Autobiographies: life writing at Churchill Archives Centre

22nd November 2021 in Archives Centre, Our Collections

Many of the sources scholars use for their research can be categorised as life writing. Broadly, life writing encompasses any source where someone reflects on their life. It could be their own, it could be that of a family member, friend or research subject.

Life writing takes many forms, from autobiographies, diaries, and letters to more unusual sources such as photo albums, scrapbooks, comics, or blogs.

Here at Churchill Archives Centre, thousands of life writing sources live on our shelves, awaiting their reader. This research guide, published over the course of a week, showcases the variety of material we have in our collections. This is by no means exhaustive, but a menu of life writing ready for your delectation and delight. Today, we start with autobiographies.

Autobiographies

Autobiographies are one of the most common forms of life writing, where individuals reflect on their lives in their own words. Sometimes people might write an autobiography on their whole life; others will just write on a specific episode which they deem important.

Lady Diana Cooper (1892-1986), aristocrat and socialite, published several autobiographies, documenting her experiences leading the society group ‘The Coterie’, working as a nurse during the First World War, embarking on a brief theatrical career, and supporting the work of her husband and ambassador Alfred Duff Cooper, 1st Viscount Norwich of Aldwick.

Churchill Archives holds Lady Diana’s literary papers, including those relating to her published autobiography. We also preserve a few shorter documents where Lady Diana writes on a specific topic of interest to her.

One of these topics is her friendship with French industrialist Commandant Paul-Louis Weiller, which started when she moved to France with Duff in 1944, when he became Ambassador to France.

When Lady Diana moved to France, she initially reflected on how she:

“was as green as a cabbage and knew really no French people at all. In those very early days after the liberation of Paris, there was constant whispering of the fearful word ‘collabo’”.

She met Weiller when he came to use the piano in their house. Reminiscing on the friendship years later, Cooper writes

“It is said that ‘friendship is love without wings’ but my long attachment to Paul-Louis had and has wings – not Cupid’s frail ones – but strong, protective, sheltering wings and I think we both wear them for the other.”

Find out more about:

Other autobiographies and memoirs within our collections:

Note 'On the Subject of Friendship'

An extract from Lady Diana Cooper's autobiographical material titled ’On the Subject of Friendship’. Source: GBR/0014/DIAC 3/12.

If we’ve whetted your appetite, then do get in touch to explore our collections.


archives@chu.cam.ac.uk

Looking for useful introductions for working with life writing? Here’s some of our favourites:

- Dobson, Miriam, and Benjamin Ziemann, eds. Reading primary sources: the interpretation of texts from nineteenth and twentieth century history. Routledge, 2020.

- Barber, Sarah, and Corinna Peniston-Bird, eds. History beyond the text: a student’s guide to approaching alternative sources. Routledge, 2013.

- Summerfield, Penny. Histories of the self: Personal narratives and historical practice. Routledge, 2018.

- Saunders, Valerie, "Life Writing". In Victorian Literature, (accessed 4 Aug. 2021).

By Cherish Watton, Archives Assistant.


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