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Her argument is that it was only during the eighteenth century that biography began to quarry the inner lives of writers, expressed at its most profound in experiences of melancholy.

Jane Darcy, Melancholy and Literary Biography, – | Cowper and Newton Museum

The first half of her book is dominated by Johnson, as theorist of biography, as biographer, and as himself a notable melancholic. She emphasises that though the subjects of these biographies were in many ways very different from one another, they all saw their own lives as having been marked by melancholy, and in their own ways drew upon these painful inner experiences in their writing.

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Their biographers in turn were faced with difficult ethical issues over the publication or not of private letters which revealed evidence of deep mental disturbance, and how to present and understand the meaning of the suffering of these writers. The publication of all three biographies resulted in bitter controversies over their effect on the reputations of their subjects.

A Brontë Biography

This was partly because in each case the treatment of their experience of melancholy could not be kept separate from other difficult issues with which the biographers had to deal — radical politics and a highly unorthodox lifestyle in the case of Wollstonecraft, drinking and womanising in the case of Burns, and a set of uncompromisingly Calvinist religious beliefs in the case of Cowper. It seems certain though Darcy does not herself say so that Greatheed had seen a copy of the narrative of his early life and religious conversion that Cowper wrote in , and which circulated in manuscript prior to its unauthorised publication in under the title Adelphi.

Jane Darcy, Melancholy and Literary Biography, 1640–1816

Misch Donald C. Plumb Anne M.


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This book offers an original account of the development of literary biography in the long eighteenth century and reveals different ways in which biographers probed the inner life through writers' melancholy. The first half tracks the unstable status of melancholy in biographical writing from Walton to Johnson in the context of changing medical and theological understanding of the condition.

The second half focuses on biographical experimentation of the s. Two case studies, Godwin's Memoirs of Wollstonecraft and Currie's Life of Burns, are examples of a significant if short-lived genre: philosophical biography.