Five Questions: Jane Darcy on Melancholy and Literary Biography

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Jane Darcy - Melancholy and Literary Biography

Dr Jane Darcy is currently a teaching fellow in the Department of English at University College London, where she was previously a British Academy postdoctoral fellow.  Prior to that, she completed her doctorate at King’s College London.  Below, we discuss her first monograph, Melancholy and Literary Biography, 1640-1816, which developed in unexpected directions from her thesis and which was published by Palgrave earlier this year.

1) You write in your introduction that your initial interest was in aesthetic representations of melancholy. How did your project evolve towards focusing specifically on biographies?

Like most people, I imagine, I’m drawn to what is minor key and elegiac in art and literature.  And I’m always fascinated by details of the lives of writers, so many of whom seem to have suffered profoundly.  In my thesis I looked at a range of writers from Dr Johnson to Thomas Carlyle and tried to trace evolving medical ideas of melancholy (or hypochondria, as it was often termed) by looking at what their first biographers made of the condition.

2) The book’s two sections focus on periods of distinctly different lengths, the first examining the years 1640-1791 and the second the years around 1800. How did this particular division emerge during the course of your research?

Turning the thesis into a book was a longer and more complex business than I’d imagined (it took a total of four years).  I found myself thinking more about literary biography and asking myself different questions.  When did it emerge as a distinct genre?  And which writers particularly shaped the practice?  I realised I needed to go back to the seventeenth century for this, and this in turn necessitated a radical restructure.  The first half of the book then took the idea of which biographies Johnson would have known when he complained of the paucity of well-written literary lives.  Most books about biography tend to jump from Boswell to Elizabeth Gaskell, so I decided to make the focus of the second half four biographies written around 1800 (i.e. before a consensus developed about the familiar Victorian life-and-letters model).  My PhD chapters on Coleridge and Carlyle didn’t make the cut, but I added in Wollstonecraft, which proved really interesting.

3) To what extent were the biographers you examine drawing on generic understandings of melancholy, and to what extent were they remaking it through the prisms of their particular subjects?

Most of my biographers were self-confessed melancholics and so had both intellectual and personal reasons for exploring this strain in their subjects.  The only one who wasn’t seemed to be William Godwin.  I checked this with one of the great Godwin experts, Pamela Clemit, and she agreed he was just was unusual in not appeared to suffer too much.  I was curious, too, to see that Wollstonecraft herself uses the term ‘melancholy’ many times in her Letters from a Short Residence, but in her personal letters, which are steeped in misery, she rarely used it.

4) Are there particular works from among the biographies you’ve examined that you think deserve to be more widely read or which you think could be usefully added to undergraduate or postgraduate syllabi?

The truth is, not really.  Godwin’s Memoirs of Wollstonecraft has joined the canon alongside Boswell’s Life of Johnson, but Hayley’s Cowper and Currie’s Burns are more interesting for the debates they sparked off than for their own sakes.

5) What’s next for you?

After a long time on melancholy, I’ve turned my attention to comedy.  I’m co-editing a book of essays with Louise Lee at Roehampton on Victorian comedy.  I’m also writing a non-academic book about the extraordinary popularity of the Isle of Wight with Romantic and Victorian writers.