16 May 2016 12:30pm - 2:00pm CRASSH Meeting Room


Part of the CRASSH Fellows Work in Progress Seminar Series.  All welcome but please email Michelle Maciejewska to book your place and to request readings.  A sandwich lunch and refreshments are provided.

This project explores the theoretical basis of biography, an under-theorised form. As a literary or historical approach, it is often questioned. Germaine Greer called biographies “pre-digested carrion”; Geoffrey Elton believed an historian “should not suppose that in writing biography he is writing history”; Pierre Bourdieu argued it was not possible to write the history of a single life as a coherent whole.

Does biography imply an unchanging self? Is intellectual history in large part a matter of biography? Does biography depend on a Western idea of the self, as separate from the group? How does biography position itself in relation to social, political, cultural, emotional and world history? Using my earlier books on Francis Younghusband and V. S. Naipaul, and my current research project on Doris Lessing, I examine these questions.

I suggest that biography, and in particular literary biography, is an adaptive form of cultural production, and necessarily cross-disciplinary. It is a sub-genre of history in which the subject is not absent, but a breathing struggling self: a repository of tradition, influence and events. Biography provides a worm-hole view, through the inevitable contradictions and ambiguities of a human life, linking connected lives. It foregrounds complexity, and makes the individual into a deep, rich archive.


Dr Patrick French is a CRASSH Visiting Fellow in Easter Term 2016.

He has a PhD in South Asian Studies and an MA in English Literature from Edinburgh University. His current research interests include the theory of biography; dynasty in contemporary Indian electoral politics; the later world history of the British empire; and postcolonial literatures. While at CRASSH, he will be working on the authorised biography of the Nobel laureate Doris Lessing.

Patrick’s books include India: A Portrait 2011, London: Allen Lane; New York: Knopf; New Delhi: Penguin; Lisbon: Temas e Debates (Portuguese); Amsterdam: Atlas (Dutch); Delhi: Penguin (Hindi); Barcelona: Duomo (Spanish); The World Is What It Is: The Authorized Biography of V.S. Naipaul 2008, London: Picador; New York: Knopf; Barcelona: Duomo (Spanish); Beijing: CITIC (Chinese); Antwerp: Atlas (Dutch); Tibet, Tibet: A Personal History of a Lost Land 2003, London: Harper Collins; New York: Knopf; Moscow: ACT (Russian): Paris: Albin Michel (French); Prague: BB Art (Czech); New Delhi: Penguin (Hindi); Prague: Ushuaia (Polish); Liberty or Death: India’s Journey to Independence and Division 1997, London: Harper Collins; New Delhi: Harper Collins; New Delhi: Penguin (Hindi); Amsterdam: Atlas (Dutch); Younghusband: The Last Great Imperial Adventurer 1994, London: Harper Collins; Milano: Sperling & Kupfer (Italian); Malaysia: Marco Polo (Chinese). He is a winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Hawthornden Prize, the Somerset Maugham Award, the Royal Society of Literature WH Heinemann Prize and the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, and was a finalist for the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the History Today Book of the Year award and the Samuel Johnson Prize.

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