Biofiction, Heterobiography and the Ethics of Speaking of, for and as Another

Boldrini, Lucia. 2022. Biofiction, Heterobiography and the Ethics of Speaking of, for and as Another. Interdisciplinary Studies of Literature, 6(1), pp. 18-37. ISSN 2520-4920 [Article]

[img] Text
Boldrini-IAELC2019-FinalSept2021.pdf - Accepted Version
Permissions: Administrator Access Only
Available under License Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial.

Download (321kB)
Boldrini-ISL1-6-2022-Biofiction-Heterobiography-Ethics.pdf - Published Version

Download (1MB) | Preview

Abstract or Description

Novels that choose historical individuals as their protagonists – ‘biofiction’ (Buisine 1990; Middeke and Huber 1999; more recently Lackey 2016) or, especially in the case of first-person narration, ‘heterobiography’ (Boldrini 2012) – can be a powerful tool to reflect on historical and philosophical constructions of the human subject; on individual identity, its representations, its autonomy and/or relationality. Ethical questions are at the core of the form, insofar as it contends with the ethics of assuming another’s voice, of narrating another’s story, and therefore with the ethical implications of literary practices of representation. The historicity of that “another” sharpens the urgency of these questions, and also diffracts them into a myriad of related issues, including the different ethical horizons of distant historical times; the ethical duty of giving voice to those that have been historically silenced vs the ethical risk of speaking for (appropriating the voice of) another; the ethical dilemmas inherent in the disputed ownership of stories; the tension between individual and collective narratives; the potential violence of the demand of coherence intrinsic in narrativization; the inevitable gap between authorial words and lived life. This article examines these key question, illustrating them through the analysis of a range of textual examples narrated in the first and/or third person: Patricia Duncker’s 2015 Sophie and the Sibyl (in which the Sibyl of the title is the Victorian novelist George Eliot); Gavin McCrea’s 2015 Mrs Engels (narrated by Lizzie Burns, Friedrich Engels’ lover, partner and finally wife); Monica Truong’s 2003 The Book of Salt (narrated by ‘Binh’, a figure based on Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas’s Vietnamese cooks); and Susan Sontag’s 1992 The Volcano Lover (based on William Hamilton, collector and British Ambassador to the court of Naples in the 18th Century, his wife Emma, famous for her poses impersonating legendary figures, Admiral Horatio Nelson, and various other real and imaginary characters); the consideration of the latter also touches on Anna Banti’s Artemisia (1947), centred on the early modern painter Artemisia Gentileschi.

Item Type:



biofiction; heterobiography; ethics of representation; Patricia Duncker; Gavin McCrea; Monique Truong; Susan Sontag; Anna Banti

Related URLs:

Departments, Centres and Research Units:

English and Comparative Literature


3 September 2021Accepted
9 April 2022Published
24 April 2022Published Online

Item ID:


Date Deposited:

20 Sep 2021 13:28

Last Modified:

13 May 2022 14:29

Peer Reviewed:

Yes, this version has been peer-reviewed.


View statistics for this item...

Edit Record Edit Record (login required)