Biographies, they wrote

The UK's first centre devoted to the skills of biographical research opened this week

By Lucy Hodges
Thursday 14 November 2002 01:00

History may be dying a slow death in the schools, but in some universities it is thriving. One such is Queen Mary, University of London, where a new centre was opened this week concentrating on historical biography, diaries and correspondence.

Thought to be the only centre in the country that teaches the skills for researching biography, it was launched with the help of a clutch of big-name historians – Dr Amanda Foreman, author of Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire; Professor Ben Pimlott, biographer of the Queen and the Labour leader Harold Wilson; and Dr David Starkey, the Tudor specialist. "Our launch celebrates the way in which serious academic and high-profile general historical writing can nowadays stand side by side," says Professor Lisa Jardine (above), the centre's director and the author of books on Sir Christopher Wren and Sir Francis Bacon. "We are an institution devoted to saving the skills that are the lifeblood of biography. These are the skills of archive and research, reading early handwriting, dating and locating manuscripts and the online skills needed to put those materials into the public domain."

Funded with £1.25m, some of it from the Arts and Humanities Research Board, the centre is a world-class facility for large and small-scale London-based editing projects. It offers full and part-time Masters' degrees in editing lives and letters – a unique research qualification in the United Kingdom, ideal for people who work with documentary materials, from archival historians and librarians to editors of scholarly editions and writers of historical biographies.

The only other Masters in this field is one in literary biography taught by Richard Holmes at the University of East Anglia. That programme teaches the writing of biography. "We're teaching the skills that are going out of style," Professor Jardine says.

At this week's opening, Professor Jardine debated with Professor Pimlott on the topic: "What is biography now?" A masterclass followed, sponsored by BBC History Magazine and led by Dr Starkey, which discussed ideas about the representation of historical figures. During that session Dr Starkey outlined his methods of historical research.

Dr Amanda Foreman gave the inaugural HarperCollins biography lecture, which explored the techniques and practices behind historical biographical research and writing as used in Georgiana, and in her forthcoming book on the British volunteers who fought in the American Civil War.

At the same event Dr Alan Stewart, the centre's associate director, hosted an open reading group to discuss one of the key figures in the history of biography, Sidney Lee. To accompany these events were two exhibitions showing the centre's archives.

You can log on to the website of the Centre for Editing Lives and Letters at

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