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The Good Life: Novels, Biographies, and the Nineteenth-Century Imagination

ENGL 355.301
instructor(s):
MW 3:30-5

The idea of "writing the life" has been a defining one for both the novel and biography. Over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the genre of the novel evolved alongside that of biography. Each was principally concerned with things that had historically been regarded as outside the purview of published, respectable writing--the inner thoughts and everyday habits of persons, whether real or imagined, great or small. Each, too, was regarded with suspicion for its working assumption that the trivial details, secret passions, and private struggles of everyday life may be the stuff of art, scholarship, and legitimate public interest. Neither novels nor biographies were thought to be quite legitimate at first; both were seen as morally suspect genres, as inherently questionable kinds of writing that, in dealing closely with the most personal and intimate aspects of their subjects' lives, encouraged an unhealthy prurience in readers and writers alike. In the case of biography, this charge was intensified by related concerns that the act of writing up a lived life for the reading public was a gross invasion of privacy and a violation of the respect that is owed to the dead. 

This course will trace the complicated and entangled early lives of the novel and biography. We will read a number of novels that tell the stories of imagined lives alongside biographies that purport to tell the truth about real lives; we'll also read novels that contain germs of their authors' autobiographies, novels that meditate on the genre of biography, biographies that engage in literary criticism, and biographies that look and act like novels. Along the way, we will read critical commentary on both kinds of writing. We will also examine how each genre addressed, criticized, and shaped the other. At every point, we will attempt to register the shifting complexity of the connection between two genres that emerged simultaneously for similar reasons, shared many interests and concerns, and yet in the end differed so profoundly from one another. 

We will begin our study with a brief survey of eighteenth-century thinking about both biography and the the novel; James Boswell's magisterial Life of Johnson, Samuel Johnson's Life of Richard Savage, and Henry Fielding's Shamela will serve as the historical and theoretical backdrop for our subsequent investigation of how the novel and biography each came into its own during the nineteenth century. Readings will include Thomas Carlyle's definitive essays on the form and function of biography, Charlotte Bronte's autobiographical novel Villette, Elizabeth Gaskell's selective and novelistic Life of Charlotte Bronte, Charles Dickens' partially autobiographical David Copperfield, selections from John Forster's Life of Dickens, Oscar Wilde's Picture of Dorian Gray (the novel that was used to convict Wilde of sodomy), and Wilde's "De Profundis," the heart-rending confessional letter the jailed author wrote to his former lover. 

We will round out the semester with a number of modernist and post-modernist reflections on Victorian life-writing: Peter Carey's imaginative pseudo-biography of Dickens, Jack Maggs; Virginia Woolf's biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's dog, Flush; Lytton Strachey's harsh indictment of Victorian culture, Eminent Victorians; and A.S. Byatt's novel about a biographer's thwarted biographer, The Biographer's Tale. 

Requirements:regular attendance, active participation, weekly weblog postings, two formal papers, and an in-class presentation.