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.

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