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FOR THE FREE LANCE-STAR
AMODERN MONARCH whose enigmatic facade conceals an animated, hardworking professional.
A politician who worked for compromise in a bitterly divided legislature--2,000 years ago.
A religious leader alternately described as a spiritual inspiration and a licentious pirate.
Elizabeth II, Julius Caesar and Brigham Young are three of the lives that will be explored in the course of University of Mary Washington's 10th annual Chappell "Great Lives" lecture series. The popular run of free public talks brings the authors of recently published biographies of influential figures to town to speak about their subjects.
The series kicks off with Luther College classics professor Philip Freeman's talk on Julius Caesar on Thursday, Jan. 24, and concludes with "Madness and Greatness" by author Nassir Ghaemi (based on his book "A First-Rate Madness") on April 25.
In between, audiences will hear about everyone from Cleopatra to Marilyn Monroe, from Michelangelo to Winston Churchill. It's a lineup that series director and UMW professor emeritus Bill Crawley is extremely proud of.
"There are some very important figures covered and it's an interesting, diverse group of people," Crawley said. "Those who have seen the schedule have said it's maybe the best ever."
READING UP ON HISTORY
"Great Lives" began as--and still is--an academic course taught by Crawley, but its public appeal has grown so much that the talks have moved to increasingly larger venues, and are now held in UMW's 1,200-seat Dodd Auditorium.
Crawley attributes the series' success to the fact that humans are inherently interested in the lives of other people.
"Biographies are almost always among the best-selling nonfiction books," he said.
"I know that when I pick up the paper in the morning, I always like to read the obituaries," said Philip Freeman. "It sounds morbid, but I love to read about the life stories of people. I think everybody can probably relate to that. We're all living our lives, and it's fascinating to see how people lived theirs in the past."
Besides satisfying our innate curiosity about other people, biographies are an accessible way to learn about different historical eras.
"It's almost impossible to pick up a biography that doesn't shed light on the times in which the person lived," Crawley said.
"It's a very approachable form of history," explained John Turner, assistant professor of religious studies at George Mason University, who will speak about Brigham Young, a founder of the Mormon faith, on Feb. 7. "It invites narrative and drama and storytelling, and I think those are devices that allow people to imagine and mentally inhabit another time and place."
The biographical approach has value even for serious historians, said Brian Jay Jones, a "Great Lives" program affiliate and liaison between the series and the organization Biographers International.
"A prominent historian of the Civil War once said to me that there were things he wouldn't have known about the conflict had he not read Frederick Douglass' biography," Jones explained.
A FRESH PERSPECTIVE
Unearthing new facts about the subject's life or hidden aspects of his or her character is often the biographer's goal. This desire is what motivated Sally Bedell Smith to tackle her subject, Elizabeth II. (She will speak about the queen on Tuesday, April 7.)
When she met the British monarch in 2007, Bedell Smith was amazed by an extremely spirited conversation Elizabeth carried on with her husband about the Kentucky Derby.
"The two of them replayed the race going back and forth, and I was just transfixed," Bedell Smith said.
"What I saw was not the distant, stoic queen we think of, but someone incredibly animated and smiling and gesturing and her eyes were sparkling, and I thought 'Wow, this is a whole new view of the queen.'"
While it is unfortunately often the case that the more you delve into someone's life, the more you find to dislike about him or her, Bedell Smith said that she found the complete opposite to be true of Elizabeth.
"She has a very set image and is this very protected person, but the more I dug in and learned about how she goes about her job, what a pro she is, how she tackles all the elements of what truly is a real job--the more I found to admire," explained Bedell Smith.
Bedell Smith noted that she thinks people relish reading a fully realized and fresh perspective of someone so iconic.
"We live in a culture that over-saturates, that over-covers celebrities but on a very superficial level. If you take the time to take a deep dive, people appreciate it," she explained.
Julius Caesar is another figure so iconic--Alexander Hamilton called him "the greatest man that ever lived" --that a fully realized portrait of him often eludes biographers.
"There have been a lot of books about Caesar; there are several that come out each year," Philip Freeman said. "But they tend to be very technical, to look at some particular part of his life, like how Caesar ran the army in Gaul and what strategies he used. I wanted to try to put him in a very approachable sort of format, to tell his life as a story."
John Turner also found that previous biographies of his subject, Brigham Young, presented too many conflicting views of the Mormon leader.
"I found previous biographies bitterly divided between whether he was an inspiring spiritual leader or a licentious pirate, so I wanted to try to understand who he was for himself," Turner explained. "I found that he fell somewhere in between those two things."
GETTING THE STORY
All the authors agree that one of the keys to writing successful biographies is having access to great sources. Bedell Smith spent six months courting Buckingham Palace to get the cooperation of Elizabeth's public relations team (the queen herself never grants interviews). With the palace's backing, she was able to interview more than 200 sources with close ties to the queen, from members of her family to the trainers who work with the famous royal corgis to Helen Mirren, who played Elizabeth in the movie "The Queen."
Turner was able to read letters from some of Young's disgruntled wives (he had 55 of them), Young's early personal diaries and minutes from the excommunication trials of several Mormon church members.
"These were sources that nobody else had made full use of," he said. "Sifting through that mountain of material was the really fun part."
MEET LESSER-KNOWN FACES
Bill Crawley is pleased that, in addition to the major figures, this year's "Great Lives" series will give audiences a chance to become acquainted with equally influential figures who aren't household names.
One example is Bill Wilson.
"You'll ask 'Who is that?'" Crawley said. "Well, he's the person who founded Alcoholics Anonymous, an organization which has been helpful to millions of people."
"A good biography is a great life well-told," said Brian Jones, the liaison with Biographers International.
"A great life can even be a small life well-told. Everyone's got a compelling story."
"Everybody who's ever been alive has had the same 24-hour days but we all use them differently and it's just amazing," Freeman added.
Adele Uphaus-Conner is a Fredericksburg-area writer.