Faculty of Arts Department of English

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Masaryk University

Faculty of Arts
Department of English

and American Studies
English Language and Literature

Patrik Míša

Biography in Fiction by Julian Barnes

Master’s Diploma Thesis

Supervisor: prof. Mgr. Milada Franková, CSc., M.A.

I declare that I have worked on this thesis independently,

using only the primary and secondary sources listed in the bibliography.

Patrik Míša


I would like to express my gratitude to prof. Milada Franková

for her support, helpful feedback and kind attitude.

Table of Contents

1.Introduction 5

2.A Brief History of Biography 7

2.1Classical and Medieval Biography 8

2.2Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century 13

2.3Twentieth Century 18

2.4Biography and Fiction 23

3.Biography in Novels by Julian Barnes 26

3.1Flaubert’s Parrot 27

3.2Arthur & George 43

4.Conclusion 61

5.Bibliography 63


A number of literary scholars have noticed, and commented on, the recently growing critical interest in the genre of biography1. The literary criticism of biography brings new challenges because while biography as a type of nonfiction is primarily concerned with the depiction of real figures, literary criticism usually deals with fiction whose aim is to create characters and their lives. However, what might be seen as applying the measures of fiction on a nonfiction genre can, in the end, lead to a better appreciation of biography. As Linda Hutcheon argues, focusing on what history and literature have in common, rather than on in what they differ, is what has recently been the core of postmodern theory.2

Biography in fiction or fictional biography has a special position in this respect because it uses devices from both fiction and nonfiction. It employs biographical techniques or biographical data, while often not claiming to be an authoritative historical account of the lives it depicts. Therefore, it stands on the borderline between the two types of writing, and defines as well as challenges the concepts of both fiction and nonfiction.

The division between history and literature or fiction and nonfiction is the core of this thesis. First, the thesis will present a brief history of the biographical genre, commenting the important concepts in biography, and on some of the most prominent biographical works. Then, through analysing two novels, Flaubert’s Parrot and Arthur & George by the British novelists Julian Barnes, it will attempt to highlight the differences between the two types of writing. It will discuss how the use of biographical information helps to shape the fictional narrative of the novels, on what issues the combination of fiction and nonfiction might bring, and on how the two elements interact within the novels.

2.A Brief History of Biography

The following chapter will outline a concise summary of the development of biography. Its purpose is not to present an exhaustive history of the genre in all its existing varieties because such a description would largely exceed the possibilities of this thesis. Its main aim is rather to point out the most significant defining moments in the history of biography; the moments which changed the approach to, or the perception of, biographical writing primarily in the Englishspeaking countries.

The chapter begins with a commentary on the perception of biography in the classical world, focusing especially on Plutarch and his Parallel Lives. It will then comment on hagiography, a form of biography popular during the Middle Ages which recorded the lives of saints and figures connected to the Catholic Church, and served predominantly religious purposes. The eighteenth century gave the world one of the most acclaimed biographers of all times—James Boswell, the author of The Life of Samuel Johnson. This volume will be discussed in the chapter to some extent, commenting particularly on the relationship between the biographer and his or her subject. With the arrival of the twentieth century and modernist writing, another important biographical work was published—Eminent Victorians by Lytton Strachey which astonished the readers because of its shameless defamation of prominent Victorian figures, clearly abandoning the traditional eighteencentury notions of biographical writing. In addition to a commentary on Eminent Victorians, the chapter will also briefly summarize the possible utilization of Sigmund Freud’s psychological theories in the genre of biography. The chapter concludes with a section devoted to biography in fiction which briefly outlines the relationship between the two forms of writing, drawing on the example of Orlando: A Biography by Virginia Woolf.

2.1Classical and Medieval Biography

The need to preserve history is as old as the human civilisation itself. From the native tribes in America to Ancient Greece and Rome, every society has felt the urge to record its history in one way or another. It is our history what helps to establish our own identity. After the spread of writing, the tradition of oral passing of history gave way to the written preservation in many cultures around the world. The written preservation—being rather more resistant to errors and misinterpretations—also proved to be a more reliable historical source, although in the earliest times the historical accounts were still tightly connected to and intertwined with myths and legends.

Probably the oldest but still not completely resolved question regarding biography is the problem of its relation to history. Biography is certainly a form of historical writing but a relatively specific one. Whereas history as such is concerned with the larger picture and always strives (or at least should strive) for an objective approach to describing various historical events, biography focuses on history on a smaller scale. Generally speaking, the central aim of biography is to record personal history, the life of an individual within a historical context. From a certain perspective, biography therefore seems to be a subset of history, one of its essential elements. And yet, as Barbara Caine notes in her book History and Biography, biography is not always regarded as too high a genre among historians. Caine quotes David Nasaw who argues that biography “remains the profession’s [history’s] unloved stepchild, occasionally but grudgingly let in the door, more often shut outside with the riffraff” (7).

A clear separation of history and biography was well apparent in Ancient Greece and Rome. While history and biography may seem quite close in numerous aspects today, these two types of writing were considered very different in the classical world—history was generally seen “as having much greater quality, seriousness and importance” (Caine 7), whereas biography as the lesser genre.

Some of the earliest but still highly appreciated examples of biographical writing which have been preserved to this day come from the Greek philosopher Plutarch (c. 46—c. 120 AD). Plutarch, according to Carl Rollyson the greatest biographer of antiquity3, was born to a wealthy Greek family in the Greek province of Boeotia. Plutarch obtained his education in Athens where he studied a number of subjects including mathematics, philosophy and rhetorics. As the editors of his Parallel Lives remind the reader, Plutarch lived in the time often regarded as “the beginning of the best age of the Roman imperial period and as the last great era of Greek and Roman literature” (v). This provided him with a quite unique perspective on the notable figures of the GrecoRoman world whose biographies he later wrote.

Plutarch’s most famous work, Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans (often called simply Parallel Lives), is a collection of fifty biographies of prominent figures of Ancient Greece and Rome. Twenty-three of these biographies are paired (one person from Greece, one from Rome), four remain unpaired. The work includes both historical figures (Cicero, Alexander the Great, etc.) and legendary heroes (Theseus, Romulus, etc.).

As mentioned earlier, in Ancient Rome, there was a clear line between history and biography. History, on the one hand, was considered to be something fixed, authoritative and official, a noble genre to be looked up to. The reasons for biographical writing, on the other hand, were quite different. Plutarch explains his own personal motives behind writing biographies in his portrait of the Greek politician and military leader Timoleon:

It was for the sake of others that I first commenced writing biographies; but I find myself proceeding and attaching myself to it for my own; the virtues of these great men serving me as a sort of lookingglass, in which I may see how to adjust and adorn my life. Indeed, it can be compared to nothing but daily living and associating together; we receive, as it were, in our inquiry, and entertain each successive guest, view . . . and select from their actions all that is noblest and worthiest to know (195).

In other words, according to Plutarch, the benefit of biography lies in the opportunity for personal development. His biographies, the life stories of noble Greeks and Romans, should inspire the reader to become a better person. The comparison of Greek and Roman philosophers, politicians and military leaders was in Plutarch’s Parallel Lives always focused on a certain moral, something beneficial that the reader should get from the text. The fact that Plutarch was primarily concerned with the characters of his subjects, not with the historical context of their lives, allowed him a certain free hand in writing their biographies. This methodology then led, to a certain extent, to bringing biography even further away from history:

The freedom to choose the incidents which reveal ‘character and inclination’ that Plutarch demanded for biography served further to underline its lower status. A biography might well offer a basis for private contemplation and thus serve a moral purpose but its stress on the individual and its concern with the private realm and with daily life meant that for many centuries it was regarded as a lower and less important form of writing than history (Caine 8).

For many centuries, Plutarch remained more or less unmatched in the realm of biographical writing. In the Early Middle Ages, especially before the invention of printing press (in Europe by Johannes Guttenberg around 1450), a vast majority of writing in Europe—including biographical texts—was produced by the Roman Catholic Church in monasteries. The subjects of biographies from this period were mostly figures connected in some way to the religion: church officials, popes and saints.

One can easily observe the similarities between the classical and early medieval approach to biographical writing. Just as in Plutarch’s writing, one of the main goals of early medieval biographies was to bring a moral, in this case a moral connected to the Roman Catholic religion. The clear division between history and biography remained virtually unchanged even in the centuries to come. As Caine comments, “the classical sense of the distinction between history and biography and the greater importance and seriousness accorded to history in the classical world was generally accepted until the end of the sixteenth century” (9). The purpose of biographies was still largely to inspire the reader, in this case through Christian values and deeds of figures connected to the Church.

The biographies of saints are generally called hagiographies. Rollyson notes in Biography: A User’s Guide that “these biographies celebrated the herowarriors of God, conveyed moral lessons in story form and showed the triumph of the righteous over evil forces” (162). From a contemporary point of view, a problematic aspect of these biographies is their credibility. The writers of hagiographies (hagiographers) focused primarily on the message that their text should provide, pushing the factual basis to the background. In fact, the hagiographers even resorted to “freely [transposing], on occasion, episodes from the life of one saint to another” (Edel 36). As Rollyson continues,

readers of medieval hagiography were not concerned with causality, chronology, character development, analytical judgements—the hallmarks of modern biography and history—and instead favoured concrete stories, exempla and short ‘selfsufficient fragments’ (162).

In spite of the arguable trustworthiness of the medieval hagiographies, there are scholars who propose a different approach to evaluating these texts. As an example, Rollyson quotes Thomas J. Heffernan who in his Sacred Biography: Saints and Their Biographers in the Middle Ages (1988) argues that there is more to the medieval biographies of saints than meets the eye. According to Heffernan,

medieval biographers, influenced by GrecoRoman models, explored radical new ideas of individuality and were not merely credulous and unthinking purveyors of miracles but conscious artists establishing a new language of the self and finding new ways of transforming the lives of medieval saints from oral tales to sacred texts (Rollyson 163).

Heffernan’s argumentation pushes aside the issues of factual accuracy, and yet again highlights the potential moral benefits of biography. Similarly to Plutarch’s beliefs, Heffernan claims that in the case of hagiographies, the primary value does not lie in its accurate depiction of historical events. Heffernan foregrounds the ability of hagiography to fix the myths surrounding the saints and its artistic values.

It is apparent that the distinct division between biography and history was maintained for many centuries. The classical GrecoRoman concepts of history being authoritative and valuable on the one hand, and biography being a lesser genre aiming to bring a moral on the other hand remained more or less unchanged until the end of the Middle Ages. One of the indications of future changes in this conception came in the seventeenth century with the ideas of Francis Bacon.

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