What do biographies say about sex?

Stories often reveal more about when they were written than when they happened. Julia Layta Novak knows: This rule applies especially to biographical novels. The literary researcher searches in novels and films about historical artists. To this end, she analyzes language and structure and receives countless works with a focus on gender and gender.

For scholars, contemporary autobiographical fiction represents an interesting hybrid form that combines elements of literary fiction and autobiography. “The genre has seen an amazing rise in popularity over the past two decades,” says Julia Laita Novak. What makes it particularly revealing for literary studies are the areas of tension in which these vital archetypes stand: between fidelity to facts and invention, recognition and alienation, relationship and agency, as well as loyalty to and detachment from the literary genre.

“I want to know how the autobiographical narratives capture, reflect or deconstruct the available gender narratives about the character’s trajectory,” explains Lajta-Novak of the University of Vienna. Her main questions in the project “The Artist in Biographical Novel: Genre and Genre” funded by the Austrian Science Fund FWF are: How are historical women artists remembered in cultural memory – and for what reason? Theoretical infrastructure is mainly provided by biographical research with gender theory.

models of female identity

Lajta-Novak is interested in numbers that have been discussed many times, such as composer and pianist Clara Schumann. With the help of films about their lives, historical gender concepts can be traced and compared. “Träumerei, released in 1944, focuses on the topic of duty. Clara Schumann’s sense of duty tells her that she should publish her husband’s music,” explains the English literary scholar. In “Love Song” from 1947, Clara Schumann is portrayed as a reclusive and forever loving wife and mother. In “Frühlingssinfonie”, which first aired in 1983, she acts as a sex idol. “Beloved Clara” was released in 2008. “The film tells the story of an independent and strong woman who struggles through all the turmoil. She decides against Johannes Brahms – often accusing the historical Clara of having an affair with her – and for her independence,” explains Lagta Novak.

Cultural and historical certificates

But not only these modes of interpretation reveal a lot about when they originated. So do the omissions. This show is about the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The authors of the fifties overlooked the fact that her future husband, with whom she secretly moved to Italy, was six years younger than her – perhaps because this connection did not fit the image of a woman at that time. Such omissions also occur in works related to the life of Neil Gwen, actress and mistress of King Charles II of England. Some authors do not address the fact that Eleanor Gwen may have had to work as a prostitute from a young age.

In order for resumes to conform to genre conventions, authors often make changes. Historical romances often end in a wedding—or at least the possibility of it. “Eleanor Gwen, however, was only one of several mistresses of the king. Some accounts make it easy. It ends exactly when King Charles II and Neil Gwen meet and she becomes pregnant—and before the second mistress occurs in the plan,” explains Lajta-Novak. This is done to fit the story into the romantic narrative style.

Gender political ideologies

Choosing a character whose life is dealt with in an autobiographical novel can be a political gender decision. James Miranda Barry epitomizes this. Born Margaret Anne Bolkeley in the late 17th century, Barry worked as a military surgeon. Only after her death was it revealed that Barry was biologically born a female – and likely lived as a transgender person. The 1977 novel The Perfect Gentleman tells Barry’s story from a feminist perspective. A woman disguises herself as a man to operate in a male-dominated world. In 1999, James Miranda Barry’s novel by gay author Patricia Dunker was published. In it, she left Barry’s gender open and played with pronouns. “The character of James Miranda Barry also shows the exemplary function that historical figures can perform. In this way, historical and biographical texts can open space for marginalized groups to define themselves,” says Lagta Novak.

These examples show how the life stories of historical figures change over time. Another is the 2021 novel “Hamnet”. In it, writer Maggie O’Farrell – meaning “her story” – addresses how Agnes Shakespeare struggles with the death of her son Hamnet. His high-profile father is still unknown in the business. “The fact that supposed historical marginal characters have moved into literary focus shows how vibrant and contemporary this genre of biographical fiction is,” says Lagta Novak.

search output

Last year, the scientist published her findings in European Journal of Life Writing with colleague Eugenie Tower. In the fall of 2022, the paper “Screening Clara Schumann: Biomythography, Gender and the Relational Biopic” will be published in the journal Biography and she will edit the anthology “Imagining Gender in Biographical Fiction” with her colleague Caitríona Ní Dhúill.

for someone

Julia Layta Novak is an English literary and cultural researcher, author, and currently holds the position of Professional Professor of English Literature at the University of Vienna. She has taught English, Music and Cultural Management in Vienna, Edinburgh and London and has already conducted research at King’s College London, the Universities of London, Oxford and the University of Salzburg. She has been awarded the Theodor Körner Prize and Dr. Maria Schumer Prize for her research, among others, and the DOC Prize for the City of Vienna. For her research project ” Poetry of Speaking: British Poetry-Performance, 1965-2015″ was awarded the START Prize by the Austrian Science Fund FWF and Consolidator Grant by the European Research Council in 2020.

Wissenschaftlicher Kontakt
Ass.-Prof. Dr. Julia Lajta-Novak
Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik
Universität Wien
Campus Altes AKH Hof 8.3
Spitalgasse 2
1090 Wien
T +43 699 81761689

Wissenschaftsfonds FWF
Ingrid Ladner
Redaktion scilog
Sensengasse 1
1090 Wien
T +43 1 505 67 40-8117

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