When is biography nonfiction? When is it fiction?

When is biography nonfiction?  When is it fiction?

Consider these lines from a recent biography of Cleopatra: 

  • “We can picture the queen on her bed, her curves rising with every breath, as she gazes at Antony confidently, intensely, invitingly, her full lips half open.”)

Or consider this description of Cleopatra about to bathe:

  • “First her calves disappear, then her harmonious thighs.”

These descriptions are taken from a just published English version of a biography of the Egyptian queen entitled Cleopatra: The Queen Who Challenged Rome and Conquered Eternity.


But is this book biography?  Do biographers have the right to imagine scenes which might have happened to historical figures when there is no written record of such scenes?  Is it okay for them to write of intimate details of lives when those intimate details—even if true—are lost to history?  Can we call such writing “biography?”

Like Angela, other contemporary writers are forsaking strict factual evidence when they write biographies, instead favoring imagined scenes, facial expressions, and dialog.  This is true especially for biographies of women about whom so little was written in the past.

Television is influencing this trend.  Consider The Crown, the Netflix series about Queen Elizabeth II.  So much of the conversation in this series is imagined by the show’s writers.  They admit that some of the scenes never happened.  Yet the producers refuse to add a disclaimer to say that the series is fiction.  The series deals with real people and with significant historical events.  But with so much of its contents imagined, is it nonfiction or fiction?

When is biography nonfiction?  When is it fiction?  We live in a time when we have become accustomed to governments and politicians lying to us.  Perhaps we now expect license with the truth.  Perhaps it is the new normal.

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