Rachel Bowlby was born in Billingham-on-Tees and grew up there and in Croydon and Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. She was a student at Oxford and then at Yale, where she studied Comparative Literature and wrote a thesis on novels about department stores. This became her first book, Just Looking, and she has since written several more books on consumer culture, including Carried Away: The Invention of Modern Shopping, about the history of self-service and supermarkets. Shopping with Freud explored some connections between psychoanalysis and consumer psychology, a field which arose at the same time as psychoanalysis. Two more books have also looked at changing psychological and literary notions of selfhood: Still Crazy After All These Years: Women, Writing and Psychoanalysis and, most recently, Freudian Mythologies: Greek Tragedy and Modern Identities.
Another abiding interest is in realism, both as a specific historical movement in the nineteenth century, and as an ongoing question about how different stories with different assumptions about characters and possibilities come to count as plausible—in the stories we tell in and of ‘real life’, as well as in literature proper. From another angle, this is the same question that interests Rachel in relation to changing theories of consumer behaviour and the new prominence, in public discourse, of a model of consumerly ‘choice’ as equivalent to something like individual rights; it is also bound up with the way that psychoanalysis participates in its own particular conceptions of personal identity and typical story. A book on Virginia Woolf, Feminist Destinations, led to a World’s Classics edition of Woolf’s spoof biography Orlando.
Rachel Bowlby also has a long-standing interest in literary theory, and has translated a number of books by contemporary French philosophers, including Jacques Derrida’s Of Hospitality and Paper Machine. She has taught at universities in France and the United States as well as in England, where she is currently based at University College London.