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Literary Lives

Biography and the Search for Understanding

David Ellis

Hardback (Printed to Order)

Popular though biography is, it has as yet received very little critical attention. What nearly all biographies offer is an understanding of their subjects and an explanation of their behaviour. In this book David Ellis, author of the acclaimed third volume of the Cambridge biography of D H Lawrence, meditates on the nature of biography and the way biographers habitually explain their subjects' lives by reference to psychology, ancestry, childhood experience, social relations, the body or illness. Packed with examples and written in a lively, engrossing style, the aim of the book is to uncover the principles which biographers adopt in their efforts to make sense of others' lives whilst at the same time ensuring that their own narratives remain coherent.

In exploring the methods of literary biographers and the ways in which they interpret the material they accumulate - from Dr Johnson to Jean-Paul Sartre - David Ellis is able to make challenging and highly valuable comments on biography in general. Although he chiefly draws on recent lives of writers such as Dickens, Henry James, Flaubert, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Graham Greene, George Orwell, W B Yeats and Hemingway, Professor Ellis also considers the biographies of such compelling, non-literary figures as Mozart, Picasso and Cézanne.

With their focus on the understanding of other people as the main feature of biography, the informed and often humorous discussions in this book provide the ideal context for appreciating this fascinating literary form.

About the Author

David Ellis is Professor of English Literature at the University of Kent at Canterbury.


The exuberant flowering of English Biography over the last fifty years has been accompanied by an astonishing poverty of biographical Theory, so it is a great pleasure to welcome David Ellis’s Literary Lives. Drawing on his own experience as D. H. Lawrence’s biographer, Ellis has analysed with great lucidity and wit four epistemological structures underlying biographical interpretation. In a systematic examination of familial, psychological, medical and sociological models of narrative, he throws revealing light on current biographical notions of ‘character’, ‘motive’, and ‘formative events’. The book is lively, thoughtful and admirably provocative - a pioneering text.
- Richard Holmes, Fellow of the British Academy and author of Coleridge: Early Visions and Darker Reflections