Module Identifier EN36020  
Academic Year 2001/2002  
Co-ordinator Dr Patricia Duncker  
Semester Semester 1  
Course delivery Seminar   20 Hours (10 x 2 hr workshop/seminars)  
Assessment Continuous assessment   2 essays (2,500 words each)   100%  
  Resit assessment   Resubmit any failed elements and/or make good any missing elements.    

Brief description

'... his anxiety should be, not how to avoid all indiscretion, but how to be as indiscreet as possible ...'

Edmund Gosse's advice to the aspiring biographer, delivered in 1903, reads like a justification for the scandal biographies or autobiographies that are guaranteed to be literary best sellers at the beginning of our new century. Writers' lives are always of interest, not because they are generally action-packed, but because they are intimately related to other written texts. This course examines the vexed relationship between the life and the text, and engages with Romantic and post-Romantic theories of inspiration and creativity. Auto/biography reflects the concerns not only of the writer, but of the society which consumes both the life and the texts. Both are open to continual re-writing and re-interpretation. Thus, Mary Wollstonecraft, who was an ambiguous feminist heroine to invoke for much of the nineteenth century, becomes a radical foremother in our own times. Fictional autobiography, where the life is used as a source, is an especially fraught territory of investigation. Samuel Butler began writing The Way of all Flesh when his mother died in 1873 and continued to revise and rewrite the text for the next thirty years. It was never published in his lifetime. We shall consider the ethical issues of writing auto/biography where the unstated aim is so often self-justification or revenge.


- to provide students with an insight into the range of auto/biographical practices with particular reference to nineteenth century literature;
- to give students an awareness of the theoretical, literary and ethical issues surrounding the practice of auto/biography;
- to enable students to construct a piece of auto/biographical prose using the critical and analytical skills they have acquired on the module.

Learning outcomes

On completion of this module students should typically be able to:
demonstrate that they have acquired a knowledge and understanding of the primary texts on the module and a critical awareness of the broader issues raised by the module;
discuss the texts and their various contexts coherently;
write about them in a well-structured and well-argued way.


The module will be taught in weekly two-hour classes which will vary in form, either brief formal lectures, group work or individual written papers. Students will be encouraged to present work-in-progress to the class.


1. Introduction: Theories of Auto/Biography, Portraits and Self-Portraits.

2. Feminist Vindications: Godwin's Biography of Wollstonecraft
William Godwin: Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1798) ed. Richard Holmes (Penguin Classics 1987) Published together with Mary Wollstonecraft: A Short Residence in Sweden (1796).

3. Richard Holmes, Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer (Penguin 1986). Chapter 2 '1968: Revolutions' which deals with Wordsworth's experience of the French Revolution and Mary Wollstonecraft's expedition to Paris in 1792.

4. & 5. The Growth of a Poet's Mind: Romantic Auto/biography and Creativity
William Wordsworth: The Prelude 1799, Two-Part Prelude and 1805 Prelude. Suggested critical editions: eds. Jonathan Wordsworth, M.H. Abrams and Stephen Gill (Norton 1979) or ed. Jonathan Wordsworth, The Prelude: The Four Texts (Penguin Classics 1995).

6. & 7. Writing a Woman's Life
Elizabeth Gaskell The Life of Charlotte Bronte (1859) ed. Angus Easson (Oxford University Press 1993). See also Charlotte Bronte: Biographical Preface to Wuthering Heights, ed. Pauline Nestor (Penguin Classics 1995).

8. Facts, Myths, Truth and Lies: Elena Lappin, The Man With Two Heads (Granta 66, Summer 1999). Session on theoretical issues surrounding the writing of autobiography.

9. Fiction and Autobiography: Writing Revenge
Samuel Butler, The Way of All Flesh (1903), ed. Michael Mason (Oxford University Press 1993).

10. Two Linked Lives: Geology and Genesis
Edmund Gosse, Father and Son (1907) (Penguin 1989)

Select Bibliography

You are encouraged to consult the Dictionary of National Biography on open shelves in the Reading Room of the National Library. Initially a vast Victorian project, is has been updated ever since. Of especial interest are Leslie Stephen's entry on Wordsworth, Edmund Gosse's entries for his father and family and the later supplement entry for Samuel Butler.

Benstock, Shari (ed.), The Private Self: Theory and Practice of Women's Autobiographical Writings (Routledge 1988).
Clark, Timothy, The Theory of Inspiration: Composition as a Crisis of Subjectivity in Romantic and post-Romantic Writing (Manchester University Press 1997).
Cixous, Helene and Calle-Gruber, Mireille, Rootprints: Memory and Life Writing (first published as Photos de Racine (Editions des femmes, Paris, 1994); English edition (Routledge 1997).
Eakin, Paul John, Touching the World: Reference in Autobiography (Princeton U P 1992).
Heilbrun, Carolyn G., Writing a Woman's Life (The Women's Press 1989).
Marcus, Laura, Auto / Biographical Discourses: Theory, Criticism, Practice (Manchester University Press 1994).
Olney, J., Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical (Princeton University Press 1980).
Smith, Sidonie, Subjectivity, Identity and the Body: Women's autobiographical practices in the Twentieth century (Indiana University Press 1993).
Spence, Donald, Narrative Truth and Historical Truth (Norton: New York 1982).
Steedman, Carolyn, Past Tenses: Essays on writing, autobiography and history (Rivers Oram Press 1992).