Writing Lives Forwards: A Case for Strictly Chronological Biography

Mark Kinkead-Weekes

in Mapping Lives

Published by British Academy

Published in print September 2004 | ISBN: 9780197263181
Published online February 2012 | e-ISBN: 9780191734595 | DOI:

Series: British Academy Centenary Monographs

Writing Lives Forwards: A Case for Strictly Chronological Biography

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There could be different ways of writing biographies, just as there are different kinds of novels. Modern biographers who are sensitive to the trends in fiction and criticism may avoid the chronological approach, as it is often seen as old-fashioned. They may prefer a more subtle kind of structuring; for instance, Hermione Lee, who wrote Virginia Woolf's life, argued that there are several ways in which a ‘Life’ may begin apart from the start of the subject's birth. Likewise, Jean Sartre asserted the need to use an inverted chronology wherein regression should come first before progress can be properly grounded. This chapter discusses the chronological biography and, in particular, strict chronological biography. First, it examines D.H. Lawrence's biography, which is arranged and structured chronologically, and considers two biographies that are arranged in innovatory ways: Sartre's biography of Flaubert and Lee's narrative of Virginia Woolf. While Sartre and Lee's methods were interesting, the chronological approach, however old-fashioned, has positive aspects: it allows miming of the reader of how a life may have felt to live; throws emphasis on the experience of the biographee rather than commentary of the biographer; allows the reader to watch the life as it unfolds rather than having its significance anticipated; and delays verdicts until there has been sufficient exploration of the process and development.

Keywords: writing biographies; chronological approach; structuring; inverted chronology; chronological biography; strict chronological biography; D.H. Lawrence's biography; biography of Flaubert; Virginia Woolf

Chapter.  8153 words. 

Subjects: Literary Theory and Cultural Studies

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