Victorian Autobiography Essay - Critical Essays

Victorian Autobiography


Victorian Autobiography

The following entry presents critical discussion of English autobiographical writing during the Victorian Age.

Critics generally regard the Victorian era as the golden age of English autobiography. Inspired by the zeal for self-discovery and recognition of the value of the individual that marked the period of their Romantic predecessors, Victorian writers became fascinated with the process of personal development in relation to external, environmental factors. Meanwhile, the Victorian penchant for retrospection and nostalgia fostered both the writing and eager reception of such works, from straightforward autobiography to numerous popular examples of semi-autobiographical fiction. Typically, mainstream Victorian autobiography depicts a process of personal transformation mediated by an overarching belief in individual progress, and endeavors to describe a flowering of artistic or intellectual development. Other works, particularly autobiographies written by women or by members of the working class, often contain elements of social critique and relate the author's efforts to affect societal change or heighten social awareness. These writings, which were eagerly read throughout the nineteenth century, have increasingly begun to elicit the attention of modern scholars in the contemporary period, sometimes after lengthy periods of critical neglect. Among the diverse autobiographical writings of the Victorian era, critics consider several works as exemplary. These include autobiographies by John Stuart Mill, Charles Darwin, John Henry Newman, Anthony Trollope, Harriet Martineau, and John Ruskin, among others. Fictional autobiography and the autobiographical novel, respectively typified by Thomas Carlyle's Sartor Resartus (1833-34) and Charles Dickens's The Personal History of David Copperfield (1850), were equally well-received by Victorian audiences. Together, the autobiography and the autobiographical novel represent an essential component of Victorian prose composition, and comprise what scholars view as a core element of the nineteenth-century English literary imagination.

In the view of critics, the mode of autobiographical subjectivity favored by Victorian writers generally placed emphasis on personal activity and self-sacrifice rather than introspection and self-consciousness. Though inspired by English writers of spiritual autobiography in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Victorian autobiographers largely rejected the confessional mode of the genre's model, St. Augustine's fifth-century Confessions. Fearing the potentially paralytic or spurious effects of an excessive self-indulgence, these writers opted instead for a seemingly impersonal tone and the more modest and objective form of the apology, wherein the author defended his or her life course without anguished admissions of guilt or expressions of regret. Such works are best exemplified by John Henry Newman's acclaimed Apologia pro vita sua (1864) and The Autobiography of Charles Darwin (1929). These and similar works demonstrate the status of Victorian autobiography as a highly interpretive rather than representational form, critics assert, in which authors offer linear reconstructions of the past, shaping their experiences to conform with a mental and social self-image of progress toward the ideal of a productive life. For female authors, self-explanation often entailed a justification for or a defense of their choice of a literary career, with a consequent focus on facts and accomplishments rather than on personal experiences and feelings. In the later decades of the nineteenth century, as authors grappled with disillusionment and despair over the loss of religious faith, confessional elements were reintroduced into autobiographical writings, often accompanied by a mask or alternative self to circumvent the discomfort associated with self-revelation in literary form.

In addition to critical interest in autobiographical subjectivity, representations of gender and class in Victorian autobiography has drawn considerable critical attention in the contemporary period, as commentators regard both canonical and less well-known autobiographical writings in order to better understand the ideological framework of nineteenth-century British society. Works such as John Stuart Mill's Autobiography (1873), Edmund Gosse's autobiographical novel Father and Son (1907), and Sir Leslie Stephen's Mausoleum Book (1977; written in 1895), are thought to reflect bourgeois ideals of masculinity and individual autonomy that prevailed in Victorian England, and have been studied by commentators for the insight they provide into the development of gendered social codes. In keeping with the contemporary critical trend toward an all-inclusive and multidisciplinary study of past literature, modern feminist and new historicist critics have also probed the more strongly moral, didactic, and socially critical orientation of autobiographical works by Victorian women, and especially those by working-class women writers. In the view of such scholars, these writers adapted mainstream literary traditions outside the genre of autobiography for the purpose of social critique and the advancement of women's or worker's rights, producing works that were at once formally conventional and socially forwardly-looking.

The unique relationship between autobiography and the novel in Victorian society has also proved to be a productive site for contemporary scholarly discussion. Many of the most popular novels published in Britain during the Victorian era can be categorized as either fictional autobiography or semi-autobiographical fiction. Indeed, the prospect of tracing the life of a real or imagined protagonist from a troubled childhood into successful maturity, according to the pattern of the Bildungsroman, frequently proved both commercially and artistically viable during this period. Charles Dickens produced several remarkable exemplars of this form, as did a host of writers such as Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, Samuel Butler, Anthony Trollope, and Thomas Carlyle, all of whom would contribute to the Victorian obsession with autobiographical fiction. In comparing standard and fictional autobiography, scholars have located numerous formal and thematic similarities between these genres. The depiction of a pivotal childhood crisis and growing awareness of the self and the environment are frequently shared characteristics of both fictional and nonfictional approaches to autobiography, as are an interest in the construction of authorial identity and the nature of alterity (the awareness of socially mediated differences between the Self and the Other). Critics have found these concepts central to both Victorian autobiography and autobiographical fiction, and have particularly studied them with relation to Carlyle's Sartor Resartus, Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847), and Trollope's An Autobiography (1883), in addition to several novels by Dickens and other similar works.

Representative Works

Annie Wood Besant
Annie Besant: An Autobiography (autobiography) 1893

Charlotte Brontë
Jane Eyre; an Autobiography [as Currer Bell] (novel) 1847

Samuel Butler
The Way of All Flesh (novel) 1903

Thomas Carlyle
Sartor Resartus: The Life and Opinions of Herr Teufelsdröckh (prose) 1833-34; published in Fraser's Magazine

Charles Darwin
The Autobiography of Charles Darwin [edited by Francis Darwin] (autobiography) 1929; revised edition, edited by Nora Barlow, published as The Autobiography of Charles Darwin 1809-1882. With Original Omissions Restored, 1933

Charles Dickens
The Personal History of David Copperfield (novel) 1850

Edmund Gosse
Father and Son: A Study of Two Temperaments (novel) 1907

Leigh Hunt
The Autobiography of Leigh Hunt; with Reminiscences of Friends and Contemporaries. 3 vols. (autobiography) 1850

Fanny Kemble
Record of a Girlhood: An Autobiography (autobiography) 1878

Harriet Martineau
Harriet Martineau's Autobiography, with Memorials by Maria Weston Chapman. 3 vols. (autobiography) 1877

John Stuart Mill
Autobiography (autobiography) 1873

George Moore
Confessions of a Young Man (fictional autobiography) 1888

John Henry Newman
Apologia pro vita sua: Being a Reply to a Pamphlet Entitled “What, Then, Does Dr. Newman Mean?” (autobiography) 1864; also published as History of My Religious Opinions, 1865

Margaret Oliphant
The Autobiography and Letters of Mrs. M. O. W. Oliphant (autobiography and letters) 1899

Robert Dale Owen
Threading My Way. Twenty-seven Years of Autobiography (autobiography) 1874

John Ruskin
Praeterita: Outlines of Scenes and Thoughts Perhaps Worthy of Memory in My Past Life (unfinished autobiography) 1885-89

Herbert Spencer
An Autobiography. 2 vols. (autobiography) 1904

Leslie Stephen
*Sir Leslie Stephen's Mausoleum Book [edited by Alan Bell] (memoir) 1977

Charlotte Elisabeth Tonna
Personal Recollections (autobiography) 1841

Anthony Trollope
An Autobiography (autobiography) 1883

*This work was completed c. 1895, but was not published under this title until 1977.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Linda H. Peterson (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: Peterson, Linda H. “Introduction: The Hermeneutic Imperative.” In Victorian Autobiography: The Tradition of Self-Interpretation, pp. 1-28. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1986.

[In the following excerpt, Peterson defines Victorian autobiography as principally a hermeneutic and interpretive, rather than a representative, genre and surveys its literary origins in the spiritual autobiographies of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.]

When John Ruskin traveled abroad for the first time without his parents, his mother slipped a copy of Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners into his satchel. “What made you put that funny book of John...

(The entire section is 8739 words.)

Martin A. Danahay (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Danahay, Martin A. “Monologism and Power in Victorian Autobiography.” Victorians Institute Journal 21 (1993): 47-69.

[In the following essay, Danahay focuses on the tension between the monologic and dialogic (and likewise the unitary and social) qualities of language illustrated in the autobiographical works of John Stuart Mill, Edmund Gosse, and Matthew Arnold.]

Ashton Nichols in a recent article in the Victorians Institute Journal on Browning's monologues analyzed the ways in which Browning's poems imply the suppression of other voices that a reader must reconstruct in order to understand the effaced context of the utterance. Nichols used Mikhail...

(The entire section is 6562 words.)

Philip Davis (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Davis, Philip. “Why Do We Remember Forwards and Not Backwards?” In Mortal Pages, Literary Lives: Studies in Nineteenth-Century Autobiography, edited by Vincent Newey and Philip Shaw, pp. 81-102. Aldershot, England: Scolar Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Davis identifies the major stylistic and formal limitations of Victorian autobiography, particularly highlighting the genre's strict adherence to linearity and its inability to bridge ancient and modern conceptions of the self.]


‘Nobody’, said Leslie Stephen, ‘ever wrote a dull autobiography.’1

But what about this, from Leslie...

(The entire section is 10064 words.)