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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in