Alison Booth

For a recent paper on CBW, a theory of nonfiction narrative, and networks of lives, see

You may click on the pdf link for “Toward a Theory of Nonfiction Narratives in Social Networks,” the first of potential Related Research papers to “illustrate” its points with search results from the database or visualization tools.  Here I share text from “About”

What is CBW?

Collective Biographies of Women (CBW), an open-access project directed by Alison Booth, has developed with the generous collaboration and support of the English Department, the Scholars’ Lab, and the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities at the University of Virginia.  In 2014, an American Council of Learned Societies Digital Innovation Fellowship supports Booth’s research leave and project expenses. Collaborators include IATH Director Worthy Martin, Associate Director Daniel Pitti, IATH staff Doug Ross, Robbie Bingler, and Sarah Wells; Scholars’ Lab colleagues Bethany Nowviskie, Joe Gilbert, Wayne Graham, and others; postdoctoral Project Manager Rennie Mapp; narrative theorist Suzanne Keen (Washington & Lee); graduate and undergraduate research assistants and interns (see acknowledgments).

It is:

  • An annotated bibliography of more than 1270 books that collect three or more short biographies of women only; the exhaustive list covers 1830-1940, with a range of publications before and after those dates.
  • A database of historical women: we pinpoint more than 8600 individuals, interconnecting versions of their lives and linking to further information about them.
  • An experiment in narrative interpretation with digital tools: Selecting books that have a certain woman in common, we assemble page images, digitized TEI texts, and encoded abstracts of elements in these texts (locating the element types at the paragraph level).  See BESS, below.  With sets of analyses of interrelated narratives, we contribute to post-classical narratology.
  • A pioneering study of biography and prosopography: narrative studies have focused on individual works of fiction (in print or visual media) far more than they have considered the difference of nonfiction.  In life narrative, more scholarship has concerned first-person writing than third-person.
  • Linked to a book:

The online bibliography expanded upon the research in a monograph, Alison Booth’s How to Make It as a Woman: Collective Biographical History from Victoria to the Present (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004).

It is: a feminist literary study

            but it’s not a study of women writers of poetry or fiction

Consulting and potentially collaborating with important digital projects on women writers, CBW is a tool for studying the history of women of all occupations, insofar as their lives were narrated in print.  Women writers are frequent subjects in collections of biographies after 1750. Certain women specialized in compiling biographical histories of women such as queens of England or women of the American Revolution. But presenters were more often men than women.

It is: a study of narratives about real lives

            but it’s not a study of autobiographies or memoirs by women

 It is: a textual project involving teams of editors in XML markup

            but it’s not an online edition of a canonical author or corpus

Our method is a kind of mid-range reading because it is quantitative at a certain scale, comparing many versions of biographies of individuals and within books or social categories.  The methods of distant reading could also reveal patterns in this selective archive of texts.  These books, by more than 1000 writers, cut and paste from previous sources and reword or reprint.  We document trends in telling these women’s lives rather than striving for authoritative editions.  To do this, we assemble sets of books that feature a single woman, which we call sample archives, and we analyze the narratives in these sample archives using the BESS schema.

What is a sample corpus? Here are the names of the “nodes” or personae who are the focus of networks formed by the books in which they appear; the listed types indicate the very common female roles in which biographies usually cast these women:

Sister Dora, saintly nurse (20 books that include a biography of her),

Lola Montez, adventuress (in 14 books, never sharing a volume with Sister Dora),

Cleopatra, classical, mistress, queen (in 29 books, three of which include Lola),

Charlotte Corday, Frenchwoman, revolution, assassin (21 books; she overlaps                               with Cleopatra but not Lola),

Caroline Herschel, sister, scientist (25 books, three of which include Dora),

Frances Trollope, mother, novelist, traveler (9—a writer who does not appear in                           Dora books)

 What is BESS?

Biographical Elements and Structure Schema

an XML stand-aside schema that tags at the level of the paragraph.  A team of editors creates separate XML files resembling abstracts of these short narratives (3-120 paragraphs).  This allows us to compare versions of the same life across decades, and diverse lives in the same collection or the same social categories, and will build a kind of morphology of biography comparable to the structural narratology of Propp and others who studied the “functions” of the folktale.  The elements of BESS:

  • StageOfLife (which parts of the text narrate events in different phases of the persona’s life?);
  • Events (with AgentTypes, Locations, dates, etc.);
  • Discourse (which includes narrative technique, figures of speech, quotation of other texts, etc.);
  • Persona Description (how are these exemplary or “bad” women characterized in versions at different historical periods?); and
  • Topos (this is an element for identifying scenarios or typical structures such as “influence” or “recognition” that underlie the overt action).

Editors choose from a controlled vocabulary of types of these elements.

What is prosopography?

Collective biography can be called prosopography (that is, persona-writing).  Prosopography has been an effective way to assemble representative personalities in social, historical, or vocational categories such as the learned men of Oxford, the founders of the United States, prominent Asian Americans, engineers.  It is always a partial selection, but it can be a tool for acknowledging marginal groups as well as elites.  Modern biographical collections owe a debt to classical “parallel lives” and hagiography (collected saints’ legends).  Classic prosopography is a research method, primarily in the field of history, to quantify standardized data about the lives of individuals in groups.  CBW relates to other databases of prosopography, but we study the rhetoric and form of the books that were published about historical women in recent centuries rather than reconstructing the actual persons in their historical contexts.

 What is a documentary social network?

We examine a complex rhetorical communication in words and images, from presenters (biographers, editors, illustrators, publishers) to subjects, the historical individuals as portrayed in the texts, to audience, that is, the readers implied or addressed by the presenters as well as the actual people encountering the books.

What kinds of women appear in these collections?

In 1640 Thomas Heywood presented Nine of the Most Worthy Women of the World, three Jews, three Gentiles, and three Christians. A hundred years later, such a legendary world history had been superseded by national traditions of well-documented women, as in George Ballard’s Memoirs of Several Ladies of Great Britain (1752). Collections might mix women writers and scholars with queens and aristocrats, women associated with great men, performers, visual artists, and women who participated in wars and religious movements.  As publishing expanded from the early 1800s, collections of short biographies added engraved portraits and adopted techniques of evidence from histories and of realistic narration from novels. From the later nineteenth century, publishers increasingly found it worthwhile to produce collections of less famous heroines of missionary work, social reform, or those identified by race or region (Ruth Reed’s The Negro Women of Gainesville, Georgia [1926]).  As new careers for women emerged, biographical collections featured women in medicine, business, academia, design (from fashion to landscape architecture), and in due course, journalism, film, aviation, sports, and others.  In the eighteenth century and again after about 1880, scandalous celebrities or adventuresses attracted readers to Queens of Crime as well as Queens of Society.  Many nationalities and some social diversity are represented in books in the English language, published primarily in Britain and the United States.

Unexpected models for gender roles, and astounding access to forgotten as well as famous women. Studies of nineteenth-century advice literature or novels for the most part presume that these texts endorse conservative gender ideology. The nonfiction books gathered in this project do tend to dictate a different destiny for women than men—in their prefaces or narrative asides. But in part because the biographical and historical narratives have some factual fidelity to noteworthy actions, personalities, and circumstances, these narratives stretch what twenty-first-century readers have come to expect of proper women in the past. The standards of feminine conduct are waived for the saints, queens, politicians, warriors, nurses, writers, assassins, mistresses, explorers, artists, reformers, farmers, entrepreneurs, celebrities, educators, and mothers, wives, or sisters of famous men—all types of “women in all ages and all countries,” as a common phrase puts it.

Most women have gone missing in history and have no printed memorial. The Anglo-American catalogues in CBW tended to exclude all but the rare working woman, woman of color, or woman who did not belong to the Christian middle class of English descent. Religious nonconformists and various minorities nevertheless began to use this tool of recognition. The collections camouflage or accept some examples of diverse sexuality and same-sex relationships and many examples of single or old women. It is high-ranking women who pursue heterosexual affairs who get censured in these books—but not always with much conviction. Some books celebrate opposites of the “good woman” type. The limitations of the lists—and any canons or lists—notwithstanding, CBW challenges some assumptions about the lack of records of women in the past and about the enforced codes of conduct.