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Park Honan; biographer redefined authors’ lives, at 86

Mr. Honan’s “Jane Austen: Her Life” revealed details about her extended family.
Mr. Honan’s “Jane Austen: Her Life” revealed details about her extended family.(Oxford University Press)

NEW YORK — Park Honan, an American biographer whose prodigious research opened new vistas on the family history of some of Britain’s greatest literary figures and reshaped modern views about their personalities, died Sept. 27 in Leeds, England. He was 86.

The cause was liver cancer.

Mr. Honan wrote five major biographies in the last four decades, including books on Jane Austen and William Shakespeare. Most were considered high-water marks in scholarship about their subjects.

He was the coauthor, with William Irvine, of a 1974 biography of Robert Browning that was described by Anthony Burgess in The New York Times Book Review as the best in the field, unlikely to be surpassed “for a decade at least.”

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Mr. Honan taught English at Connecticut College and Brown University before moving in 1968 to England, where he became a professor of American and English literature at the University of Leeds. Until 1993, he taught a full course load while researching his books, each of which took as long as 10 years to complete.

His last published book, “Christopher Marlowe: Poet and Spy,” (2005), documented and parsed the evidence suggesting that the untimely death at 29 of Marlowe, Shakespeare’s rakish contemporary and author of three acclaimed plays, may have been related to his work as a government agent for Queen Elizabeth I. (He was probably recruited while a student at Cambridge, where the royals went to get most of their spies, Mr. Honan wrote.)

Though his writing was aimed at general readers, his books were praised by scholars for giving historical context and for uncovering previously unknown information.

For his biography of Shakespeare, Mr. Honan unearthed evidence that young William was not as poorly educated as widely believed.

Hobart Park Honan was born in Utica, N.Y.

He received a bachelor’s degree and a master’s in English at the University of Chicago.

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