Date of Award

Summer 8-15-2018

Author's School

Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Author's Department

English and American Literature

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Type



Altered Egos establishes that the twentieth-century turn to biographical fictionѮovels and plays that imagine the lives of historical figuresѩs a means of renegotiating sexual and gender identity as it reconstructs corners of the British past. Biographical fictions provided writers at once the historical scaffolding of fact plus an almost total freedom to re-imagine the course of human events. In the purposeful blurring of the creative boundaries between truth and fiction, biographical fictions push against prevailing social codes, whether of gender, politics, or nation, offering counter narratives that rethink and revise the possibilities of identity, finally proposing new, non-normative models of sexuality, sexual difference, empire, and race for both author and audience alike.

Very little critical attention has been paid to the genre, and what attention it has received (from scholars like Michael Lackey and Martin Middeke) focuses on the postmodern ҲootsӠof the genre. I seek to rectify this critical gap and argue that the genre is a product of modernist, rather than postmodernist, innovation, beginning with Virginia Woolfճ essays on hybrid biographies. This project opens with a consideration of Virginia Woolfճ 1933 Flush, which chronicles the courtship of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning through the perspective of Barrett Browningճ dog. Woolfճ work provides a precedent in the early part of the century for the biographical fictions that were to follow, for Woolfճ novel, so firmly grounded in modernist experimentation, is propelled forward towards postmodernist fantasia by her choice of subject. Flush the spaniel functions as a thinly veiled projection wherein the virtues of non-monogamous, non-normative sexual relationships are indulged. Woolf conjures an interspecies (if platonic) mnage--trois that offers its participants a sexual, intellectual, and creative liberty denied by the bonds of more traditional marital practices. By tracing this counter-cultural strain within the novel, I propose that Woolfճ workѡnd her modernism more broadlyѡnticipates the postmodern and contemporary biographical fictions that would follow.

From there, I examine two texts written by reluctant modernists of the mid-century: Evelyn Waughճ Helena (1950), which tracks the conversion of the British Helena, the Emperor Constantineճ mother, finder of the Ҵrue crossӠand the matron saint of Christianity, and Robert Gravesճ I, Claudius (1939), which purports to be the Ҵrue autobiographyӠof Roman emperor Claudius. Both Waughճ and Gravesճ intentional anachronisms work as omnidirectional satire that skewers not only modernity but also tradition, empire as well as isolationism. That Waughճ gleeful, unsparing dissection of history and legend occurs in the only novel in his oeuvre to treat a woman (and an actually sainted mother, no less) as its main character is all the more remarkable, as it entails a playful treatment of gender that will also be relevant in my discussion of Penelope Fitzgeraldճ The Blue Flower (chapter four). Waughճ caseѢoth for and against empireѢecomes gendered as he envisions a different kind of imperialism through a feminist lens, while Gravesճ novel, perhaps surprisingly, offers a treatment of Ҧemale masculinitiesӠand their gendered empires via his characters Livia and Claudius. Both authors use gender to reframe the issue of empire, thus blurring the lines between nationality and sexuality.

The erotics of language propel chapter three, җord Play: The Homoerotic Linguistics of Anthony Burgessճ Nothing Like the Sun (1964) and Tom Stoppardճ The Invention of Love (1997).ӠIn this chapter, I show how sexual longing becomes, for Burgessճ Shakespeare, inextricably tied to the act of writing rather than its carnal expression. In Burgessճ account, the playwrightճ varied sexual encounters are subordinated/sublimated to the pleasure of propagating poetry. Directly drawing on the language of Shakespeareճ sonnets, Burgess offers a view of sexual desire that is abstract, linked not to the physical body but to art itself. In Stoppardճ play about Victorian poet A. E. Housman, it is, crucially, foreign poetic languageѣlassical Latin and GreekѴhat weaves itself throughout the drama as a means of expressing and assaying a love that must remain hidden. Looking back on his life after his death, Housman uses lines of Latin and Greek in order to describe his homosexual desire. But, as the play continues, the classical phrases give way to lines from Housmanճ English pastoral, A Shropshire Lad. This shift from Latin into English signals a reclamation and normalization of homosexual desire by representing non-normative relationships in the poetճ mother tongue, and a reformation of sexual identity as national identity.

Working along the bi-temporality of Stoppardճ Housman and the back-and-forth timeline of Gravesճ Claudius, my fourth chapter, ҏut of Time: Penelope Fitzgeraldճ The Blue Flower (1995),Ӡargues that Fitzgeraldճ novel posits a vision of marriage that is non-reproductive, and a vision of history that, by notion of its unordered chronology, is non-teleological. Telling the fragmented story of German Romantic philosopher poet Frederich von Hardenbergճ (later Novalis) engagement to the twelve-year-old Sophie von Kuhn, Fitzgerald proposes a non-linear, non-progressive time scheme for its central figure. As such, the chronology ҡdvancedӠby Sophie and, eventually, Novalis, works against traditional ҭasculineӠor normative notions of temporality and instead proposes a schema that is both plausibly female (cyclical and repetitive) and queer (in that it rejects progression based on biological futurity), in formulations posed by Julia Kristeva, Lee Edelman and Heather Love, respectively. The Blue Flower is an exercise in new temporalities and sexualities that challenge the linear chronology and conventions of standard biographical form as well as standard sexual norms.

I end my project with a coda on a very recent example of biographical fictionњadie Smithճ 2017 short-story-cum-monologue, ҃razy They Call Me.ӠSmith work of microfiction encapsulates and exploits the strains of identity re-formation I explore in the chapters preceding: Smithճ Billie Holiday performs femininity and queerness, in addition to a recognizably American (rather than British) blackness, in ways that call to mind the propositions of performativity that shape the feminist, queer, and critical race theories of critics like Simone de Beauvoir, Judith Butler, and Frantz Fanon.

Although twentieth-century writers were resolved to combine the factual and the fictional in order to revolutionize another genreѴhe biographyѡs the century continued the genre of biographical fiction became a means not just of invention but of revision, a way of projecting alternate possibilities that called into question the ҴruthfulnessӠof received historical narrative. As they oscillate between the realities of fact and the possibilities of fiction, these texts became inter-texts, cultivating possibilities beyond the normalized story of historical orthodoxy. The works are inherently doubled, straddling fiction and fact, at once neither and both, and this doubleness serves as a counter to historical account while it continues to engage with history and the present. Authorial revisions in such fictions project and propose alternative sexual, national, and historical practices that may actually or eventually reform the shape of history. As it blurs the line between fact and fiction, the genre comes to inhabit a liminal space that allows for the free exploration, indeed the explicit revision, of gender roles and sexual moresѬiberated and even liberatory.


English (en)

Chair and Committee

Vincent Sherry

Committee Members

Melanie Micir, Ellen Crowell, Steven Meyer, Miriam Bailin,


Permanent URL: 2020-08-23

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