Life Writing

Biography and Autobiography

Several academics and postgraduate students in the School of English are currently working and publishing in the area of ‘life writing’.

'Life Writing' is a term covering biography, autobiography, letters, diaries and other forms which have their roots in the historical lives of individuals.

Areas of interest

  • 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).
  • Biography and portraiture
  • The life, letters and diaries of Evelyn Waugh
  • The auto/biographical writings of Samuel Pepys, Lucy Aikin, Thomas De Quincey, Mary Shelley, Elizabeth Gaskell, Vera Brittain, T. E. Lawrence, 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

Twentieth-Century Life Writing

Dr Barbara Cooke

Dr Barbara Cooke is the Research associate on the Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh project, and is preparing a biographical study of the friendship between T.E. Lawrence and H.S. “Jim” Ede.

The Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh is a collaborative, AHRC-funded project led by the University of Leicester and co-investigated at the University of Oxford. It is working with Oxford University Press and Alexander Waugh, Evelyn’s grandson, to publish 42 volumes of Waugh’s works including a brand new bibliography and full index.  Publishing will begin in 2016, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the author's death, and is due for completion in 2020. The edition will include all of Waugh’s extant letters, only 15% of which have been published, and the unexpurgated diaries.

Barbara’s personal research interests also focus on personal writings, and she is currently working on a cache of letters sent from T.E. Lawrence (“of Arabia”) to Jim Ede, the art curator who founded Cambridge’s Kettle’s Yard, between 1927 and 1935. These remarkably articulate and perceptive letters can, Barbara hopes, extend and complicate our current understanding of the long-term impact of fighting in World War I on twentieth-century artistic and literary culture.

She has several forthcoming articles on neglected twentieth-century figures:

“‘The Eastern Glow Where the Big Sons Go’: Arnold Wilson, Clifton College and the First World War.” Lissa Paul and Rosemary Johnston (eds), Children and the Great War: 1890—1919. Palgrave Macmillan (forthcoming).

‘The Adventures of Miss Ross: Interventions into, and the tenacity of, romance narrative in South West Persia.’ Forthcoming in Journeys: The International Journal of Travel & Travel Writing. Vol. 16 No. 1, Summer 2015.

Literary biography

Professor Martin Stannard

The focus of Professor 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 (Weidenfeld, 2009; Norton 2010) was again widely and well reviewed by, amongst others, Kermode, David Lodge, Janice Galloway, John Carey, Jonathan Bate, A. N. Wilson, Frances Wilson, Elaine Showalter and Kathryn Hughes. Serialised in the Guardian and on R4 (‘Book of the Week’), it was shortlisted for the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. He has also published essays and review-essays on 20th-century biography, autobiography and letters. Currently he is researching a new life of Ford Madox Ford and is Co-Executive Editor of OUP’s The Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh, an edition collecting large amounts of previously unpublished biographical material (see Barbara Cooke above).

Auto/biographical texts from the First and Second World Wars

Dr Victoria Stewart

Dr 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

Dr Julian North

Dr Julian North’s research interests lie in the area of Romantic and Victorian life-writing. She has recently written on Thomas Carlyle, biography and portraiture, and her research is currently focused on portraiture in the life, work and afterlives of the Brontës.

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 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

Dr Felicity James

Dr 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

Dr Kate Loveman

Dr 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

Mr Nick Everett

Mr 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.

Recent postgraduate projects

Memorialising the father in the life writings of Frances Burney, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, and Anne Thackeray Ritchie.

Michelle Dean

My research explores the life writings of these three women writers in order to investigate the ways in which, and possible reasons why, they felt compelled to memorialise the lives and perpetuate the careers of their respective fathers: Charles Burney, William Godwin, and William Makepeace Thackeray.

My thesis examines the rise of literary biography and domestic memoir writing during the long nineteenth century, and the relationship of women writing biography to developments in the life writing genre at this time. It also explores the domestic ideology of the period shaping the daughter-father relationship. This ideology played a role in the strong (yet conflicted) sense of duty inherent in the actual and attempted production by Burney, Shelley and Ritchie of memoirs and biographies of their fathers. In the context of their roles as editors and archivists of their own and their fathers’ papers,  I also consider late eighteenth- and nineteenth-century debates on celebrity in relation to the ownership (and curatorship) of an artistic afterlife.

The English Folk Revival

Katie Heathman (AHRC-funded)

I aim to reclaim the first English Folk Revival as a progressive movement, in particular by examining the networks and links between proponents of the revival and other forward-thinking movements. I would like to demonstrate that far from the nostalgic, conservative movement the revival has been written down as, for its leaders, in a heady atmosphere of art, religion, politics and identity, the folk movement was a means to change the world.

My approach is strongly based in life writing, with a particular emphasis on unpublished letters. Through these documents I am exploring key figures' perceptions of their own work, its aims and interactions with their involvement in other progressive movements such as Christian Socialism, Settlement work and Special Needs Education. My thesis focuses on four main figures: Charles Marson, a Chrisitian Socialist priest and folksong collector; Conrad Noel, communist High Church vicar and Morris dance patron; Grace Kimmins, disability and play worker and advocate of folk dance and traditional games;  Mary Neal, Settlement worker and Morris dance innovator, and on their interactions and explosive disagreements with the movement's kingpin, Cecil Sharp.

Andrew Marvell and Privacy

Keith McDonald

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.

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