An English Vice

Bernard Bergonzi

  • The Turning Key: Autobiography and the Subjective Impulse since 1800 by Jerome Hamilton Buckley
    Harvard, 191 pp, £12.75, April 1984, ISBN 0 674 91330 2
  • The Art of Autobiography in 19th and 20th-Century England by A.O.J. Cockshut
    Yale, 222 pp, £10.95, September 1984, ISBN 0 300 03235 8

In parts of our literary culture the idea of the self is derided as a bourgeois fabrication, ripe for deconstruction. But most readers remain very attached to selves, their own and other people’s, and like reading about them in biographies and autobiographies. Such books are evidently popular with publishers, and accounts of them regularly fill the review columns of the Sunday papers. But the idea of the self may be less simple than naive readers imagine; the writer of an autobiography may be not so much expressing a self as creating one in the process of writing his book, a point made in these two new studies of autobiography. It was once regarded as just as much a form of literature as poetry or fiction, but with the institutionalising of literary study it has been comparatively neglected by academic critics. Roy Pascal’s Design and Truth in Autobiography, published nearly twenty-five years ago, remains an indispensable pioneering work; more recently John Pilling’s Autobiography and Imagination provided some interesting studies of particular autobiographies by eminent Anglophone or Continental writers but without much discussion of the nature of autobiographical form. Jerome Hamilton Buckley and A.O.J. Cockshut take the discussion further, in complementary studies of developments since 1800.

After a brief backward glance to St Augustine and 17th-century writers of spiritual self-examination like Bunyan and Sir Thomas Browne, Buckley focuses on the Romantic emergence of what he calls the ‘subjective impulse’, with Rousseau and Wordsworth as the founders of autobiography as we know it, where the interest is in the exploration of the self for its own sake, and not for the spiritual lessons which may be learnt from looking back over one’s past life. Buckley makes the useful historical point that the word ‘autobiography’ is an early 19th-century neologism; and that, notwithstanding the seminal influence of Rousseau, the form seems to have been regarded as largely English. He cites a definition from a French dictionary published in 1866 which describes ‘autobiography’ as a word of English origin referring to a kind of writing commonly practised in England but rare in France.

Buckley is more interested in the ‘subjective impulse’ as a cultural phenomenon, reflecting a great increase in self-consciousness in society, than in autobiography as a distinctive literary form. He therefore casts his net widely, taking in autobiographical novels and confessional poetry as well as autobiography proper. He looks at a lot of texts, but at none very closely, and the result is comprehensive but superficial, like a rapid tour of a large museum or gallery. Interesting points are made on the way, some of which are more adequately developed by Cockshut: for instance, that autobiography is both calculated self-portraiture and unintentional self-betrayal; that the liveliest chapters of many autobiographies are about childhood; and that in Late Victorian autobiographical writing – as by Wilde or George Moore or Edmund Gosse – a new note of deliberate self-dramatisation appears. In places, Buckley engages in unacceptable oversimplification. He argues, for instance, that Sons and Lovers and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man are autobiographical novels of a broadly similar kind, dependent for intelligibility on a knowledge of their biographical contexts and sources, and less good than Dickens’s earlier version of the same thing: ‘Neither book is as variegated and inventive as David Copperfield, as independent of materials outside the fiction.’ Such a sweeping summary does not suggest a very rigorous reading of Lawrence or Joyce, or of Dickens for that matter, and Buckley does not have the space to substantiate it. His book is informative and readable, but relaxed to the point of blandness; it is occasionally enlivened by some sniping at the beastlier forms of latterday self-exposure, as compared with the noble Wordsworthian balance between self and society.

Cockshut begins with Wordsworth by quoting 30 lines from Book Seven of The Prelude as the first of his several epigraphs, though he avoids a simple chronological movement from high Romanticism up to modern times. Unlike Buckley he is concerned only with autobiography as a specific genre. Cockshut is an urbane and somewhat disdainfully self-sufficient writer who, after an initial quotation from Roy Pascal, refers to hardly any critics at all (very much in contrast to Buckley, whose book is well wadded with endnotes in the American academic manner). He would seem far removed from any hint of structuralist or formalist affiliation. Yet he deals with his texts in a firmly synchronic manner, looking for underlying patterns and regularities in the forms of autobiography, regardless of author or period. This approach is broadly in line with classical structuralist analyses of narrative form. Cockshut even seems confident that he can detect a fundamental ‘autobiographicalness’, rather akin to the Russian formalists’ concern with ‘literariness’. He distinguishes between memoirs, where the interest is mainly in other people, and autobiography, where it is focused on the self. True autobiography answers, even if it does not always consciously ask, the question: ‘How did I become what I am?’ By way of control and definition, he begins with a chapter on three writers who do not quite achieve this note of ultimate self-discovery, though they have many of the secondary qualities of good autobiography: articulateness, truth to the minutiae of experience, and immense curiosity. These are Boswell, Harriet Wilson, and Byron in his letters and journals.

Much of Cockshut’s book is taken up with the autobiographical treatment of childhood. As he emphasises, childhood experience is never ‘as it happened’, but always as the mature autobiographer shapes and presents it: ‘Events which have seemed trivial at the time may be stressed if they are found long after to have been prophetic’ He develops his analysis in a series of categories which are not so complex as to defy intelligibility, or so numerous as to invite Occam’s razor. They cover a wide range of 19th and 20th-century examples, not all by writers of major standing; the diachronic decencies are preserved by an initial chronological table which shows the years of birth of each of the writers discussed, and the publication dates of their autobiographies. Representative chapters include ‘The Child Alone’, which deals with the autobiographies of W.H. Hudson, Forrest Reid, Eleanor Farjeon, Christopher Milne and Lord Berners, and ‘The Child at Home’, discussing Victor Gollancz, Augustus Hare, Stephen Spender, Winifred Foley and Neville Cardus. These categories are speculative instruments rather than immutable structures, and they might give way if pressed too hard: but they provide a genuinely helpful way of organising the material. Cockshut vigilantly probes at the texts, in contrast to Buckley, who tends to slide over them, and on the books which they both discuss, such as Ruskin’s Praeterita and Edwin Muir’s Autobiography, he is consistently more interesting. Cockshut is an acute close reader, able to seize on a word or phrase and relate it to the design of the book.

Despite his careful attention to form and structure and words, he is finally and perhaps inevitably drawn to the human quality which makes autobiography, whether it is personal or social. Praeterita is one of the books that most deeply concern him, and he comes to a finely balanced conclusion about it: ‘the deep irony of the whole story is that the consecrated child, nurtured to be a genius, really was a great genius, but yet the nurturing of him to be a genius maimed and disabled him. This is the central idea of the whole work, breathing unspoken in every line. It has a tragic grandeur.’ Cockshut is interested in the crises of deconversion and conversion. He finds a pattern in Victorian autobiographies, such as those of Ruskin and Gosse, of a painful severance with the repressive Protestant pieties of home and family. He writes particularly well on these accounts, as he does on some of the classical autobiographies of positive conversion, such as Newman’s Apologia, and those 20th-century examples which trace an individual movement towards Christianity, like Muir’s Autobiography and C.S. Lewis’s Surprised by Joy. He remarks, in the quietly authoritative tone that characterises his book: ‘Muir’s childhood is at once the shortest and the most dominant of all those known to me in the literature of autobiography.’ He is exceptionally interesting on the more obviously tormented personality of C.S. Lewis, whom he sees as being in revolt, not just against Protestantism or fathers or schoolmasters, as in earlier versions, but against life itself. Eventually Lewis found his way to Anglican Christianity, but the whole of his career was marked by a tension between rationality and a profound longing for a lost sense of joy. Cockshut’s few incisive pages on Lewis provide a clue to the understanding of that large but puzzling literary figure.

Cockshut writes in his conclusion that the greatest autobiographies ‘are controlled by a leading idea, a pattern strong in its simplicity, but endlessly hospitable in receiving detail’. Something rather like this is true of his own book.