Life writing

Members of the School of English have published extensively on life writing from the mid 18th century to the present day.

Areas of interest within the School are:

  • Autobiography and Biography (especially 18th century to the present day).
  • Auto/biographical texts from the First and Second World Wars, particularly those that make use of or incorporate letters and diaries.
  • Literary biography (Lives of writers), from the later 18th century to the present day.
  • Biographical afterlives of Romantic and Victorian writers.
  • Rogue biographies and other 17th- and early 18th-century Lives.
  • Biography and autobiography with female subjects and written by women (18th century onwards).
  • Women's memoirs reflecting on the process of becoming a writer (19th century to the present).
  • The connections between life writing and religious identity (18th and 19th centuries).
  • Life writing practices of families, groups of friends, and intellectual networks (18th and 19th centuries).
  • The auto/biographical writings of Samuel Pepys, Lucy Aikin, Thomas De Quincey, Mary Shelley, Vera Brittain, Anne Frank, Virginia Woolf, Charlotte Delbo, Walt Whitman, Graham Greene. 

The University of Leicester's David Wilson Library offers first-class research facilities, including a designated graduate reading room, and holds a wealth of primary and secondary material relevant to life-writing.

Primary resources include archives of the Letters of Joe Orton and Laura Riding and a collection of French journals, memoirs, notebooks and other biographical material covering the period 1400-1900, in the library’s Special Collections. There is also an exceptional collection of nineteenth-century periodicals.

Current research

Literary biography

The focus of Martin Stannard’s work is the writing of literary biography. The first volume of his life of Evelyn Waugh (Dent and Norton, 1986) was selected by the New York Times as one of the twelve best books of the year; the second (Dent and Norton, 1992) was chosen by Frank Kermode, Jonathan Raban, William Trevor and Muriel Spark as one of their 'Books of the Year', and in the year 2000 by William Boyd as one of his TLS 'Books of the Millennium'.

Martin’s Muriel Spark. The Biography was published by Weidenfeld in August 2009. He has also published essays and review-essays on 20th-century biography, autobiography and letters.

Auto/biographical texts from the First and Second World Wars

Victoria Stewart’s interests in life writing centre on auto/biographical texts emerging from the First and Second World Wars, particularly those that make use of or incorporate letters and diaries.

Her book Women’s Autobiography: War and Trauma (Palgrave, 2003) examined works by Vera Brittain, Anne Frank, Virginia Woolf and Charlotte Delbo, as well as contemporary memoirs by daughters of Holocaust survivors, from the perspective of trauma theory.

Women’s autobiographies more generally, especially memoirs reflecting on the process of becoming a writer, are another related area of interest.

Romantic and Victorian life - writing

Julian North’s research interests lie in the area of Romantic and Victorian life-writing. She is currently working on 19th-century author portraits (visual and verbal) in relation to changing ideas of the author.

Her monograph, The Domestication of Genius: Biography and the Romantic Poet, (Oxford University Press, 2009), explores the biographical afterlives of the Romantic poets and the creation of literary biography as a popular form. It focuses on the first Lives of Byron, Shelley, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Felicia Hemans and Letitia Landon, published from the 1820s, by Thomas Moore, Mary Shelley, Thomas De Quincey and others, in the context of the development of biography as a genre from the 1780s to the 1840s.

She is the editor of vol. 11 and co-editor of vol. 20 of The Works of Thomas De Quincey, 21 vols, gen. ed. Grevel Lindop (Pickering and Chatto, 2000-2003). Volume 11 includes Thomas De Quincey’s ‘Lake Reminiscences’, his famous auto/biographical essays on William and Dorothy Wordsworth, Southey and Coleridge. She has also published on biographies of Shelley in 'Shelley Revitalized: Biography and the Reanimated Body', European Romantic Review, 21:6 (December 2010), 751-70; and on Jane Austen biography and biopics in 'Jane Austen's Life on Page and Screen' in Uses of Austen: Jane's Afterlives, ed. Gillian Dow and Clare Hanson (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, August 2012), 92-114


Life-Writing and Religious Identity

Felicity James is interested in the connections between life-writing and religious identity – particularly connected to Dissent and women's writing – in the 18th and 19th centuries. She is also interested in the life-writing practices of families, groups of friends, and intellectual networks.

Her monograph, Charles Lamb, Coleridge and Wordsworth: Reading Friendship in the 1790s (Palgrave/ Macmillan, 2008), explores the dynamics of early Romanticism through the life, work, and friendships of Charles Lamb, foregrounding the importance of Unitarian Dissent to an understanding of his literary identity.

Her current works in progress explore Unitarian families and friendship groups through life-writing including obituaries, autobiographies, biographies and memoirs. A collection of essays co-edited with Ian Inkster, The Dissenting Mind: The Aikin Circle, c1740s to c1860s (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011) traces the lives and writings of the powerful intellectual clan the Aikin family, from Enlightenment to Victorian culture. She has also recently published articles on the life-writing practices of Mary Hays (‘Writing Female Biography: Mary Hays and the Life Writing of Religious Dissent’, in Women's Life Writing, 1700-1850: Gender, Genre and Authorship, ed. Daniel Cook and Amy Culley (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, June 2012), 117-132) and the ways in which Jane Austen's life and homes have been perceived ('At Home with Jane: Placing Austen in Contemporary Culture', in Uses of Austen: Jane's Afterlives, ed. Gillian Dow and Clare Hanson (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, August 2012), 132-152.


For more information please contact Dr Felicity James

Samuel Pepys and rogue biographies

Kate Loveman works on the diary and papers of Samuel Pepys (1633-1703), including research into Pepys’s social and business networks. 

She also has an interest in rogue biographies and the other (often fictionalized) ‘lives’ published during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries,  investigating how these productions were assessed by early readers.

She is the author of ‘Samuel Pepys and Deb Willet after the Diary’, The Historical Journal, 49 (2006) and ‘“Eminent Cheats”: Rogue Narratives in the Literature of the Exclusion Crisis’, in Fear, Exclusion and Revolution: Roger Morrice and Britain in the 1680s, ed. Jason McElligott (Ashgate, 2006).

British and American autobiographical writing post-1800

Nick Everett is interested in British and American autobiographical writing post-1800. He has published on 19th- and 20th century autobiographical poetry.

He is the author of “Autobiography as Prophecy: Walt Whitman’s ‘Specimen Days’”, in Mortal Pages, Literary Lives: Studies in Nineteenth-Century Autobiography, ed. Vincent Newey and Philip Shaw (Scolar Press, 1996); and 'Basil Bunting's Briggflatts', in Robert Colls (ed), Northumbria: History and Identity 547-2000 (Chichester: Phillimore, 2007).

Nick also teaches an undergraduate option on Autobiography and American Literature, in which students take creative as well as critical approaches to autobiography.

Postgraduate projects

Keith McDonald

Andrew Marvell and Privacy

During his own lifetime, Andrew Marvell (1621-1678) was more likely known as a politician and prose writer than a poet. Yet, the posthumous publication of a volume of poems by a woman claiming to be his wife begins to uncover a web of mystery about an enigmatic writer who valued privacy as an obsessive priority.

This thesis suggests that an ideology of privacy across the early seventeenth century evolved from a stance of suspicion towards one of toleration. A printing revolution in the 1640s created new values for, and tensions between, the public and private spheres relating to writing and print. Marvell, it contends, interacted with privacy in three ways: firstly, in his disparaging attitude towards print; secondly, in his attitude towards private lives; and thirdly, as a language and a subject within his writing. The casuistic dilemmas of the age, whether to engage in public activity, or to escape into retirement wherever possible, are seemingly always present in Marvell’s work.

Against current orthodoxy, I investigate this under-explored social context of privacy and Marvell’s interaction with it to question whether he represents a sui generis model of private authorship: someone who writes for himself alone.

Share this page: