My current project, tentatively titled Erotic Biography: Reading Intimate Lives, examines the ways we use narrative to construct, reconstruct, and access stories of intimate lives. Using dual biographies of romantic couples (married and not), I analyze erotic emplotments, the creation of couplehood and its movements over time, the making of shared collaborative storyworlds, and the roles of bodies and minds in narrative.
This is the most recent version of an early draft of a prospectus for this project; I’ve posted it here in order to get feedback from anyone who wishes to comment. Feel free to do so, within the bounds of basic civility.
Erotic Biography: Reading Intimate Lives by Janine Utell is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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One of the most poignant moments in Edith Gelles’ dual biography of John and Abigail Adams is when Gelles shows Abigail realizing that to sustain her faith in her marriage, she must willingly and consciously participate in a shared narrative and vision of what that marriage is supposed to be, even in the face of extended separation and vast distance during the American Revolution. She must tell herself, and share with John, a story of their life together in order to give it meaning. In “Erotic Biography: Reading Intimate Lives,” I demonstrate that we can use narrative to understand intimacy: how intimate worlds are created, how erotic couples share experience and know each other, how individual members of a couple come together in a collaborative process of meaning-making around that shared experience and knowledge. Through study and analysis of the couple biography, I show how narrative techniques and theories shape the representation of intimacy and the kinds of knowledge it might generate. Narrative lets people know each other in the most private ways, and then allows them to share that knowledge.
Narrative theory might help us understand the construction and reading of a shared story, the fabrication of the world of the couple, and the shifting perspectives of the couple biography. The couple biography, a subgenre I am the first to define, is a dual biography, a dual portrait, of an erotic couple. These biographies, which emerged in their contemporary form in the 1990s, tell the individual and shared stories of each member of a couple. They begin with the single life, each moving along parallel lines, until the intersection, joining, and forming of a unit, a “we.” The biography then takes the life story of the couple itself as its focus: the creation and duration of the erotic unit and its changes over time, key shared events, the connections of mind and body, and the overall shaping of a collaborative and coherent life together.
My work expands the fields of literature and biography, as well as the humanities more broadly, by addressing the ethical implications of imagining ways of knowing and the complexities of negotiating emotional closeness and distance through narrative. Intimacy allows individuals to connect across different experiences and build a world together. It permits each member of a couple to recognize and appreciate the other’s subjectivity, past, weirdness, and then to share a life and a life story; such recognition, via imaginative and affectual work, is the foundation of postmodern ethics, especially the thinking of Emmanuel Levinas. Narrative can provide the equipment for such ethical endeavor, offering readers the tools to engage emotionally and imaginatively with others. Thus my work here is twofold: I claim that narrative is a crucial part of building a couplehood, in that it helps the members of that couple share a life and a vision of who they are together. And, I claim that understanding how narrative works in this regard, how it gives the means of shaping a shared experience, offers a way for readers to think about their own intimacies and the ethical landscape of their erotic world.
While the field of life writing has been opened up to a willingness to engage with the erotic, thanks to Michael Holroyd’s groundbreaking 1971 biography of Lytton Strachey and to feminist and queer studies more generally, literary critics are still reticent when it comes to romantic and erotic love and intimacy. Theorists of the genre of biography and life writing more generally, such as Paula Backscheider, Sidonie Smith, and Nigel Hamilton have not engaged with the particular subgenre of the couple biography; and while critics focus attention on desire and discourse, gender and sexual identity, the world of the love life goes unexplored. However, “Erotic Biography: Reading Intimate Lives,” building on my first book James Joyce and the Revolt of Love: Marriage, Adultery, Desire, shows that the investigation of couplehood and the epistemology and ethics of intimacy is in fact very much the purview of the literary critic and humanities scholar. In my first book, I formulated a framework from narrative theory and postmodern ethics to read Joyce’s drama and fiction, and developed the argument that Joyce was using the counterfactual potential of literature to envision an ethical love. Joyce’s vision of erotic life depends on an individual being able to imagine the desires of the beloved other and seek to fulfill them, no matter how painful. The project I propose here extends that research into a new area; the expertise I developed while working on the Joyce book will permit me to apply and expand my framework into the field of life writing and consider how intimate narratives hone in on private spaces and moments, moments of both connection and rupture.
The first chapter of “Erotic Biography,” “Mourning and Victorian Spousal Memoirs,” considers just such a moment of rupture: the death of a spouse. Reading memoirs of deceased spouses by Isabel Burton (of Richard Burton), John Cross (of George Eliot), and Thomas Carlyle (of Jane Carlyle) alongside recently published couple biographies by Mary Lovell, Brenda Maddox, and Rosemary Ashton, I consider the impulse to narrativize the life of a dead spouse as a kind of mourning. Specifically, the writing of a spousal memoir is an attempt to claim the life story of the deceased and by extension the story of the couple itself. By writing the memoir of the deceased, the surviving spouse reconstructs the life, claiming a place of primacy for him or herself, and making the shared world public. The writing becomes a spectacle of intimacy, of intimate knowing of both body and mind, that in another context might be unseemly or even transgressive. The production of textual artifact becomes a way to revivify the marital body. I read recently published couple biographies of each of these subjects in conjunction with the primary materials to illustrate not only the instability of these memoirs but also the difficulty of (re)constructing erotic private lives and the ways narrative provides some strategies for access, albeit incomplete. By reading the memoirs and biographies in dialogue, competing processes of narrativization are revealed: the ordering and arranging of events, movement over time, characterization, and finally the creation or complicating of sympathy. Setting these texts next to one another reveals the knowledge problem at the heart of my study: a reader sees the trouble with accessing intimate lives, while also seeing the ways intimate partners are made strange to each other.
Next, in “Ethics and Epistemology: Bloomsbury and New Biography,” I begin working through the ethical implications of this knowledge problem. Here I take a twin-lens approach: a retrospective or historical look at ethical work of the early 20th century, then moving ahead to incorporate a framework drawn from postmodern ethics, and then reading back again balancing both historical and philosophical conceptualizations. Beginning with Leslie Stephen and John Middleton Murry, I consider the ways these figures rewrite the lives of their departed loved ones through textual monuments: Stephen’s Mausoleum Book and Murry’s extensive excavating and archiving of Katherine Mansfield’s writing. I use these cases as a jumping-off point to trace the influence of G. E. Moore’s ethics, specifically the 1903 Principia Ethica, on the emergence of the “New Biography,” the primary practitioners of which were Virginia Woolf and Lytton Strachey. From there I read Woolf’s Flush and Strachey’s Elizabeth and Essex as early examples of couple biography, and then consider Woolf herself as the subject of several couple biographies, both with her husband Leonard Woolf and with her lover Vita Sackville-West. I read these more recent biographies through the lens of postmodern ethics, specifically Levinas, thereby setting up the sustained reading of the genre itself in Chapter Three.
“A Meeting of Minds: Contemporary Couple Biographies” uses the vocabulary and method established in the first two chapters to analyze exemplary texts, focusing on the ways biographers arrange textual and archival material to (re)construct intimate lives and provide access to readers through narrative. For this chapter, I take Paula Backscheider’s Reflections on Biography as a model; in that book, Backscheider uses a series of exemplars to trace areas of interest in biographical texts, beginning with external relationships and moving inward to a core of private subjectivity. Considering how narrative helps us understand private erotic life and relationships is central to my reading; thus I look at how events shape couplehood over time, couplehood as private space and the means by which that space is collaboratively created, and the role bodies, minds, and empathy play in understanding intimate life. For my exemplars I concentrate on biographies of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, and Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller.
Chapter Four, “Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy: A Case Study,” will extend the work of Chapter One on public and private mourning while also grappling with the ways queer couplehood might complicate the couple biography. This chapter will consider forms of intimate narrativity in other media by analyzing not only Isherwood’s writing but also Bachardy’s drawings and the 2007 documentary film about their life together, Chris and Don: A Love Story. Using Isherwood and Bachardy as a substantive case for this chapter allows me to think specifically about queer couplehood, as well as how narrativity manifests itself in a variety of forms and genres. I begin by reading Isherwood’s biography of his parents’ marriage, Kathleen and Frank, in which he generates the life story of their couplehood from the raw material of letters and diaries. Next, I examine Bachardy’s drawings of Isherwood as he progresses towards death from cancer; these drawings constitute a reinvention of the spousal memoir discussed in Chapter One. Finally, I talk about Chris and Don and look at the ways the documentary film offers a means to narrativize queer couplehood. I conclude by postulating some reasons for the general absence of queer couples (a few examples notwithstanding) from the genre of couple biography.
The final chapter of “Erotic Biography,” “The Problem of the Biographer: Prefaces, Archives, Versionings,” turns the lens to the biographer him/herself. Here I return to the question of intimacy as epistemological problem, and I analyze the relationships among biographer, reader, and subject. Concentrating on the prefaces composed by biographers, their reflections on their own archival work, and the multiple versions through letters, diaries, memoirs, and fiction of such lives as D.H. and Frieda Lawrence and Sylvia Townsend Warner and Valentine Ackland, I close the book by thinking about the slippery nature of intimate knowledge and the ethical implications of a commitment to understanding it.
My work applies the rigorous tools of narrative to questions of how subjects live and love. The serious study of love, intimacy, and empathy meets a need not only in my discipline of English but also in the wider field of the humanities. These most human of impulses and experiences are deeply connected to how we read and write, shape and share stories.