Early Lives

P.N. Furbank

  • The Inner I: British Literary Autobiography of the 20th Century by Brian Finney
    Faber, 286 pp, £14.95, September 1985, ISBN 0 571 13311 8

Brian Finney speaks of the study of autobiography as a ‘yawning gap’ in British scholarship. It is also, to judge from myself, a yawning gap in one’s own thoughts, which this is a good moment to try to fill. Finney has his own perspective, which is much concerned, first, with the ‘truth’ factor and attendant perceptual problems; secondly with autobiography as psychotherapy; and thirdly with the (large) function assigned to the reader by an autobiography. There is also an educational theme. Finney relates his deconversion as a teacher, but also as a critic and reader, from a ‘New Criticism’ faith, and tells us that as a teacher ‘I found myself quite naturally making increased use of autobiographical texts in courses in order to encourage students to seek a genuine, particularised point of contact between their lives and their experience of reading literature.’ It seems, in practice, though he does not say so, to have been only a partial deconversion. For what he found was that students – and not only students but some critics and scholars too – were in a state of primitive innocence with regard to autobiography such as, since the days of New Criticism, would hardly have been possible for them with regard to the novel. To put it bluntly, they wanted autobiographers to give us a true account of their past life, as well as to be decent and well-behaved citizens. ‘Only within the small circle of critics of the genre is it now a commonplace that an autobiography is likely to throw more light on the normally ageing autobiographer than on the earlier self about whom the book is ostensibly written.’ Finney describes this critical commonplace, very plausibly, as the ‘intrinsic paradox of the genre’, and proportions his praise of autobiographers to the degree to which they show themselves aware of it. His theory of the genre is a coherent one and is followed through with a good deal of resourcefulness and intelligent observation. I think there are certain things wrong with his theory, though not with this bit of it, but his is a valuable book and well worth arguing with.

On rereading his book, he found it less theoretical and more empirical than he had originally intended. Empirical to some degree, nevertheless, it could hardly help being, since criticism is at bottom an empirical activity, an extrapolation from the experience of finding certain things good. To sort out one’s own ideas on the subject, then, it might be sensible to examine a few autobiographies that one feels to be masterpieces. I shall choose Conrad’s A Personal Record, Sartre’s Les Mots and Yeats’s Reveries over Childhood and Youth, all of which receive some discussion in Finney’s book. As a group they suggest a rather large generalisation: that whereas the reader comes to a biography with certain definite expectations and is indignant if these are not fulfilled, the same is not true (or at least it ought not to be true) in the case of an autobiography. A biographer, like an architect, has to provide certain basic utilities – in the one case doors and windows and a heating-system, in the other chronology, genealogy and some documentation. For the autobiographer, on the other hand, there is no such clause in his contract, though – which is a different matter – he may be subject to certain codes of behaviour, may have an obligation towards ‘truth’ in some sense or other of that word.

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