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Telling the self


  • Credit value: 30 credits at Level 5
  • Convenors: Professor Sue Wiseman, David McAllister
  • Assessment: a 1500-word essay (35%), 1000-word essay outline and title (10%) and 3500-word research essay (55%)

Module description

How do we ‘tell’ ourselves - and how true are the tales we tell? Exploring the many different genres and technologies in which stories of the self are written, this module will explore official and unofficial selves. It will open with a discussion of what goes into biography, autobiography and fiction and in three further blocks it will explore contemporary self-revelation alongside key historical periods in the change ways the self - and which self - was told or silenced. The material covered will include some of history's silenced and forbidden selves and how they were recovered as well as celebratory stories. The material will include contemporary and early modern material. Beginning with Lemn Sissay’s extraordinary My Name is Why (1985) it will move backwards to look at women’s writing of the early modern period and forward to Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts (2015).

Indicative module syllabus

Sources of the Self

  • Lemn Sissay, My Name is Why
  • 'Selected lives': Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
  • Jackie Kay, The Adoption Papers
  • Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts

Forms of Telling: London Lives

  • John Donne, Satire 1, essay and Mary Beale portraits
  • Diary: Samuel Pepys and Katherine Austen diary excerpts
  • Told to God: spiritual autobiography: Anna Trapnel and Bunyan
  • True crime? Gallows confession - pirates and murderers
  • Olaudah Equiano, Interesting Narrative and portraits/images
  • Aphra Behn, ‘Assaulted and pursued chastity’ and Henry Fielding, The Female Husband
  • Wordsworth, The Prelude

Artistic Lives

  • Artists' biography genres: anecdote, conversation, sketch, life
  • Imaginary lives: Beckford, Biographical Memoirs of Extraordinary Painters
  • Walter Pater, Imaginary Portraits
  • Secrets and lives: Bersani and Dutoit, Caravaggio’s Secrets


  • Augustine, Rousseau and confessional narratives
  • De Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium Eater
  • Freud and psychoanalytic ‘telling’
  • Poetic confessions: Lowell, Plath, Berryman, Sexton
  • Confessional now: James Frey, A Million Little Pieces

Learning objectives

By the end of this module you will be able to:

  • demonstrate a general knowledge of examples of biography and autobiography from the Middle Ages to the contemporary period
  • demonstrate a general knowledge of theoretical, literary and generic issues of life writing
  • consider the specific sources, changes and developments in English of key texts of life writing
  • reflect on the relations between social and cultural contexts, theoretical discourses, cultural forms and texts
  • utilise critical discourses in the critical, detailed analysis of primary materials in your reading of texts.