The Sappho of South Kensington (a novel); and Historical Research and Creative Invention in the Writing of Literary Biographical Fiction

Adele Ward

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis


This is a practice-based PhD, comprising creative and critical components. The creative component is a novel, The Sappho of South Kensington, based on the life of the poet, novelist and essayist Mary Elizabeth Coleridge. The novel incorporates new information about the protagonist, based on research into archival material. It covers her whole life and the period soon after her death, including the literary salon she set up, her development as a writer and her discovery and publication by Robert Bridges. The critical component is a study of contemporary novels in the literary biographical fiction genre, which have novelists and poets as major or minor characters. In it I discuss how authors have created fictional narratives from actual lives and how far they have permitted invention to fill the spaces left by biographical research in order to create fictional worlds populated by convincing characters. The critical component comprises four chapters, starting with a study of novels and shorter fiction which have used a high volume of research material to create a sense of historical accuracy. The authors of literary biographical fiction discussed in the first chapter include Michiel Heyns, David Lodge, Elizabeth Maguire, Cynthia Ozick, Emma Tennant and Colm Tóibín. In the second chapter, the focus is on fiction where the literary biographical novelist has opted for a high amount of invention, despite the protagonists being from the canon and well documented, leading to the creation of a completely or partially alternative history. The biographical novels discussed are by Jerome Charyn, Michael Cunningham, Andrew Motion and Emma Tennant. The third chapter considers novels that include an autobiographical element, as the novelists either knew the protagonists or included a fictionalised version of themselves in the narrative. The examples are by Julian Barnes and Emma Tennant. Chapter Four is a reflection on my practice when working on The Sappho of South Kensington, taking into account the ways the literary biographical fiction discussed in the first three chapters of the critical component helped my writing process and influenced my work in the same genre.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Motion, Andrew, Supervisor
  • Roberts, Adam, Supervisor
  • Hampson, Robert, Supervisor
  • Markovits, Ben, Supervisor
  • Jones, Susanna, Supervisor
Publication statusUnpublished - 2023


  • biographical fiction
  • historical fiction
  • New Women
  • 19th century
  • Mary Coleridge
  • Colm Tóibín
  • Julian Barnes
  • Jerome Charyn
  • Nuala O'Connor
  • Virginia Woolf
  • Michael Cunningham
  • Emma Tennant
  • Sylvia Plath
  • Ted Hughes
  • Henry James
  • Thomas Mann
  • Emily Dickinson
  • Cynthia Ozick
  • Michiel Heyns
  • Robert Bridges
  • Andrew Motion
  • David Lodge
  • Elizabeth Maguire
  • John Keats
  • Arthur Conan Doyle
  • George Edalji
  • HG Wells
  • Practice-based PhD
  • practice-based research

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