Biography pp 206-209 | Cite as


  • Ira Bruce Nadel


In this passage from Time Regained, the final volume of Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust explains that meaning in literature comes only from the interpretation or analysis of the object, not from its mere presence. Relations not facts establish significance. Biography also recognizes the importance of this quality as it becomes more aware of the value of narrative design, structure and style, as well as the position of the reader and the subject in the text. Elizabeth Gaskell as a character observing Charlotte Brontë holding her brother’s group painting while also narrating the scene graphically illustrates the complexity of the situation. The unmediated, comprehensive life, avoiding or unconscious of its own method, no longer satisfies; in its effort at completeness it only creates a greater awareness of its incompleteness. Replacing the positivist hope that the record of a life can be captured is the stronger awareness of how fictions regulate and articulate our past. History, as Hegel reminds us, ‘combines in our language the objective as well as the subjective side. It means both the historiam rerum gestarum and the res gestas themselves, both the events and the narration of the events.’1


Subjective Side Strong Awareness Narrative Strategy Adequate Language Unify Story 
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Notes and References

  1. 1.
    Marcel Proust, Time Regained, tr. Andreas Mayor, Remembrance of Things Past, tr. C. K. Scott Moncreiff, Terence Kilmartin, Andreas Mayor (New York: Random House, 1981) III: 924–5Google Scholar
  2. Hegel, Reason in History: A General Introduction to the Philosophy of History, tr. Robert S. Hartman (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1953) p. 75.Google Scholar
  3. 2.
    James Olney, ‘Autobiography and the Cultural Moment’, Autobiography, Essays Theoretical and Critical, ed. James Olney (Princeton University Press, 1977) p. 20.Google Scholar
  4. 3.
    Ernest Kris, Psychoanalytic Explorations in Art (1952; New York: Schocken Books, 1971) p. 83. See also ch. 2. Kris’s idea restates the moral dimension of biography first established by Plutarch, restated in the Introduction to The British Plutarch (1776): ‘By having before our eyes the principles of men of honour and probity enforced by example, we shall be animated to fix upon some great model to be the rule of our conduct’ (p. vii).Google Scholar
  5. 4.
    Laurence Sterne, Tristram Shandy, ed. James Work (1760–7; New York: Odyssey Press, 1940) p. 109.Google Scholar
  6. Virginia Woolf in Charles G. Hoffmann, ‘Fact and Fantasy in Orlando’, Texas Studies in Language and Literature, 10 (Fall 1968) 442Google Scholar
  7. Leon Edel, ‘The Poetics of Biography’, Contemporary Approaches to English Studies, ed. Hilda Schiff (London: Heinemann, 1977) p. 42.Google Scholar
  8. 5.
    Roger North, Lives ofFrancis, Dudley and John North (London: H. Colburn, 1826) I: xiv.Google Scholar
  9. 6.
    Frank Kermode, The Genesis of Secrecy, On the Interpretation of Narrative (Harvard University Press, 1979) p. 114.Google Scholar
  10. Cushing Strout, ‘Letter’, New York Review of Books, 16 December 1982, p. 59Google Scholar
  11. On the current debate among historians see Gordon S. Wood, ‘Star Spangled History’, New York Review of Books, 12 August 1982, pp. 4–9 and the letters in response, ‘Writing History’, New York Review of Books, 16 December 1982, pp. 58–9Google Scholar
  12. Also of interest are Donald P. Spence, Narrative Truth and Historical Truth (New York: W. W. Norton, 1982)Google Scholar
  13. William R. Siebenschuh, Fictional Techniques and Factual Works (Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1983). Both of these studies focus on style and its impact on fact.Google Scholar
  14. 7.
    Samuel Johnson (21 August 1733), ‘The Journal of A Tour to the Hebrides’, in Boswell, Life of Johnson, 2nd edn, ed. G. B. Hill and L. F. Powell (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964) V: 79.Google Scholar
  15. Lytton Strachey, ‘Macaulay’, Portraits in Miniature (London: Chatto & Windus, 1931) pp. 169–70.Google Scholar
  16. For a comment on the value of biography synthesizing culture and history by showing how ‘cultural tensions and contradictions may be internalized, struggled with and resolved’ see David Brian Davis, ‘Some Recent Directions in American Cultural History’, American Historical Review, 73 (Feb 1968) 705.Google Scholar

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© Ira Bruce Nadel 1984

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  • Ira Bruce Nadel

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