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’.

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