographer need to personally know the subject? Must a biographer be subjective?
About the Series: Combining authority with wit, accessibility, and style, Very Short Introductions offer an introduction to some of life's most interesting topics. Written by experts for the newcomer, they demonstrate the finest contemporary thinking about the central problems and issues in hundreds of key topics, from philosophy to Freud, quantum theory to Islam.
scholar. I looked on this Tour to the Hebrides as a copartnership between Dr. Johnson and me. Each was to do all he could to promote its success; and I have some reason to flatter myself, that my gayer exertions were of service to us. Dr. Johnson’s immense fund of knowledge and wit was a wonderful source of admiration and delight to them; but they had it only at times; and they required to have the intervals agreeably filled up, and even little elucidations of his learned text. I was also
iconoclasm, an interim report on a living person, or a revisionist return, with new materials or the key to long-kept secrets, aiming to change our whole view of a well-known story. Biography has a different job to do if it is dealing with what Virginia Woolf called ‘lives of the obscure’, than if it is retelling the story of Shakespeare or Napoleon. As biography is always involved with the social and cultural politics of its time and place, so its assumptions change about what is major or
Pritchett’s fine short Life of Turgenev: [Turgenev’s mother] Varvara Petrovna’s command of the passions, in all their manifestations, was inexhaustible. She was a roundshouldered woman with large, glaring black eyes under heavy brows, her forehead was wide and low, the skin of her face was coarse and pocked, her mouth large, sensual and cruel, her manner arrogant and capricious. She was as self-willed as a child, though like many ugly women she could be fascinating and charm her friends, and was
source. Authentication is desirable in biography, but it is not always the rule. 5. The biographer should know the subject In early examples of biographical writing, centuries might elapse between the life of the subject and the writing of the Life. Plutarch was writing between about AD 98 and 125 about Greek leaders who lived in the 300s BC. Some medieval saints’ Lives reached back over many centuries for the stories of their legendary subjects. Others – like a biography of Edward the
sense of awe and unfamiliarity? The opposite – and equally recurrent – approach to biography is to attack it for immorality. Words such as betrayal, violation, shame, prurience, intrusion, and exposure are applied to biography over a very wide historical time-span. Biography is attacked for breaching trust, violating privacy, trivializing a life’s work, preying on its victim, simplifying a person’s complexity, playing to our appetites for gossip and sensation. If biography is a form of