I now, I then

Thomas Keymer

  • A History of English Autobiography edited by Adam Smyth
    Cambridge, 437 pp, £64.99, June 2016, ISBN 978 1 107 07841 3

You could say that in literature you don’t really have a genre until you have a name for it – and the word ‘autobiography’, it turns out, hasn’t been around for very long. In 1786, the labouring-class poet Ann Yearsley (‘Lactilla’, from her day job selling milk) published a memoir in which she berated her patron, the evangelical abolitionist Hannah More, for embezzling the proceeds of Yearsley’s own Poems on Several Occasions. Scholars have been repeating for decades that Yearsley called this trenchant narrative an ‘autobiographical memoir’, but apparently without checking – she didn’t. For the earliest verified usage, we have to wait for the scholar-critic William Taylor in 1797, and even he had his doubts. He disliked ‘self-biography’, coined the previous year by Isaac D’Israeli, because ‘it is not very usual in English to employ hybrid words partly Saxon and partly Greek: yet autobiography would have seemed pedantic.’ Pedantic or not, ‘autobiography’ was the one that stuck. Taylor was notorious for his neologisms, which now place him among the Oxford English Dictionary’s hundred most frequently cited authorities (one spot ahead of John Donne) for the earliest evidence of a word. He probably got this one from the German; it doesn’t seem to show up in French until 1820.

Soon autobiography was everywhere, and not in a good way. Or so it seemed to the editors of the Quarterly Review, who, as early as 1809, were fretting about ‘an epidemical rage for auto-biography’ infecting English writing. In previous generations, when only the lives of great men mattered, there was ‘little danger of our having too much autobiography’, John Gibson Lockhart, the Quarterly’s editor, protested in 1827. But now ‘England expects every driveller to do his Memorabilia.’ The democratisation of autobiography is one of the running themes of Adam Smyth’s revelatory history of the genre, from the radical sectaries of the Civil War era to the volunteer diarists of Mass-Observation three hundred years later. But Carlyle, like Lockhart, wasn’t cheering at the arrival of what he called, in 1831, ‘these Autobiographical times of ours’.

Autobiography was also a phenomenon of high Romanticism, albeit uneasily so. If we follow the once standard definition established by the French critic Philippe Lejeune in 1989 – a ‘retrospective prose narrative produced by a real person concerning his own existence, focusing on his individual life, in particular on the development of his personality’ – works like The Prelude, Biographia Literaria and Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage are clearly less than this, and in other ways a great deal more. Wordsworth sets aside ‘outward things/Done visibly’ to focus on consciousness in all its fluidity. Coleridge’s subtitle for Biographia Literaria (‘Biographical Sketches of My Literary Life and Opinions’) calls to mind the chaos of Sterne’s Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, and ‘opinions’ soon crowd out ‘life’ as we might understand it. The memoirs left by Byron at his death were destroyed by his publisher John Murray, who thought them too shocking for print, which only caused readers to redouble their efforts to detect autobiography in Childe Harold. Each work has ambitions transcending the typically quotidian concerns of autobiographical realism. Yet subjectivity is central to them all, and all wrestle in sophisticated ways with the fundamental questions raised by autobiographical writing: about the coherence of identity, the play of memory, the gap between narrating and narrated selves and the capacity of language to capture personal experience. All converge on the problem of ineffability: on the inner life as territory that in Childe Harold ‘outstrips our faint expression’ and in The Prelude ‘lies far hidden from the reach of words’.

Behind this inward turn lies Rousseau’s Confessions, which made ‘moi seul’ a new literary subject. Posthumously published in the 1780s, and rapidly translated into English, Rousseau’s work promised a transparent, authentic revelation of subjectivity. There’s no doubting the impact of the Confessions on Wordsworth’s Prelude, and for Lockhart it was also to blame for the outpour of plebeian autobiography a generation later, now that artisans as much as aristocrats ‘must needs leave confessions behind them, as if they were so many Rousseaus’. Hazlitt read the Confessions in French, and took their mode to scandalous extremes in Liber Amoris, a scarcely veiled account of his doomed infatuation with a two-timing teenager, much of it presented documentary style (intimate letters, transcribed conversations) with a minimum of authorial mediation. Thomas De Quincey invited comparison with Rousseau in Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, but relinquished Rousseau’s sense of personal control. The opium becomes a rival protagonist of his story, almost at times a rival author. It strips away the ‘veil between our present consciousness and the secret inscriptions on the mind’ and opens the narrative, in proto-psychoanalytic ways, to dream and unreason.

De Quincey sees how strange it is to use an inherited literary model to express one’s own uniqueness, and at one point wonders if he might not in fact be ‘counterfeiting my own self’. Later autobiographers drew on other models, customised in more or less knowing ways. John Henry Newman regretted ‘being obliged to adopt the language of books’ when describing his experience of evangelical conversion, as his feelings at the time ‘were so different from any account I have ever read’. Yet the conversion narrative as it emerged from early modern puritanism was flexible and enabling, in the way it explained lives as struggle, revelation and quest. In his Autobiography, John Stuart Mill narrates his transformative encounter with utilitarianism with all the fervour of Bunyan reading Luther on Galatians: ‘Yet in the first pages of Bentham it burst upon me with all the force of novelty … I now had opinions, a creed, a doctrine, a philosophy; in one among the best senses of the word, a religion.’

But it was a more dispassionate mode of autobiography that contributed to the genre’s increasing respectability. Even works written for posthumous publication like those of Harriet Martineau and Anthony Trollope were sparing in their attention to the inner life. Documenting social or professional activity, they channelled their ideas about identity into a Bildungsroman-style plot of maturation. Victorianists sometimes talk in this context of a classical res gestae model,a circumstantial recording of action and event that understands identity in terms of social, economic and professional engagement, not subjective isolation. Other scholars talk about ‘relational autobiography’ as an alternative to earlier autonomous individualism, and in a penetrating chapter on Henry James, Max Saunders explores how James’s memoir-writing affected his novel-writing: his recognition that ‘really, universally, relations stop nowhere, and the exquisite problem of the artist is eternally but to draw … the circle within which they shall happily appear to do so.’ This circumscription, in the series of autobiographical texts that James began in 1913 with A Small Boy and Others, involves form as much as content, as the narrative moves into the experience of other selves when they impact on James’s own. At one point James acknowledges receiving from his brother’s letters ‘a fuller enrichment of my consciousness than it owed for the time to any other single source’. To narrate individual consciousness requires equal attention to the individuals that surround it.

But what if the self is not only relational but also plural? Influential accounts of the genre like Laura Marcus’s Auto/biographical Discourses (1994) have emphasised the way identity seemed to fracture in literary modernism. The story is now familiar, but it’s told by the later contributors to Smyth’s volume (including Marcus herself) in new ways, and with fresh examples: Katherine Mansfield’s scepticism about ‘our persistent yet mysterious belief in a self which is continuous and permanent’; Louis MacNeice’s wry sense that ‘as far as I can make out, I not only have many different selves, but I am often, as they say, not myself at all.’ In Virginia Woolf’s remarkable ‘A Sketch of the Past’, drafted as she wrote her biography of Roger Fry, the gap between narrating and narrated selves – ‘the two people, I now, I then’ – proves recalcitrant and persistent, refusing to close. In any case, the self Woolf sought to document was not so much subject as object: not a self-determining agent but ‘the person to whom things happen’, acted on by immense, inscrutable social forces. To consider these forces, their power and their invisibility, is to realise ‘how futile life-writing becomes’, Woolf writes: ‘I see myself as a fish in a stream; deflected; held in place; but cannot describe the stream.’

What, on terrain like this, is the autobiographer to do? Perhaps simply set all scruples aside for the sake of getting the job done. Maud Ellmann recounts the imperviableness of several pioneering psychoanalysts to the implications for narrative of their own theories, which emphasise fracture, upheaval, trauma and neurosis over the conscious processes of mental life and the orderly development of personality through time. In his ‘Autobiographical Study’ of 1925, Freud serenely reports his education, professional achievements and growing stature as a psychoanalyst, revealing his inner life or formative experiences only, Ellmann writes, ‘by way of omission and ellipsis’. Novelists and poets were sometimes more willing to pursue the implications of fragmented, multiple, or mobile selfhood, not least, Marcus shows, by preferring autobiographical fiction to straight memoir. By multiplying narrative perspectives and creative ambiguities, fictional works like Sons and Lovers or Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage sequence could reflect the plasticity of self with less risk of falsification.

Smyth opens the volume determined to resist the condescension of posterity: in this case, the tendency of prior histories of autobiography to spin a Whiggish tale about progress from ham-fisted early modern foundation-laying to modern or postmodern sophistication. There’s no upward curve from early naivety about subjectivity and its forms of expression to modern knowingness and play. But evolutionary narratives are persistent things, and not every contributor fights them off. In the final chapter on social media and conceptions of self in the digital age, Andreas Kitzmann makes an eloquent case for the changes made to subjectivity by digital forms of documentation, driven as much by the algorithms of social media as by the agency (or narcissism) of users. The stable, richly internalised, self-directed subject of traditional autobiography is a phenomenon of manuscript and print. Now the Enlightenment self invented by Rousseau gives way to the fragmented construct of the Facebook timeline: a kind of posthuman self, networked and distributed, a complex, provisional collaboration between user self-representation and algorithmic play that has power to shape the self IRL. For Kitzmann, this isn’t to be deplored, but welcomed as a bracing displacement of the autonomous ‘I’. Good riddance, not before time, to a hoary old humanist fiction.


Yet was every autobiographer before the Zuckerberg Galaxy such a hopeless dunce, mindlessly wedded to the heroic self and the explanatory power of retrospection? That’s clearly not the story Smyth wants to tell, and he has no time for what he calls ‘an excited rhetoric of digital newness’ in which continuities with manuscript and print are passed over. While he doesn’t deny that means influence form, he also insists ‘that autobiography, in its widest sense, is not an exclusively modern, post-Romantic phenomenon, but a way of writing and reading that has a much richer, longer history’. It’s a way of writing, moreover, that was always self-conscious, not just in the usual token cases (Grace Abounding, Augustine’s Confessions) but in the many early examples that problematise the act of turning self into text. On inspection – and here is the driving argument of Smyth’s volume – the modern or postmodern dismantling of autobiographical hubris turns out to have a compelling prehistory. Woolf’s term ‘life-writing’, widely preferred to ‘autobiography’ these days for the way it includes everything from diaries and letters to commonplace books and marginalia, was used in the 18th century for the same expansive purpose. Pioneering novels gave intricate expression to autobiographical matter – in Robinson Crusoe Defoe uses the isolation of the shipwreck to express his sense of ‘a Life of Wonders in continu’d Storms’. In particular, Crusoe’s castaway experience reflects Defoe’s years as a dissident journalist and political prisoner: ‘a State of forc’d Confinement, which in my real History is represented by a confin’d Retreat in an Island … one kind of Imprisonment by another’. Tristram Shandy, with its discontinuities, indeterminacies and episodes of narrative impasse, remains unequalled as a meditation on the impossibility of autobiography. ‘Don’t puzzle me, said I,’ Tristram says when a hostile stranger asks who he is.

Sterne was no philosopher, but he had read Hume and took up, in Tristram Shandy, the challenge to integral selfhood set out in his Treatise. Another philosopher might have looked within and discovered ‘something simple and continued, which he calls himself’, but Hume found ‘nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement’. When Hume came to write ‘My Own Life’ on his deathbed, however, he talked of himself in terms of ‘natural temper’ and ‘ruling passion’, not unlike Freud. But there are also moments of pointed artifice. In its resolutely laconic (indeed cheerful) context, the abrupt shift of tenses in Hume’s closing paragraph is among the most dramatic moments of Enlightenment autobiography: ‘To conclude historically with my own character, I am, or rather was (for that is the style I must now use in speaking of myself, which emboldens me the more …)’.

Life-writing in the broadest sense was flourishing long before Hume and Sterne, and encompassed a bewildering range of conceptions of self. Most easily recognisable as seamless, richly internalised self-description is the 17th-century mode of spiritual autobiography, recording the struggles of the soul through sin to redemption (usually with much backsliding along the way). But spiritual autobiography disguised group affirmation as agonised introspection in a narrative that could reinforce the identities of marginalised sects and inspire godly readers to follow their example. Other puritan texts show subjectivity in medias res, never reaching definition. In the published prophecies of Anna Trapnel, authenticity and chronology were not the same: ‘And though I fail in an orderly penning down these things, yet not in a true Relation.’ In the fifty devotional notebooks of Nehemiah Wallington, a fanatical, regicidal Tristram Shandy who documented his life from 1618 to 1658 in 20,000 manuscript pages, experience is understood only through back and forth, and ongoing dialogue with scripture, news and other transcribed material. Pepys’s diary is only the best-known case of how close financial record books, with their telling of numbers, are to personal journals, with their telling of lives. Accounting becomes both an economic and a narrative mode (the symbiosis is never far from view in Moll Flanders). Identity is found in transactions and goods rather than inner depths, seeking trust and credit, personally and materially, in everyday commerce.

The opening chapters of A History of English Autobiography enlist the alternative concept of ‘autography’ – ‘more an action than a form’, in Barry Windeatt’s words, ‘an act of self-assertion, only exceptionally expressed through any extended narrative’ – to resist the tendency of literary genealogies to vault straight from Augustine to Bunyan. Generically hybrid, fictionalised in part, and sometimes the outcome of layered or composite authorship, medieval performances of self don’t lose power for being fragmentary or reiterative. In works by Chaucer, Gower, Hoccleve and others the insertion of authorial identity, or some clever simulacrum of it, was an enduring poetic technique. In medieval plague writing, the impulse not to perish with time is just as strong as in the plague-stricken London of Pepys or the Hyde Park Gate of Woolf. In The Book of Margery Kempe, spiritual self-documentation outdoes circumstance and time, and conveys instead the self that persists through action both inward and outward: ‘hyr felyngys and revelacyons and the forme of her levyng’.