Nineteenth-Century Women's Autobiography Overviews - Essay


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Elizabeth Winston (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: "The Autobiographer and Her Readers: From Apology to Affirmation," in Women's Autobiography: Essays in Criticism, edited by Estelle C. Jelinek, Indiana University Press, 1980, pp. 93-111.

[In the following excerpt, Winston argues that nineteenth-century women autobiographers were more self-conscious and conciliatory than women of the twentieth century.]

From the seventeenth century into the twentieth, women writers have shown an acute self-consciousness of the criticism they often aroused simply because they were female. One finds an interesting pattern of response to this criticism in the autobiographies of professional women writers, British and American, who were born in the last century. Those whose autobiographies were published before 1920 tended to establish a conciliatory relationship to their readers, by this means attempting to justify their untraditional ways of living and writing so as to gain the audience's sympathy and acceptance. Women who published autobiographies after 1920, however, no longer apologized for their careers and successes, though a few still showed signs of uneasiness at having violated cultural expectations for women. These more recently published writers openly asserted their intellectual and aesthetic gifts and their serious commitment to the literary life.

This change in the autobiographer's relation to her readers reflects an important change in the writer's self-image and in the kinds of autobiographical intentions she exhibited. That is, the more confident these women became of the legitimacy of their way of life, the more freely they used autobiography for explicitly personal and, thus, more self-validating reasons—to express strongly held beliefs, explore and understand the self, or experiment with the conventions of the genre. A sample of fourteen autobiographies of professional women writers, published between 1852 and 1965, demonstrates this progression in self-image and intentions. Women writing between 1850 and 1920—Lady Sydney Morgan, Mary Mitford, Margaret Oliphant, and to a lesser extent, Mrs. Humphry Ward, youngest of the four—show ambivalence about being professional writers at a time when the usual pattern for a female was immersion in domesticity. Their need to assure readers of their womanliness results in apologies, disclaimers, and words of self-deprecation. These autobiographers express their desire to interest and entertain their readers, defend past actions, or leave a record for their children—intentions directed mainly toward satisfying others.

Harriet Martineau, who rightfully belongs in this early group (the autobiography came out in 1877), is a transitional figure, somewhat ahead of her time. She is the only woman among the autobiographers in this early period who sometimes assumes a didactic role in telling her story, an act which reflects her sense of authority vis-à-vis her readers. Yet she does resemble other women writing at this time in that though she never apologizes for the record of her life, she minimizes her "selfish" needs to write the autobiography by stressing the moral obligations which prompted her. At the beginning of the narrative she says she felt it a "duty" to record her personal history—it was a way of repaying other autobiographers for the pleasure and benefit they had given her. By invoking duty as her reason for writing, she transforms the fundamentally self-assertive autobiographical act into what she viewed as a commendable gesture of gratitude appropriate to a lady.

The women who published autobiographies after 1920 show a stronger professional commitment and belief in the value of their work than the earlier women writers, though a few still offer somewhat defensive explanations for their divergence from traditional female roles. Among their reasons for writing autobiography are the desire to present and recommend the ideas for which they have lived (Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Harriet Monroe), to show the improvement in women's lives since Victorian days (Elizabeth Haldane), to pay tribute to a way of life that has vanished (Edith Wharton and Edna Ferber), and to achieve self-understanding (Ellen Glasgow). The most confident writers in this later group—Edith Sitwell, Mary Austin, and Gertrude Stein—openly affirm their achievements, in tones ranging from the playful self-advertisement of Stein in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933) to the defiant emphasis of Sitwell in Taken Care Of (1965). Not only do they use their autobiographies to inform and exhort their readers or to clarify the past for themselves, but also to assert their personal superiority (Stein and Sitwell) and to experiment with the autobiographical form (Austin and Stein). Yet even in these vigorously self-affirming narratives, especially in Sitwell's angry autobiography, one detects the signs of struggle, the force spent in challenging criticism and fighting restrictions. One gets a glimpse, in other words, of the price of success for a woman writing.

All of the women in this sample had succeeded in their careers. Even the early writers (Morgan, Mitford, and Oliphant), though little known today, enjoyed an enthusiastic reception during their lifetimes and were thus able to support themselves and their families through writing. That these successful women should have felt the need to justify their actions is a measure of the strong pressures on women to fulfill cultural expectations for their sex. The feminine stereotypes were pervasive: women were not autonomous individuals but dependents of their fathers and husbands, whether these men really "provided" for them or not; women were intellectually inferior to men and born to express their limited creativity through reproduction rather than through art; a "true woman" was modest and selfeffacing and would never invite unseemly publicity by writing for publication. Given these limiting expectations, even highly gifted women would have had difficulty sustaining their self-confidence as artists. They needed continual confirmation of their work from people whose opinions they respected, to quiet the doubts within and to challenge the negative voices without. It is not surprising, then, that in autobiography—that most self-assertive and self-revealing of genres—these professional women writers should feel particularly vulnerable to criticism.

Women have traditionally experienced a conflict of values in deciding whether or not to write autobiographies. In The Female Imagination, Patricia Meyer Spacks refers to Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, whose autobiography of 1656 reveals its author's intense struggle with opposing inner demands: the desire to uphold traditional "feminine" values of self-effacement and suppression and the compelling need to assert herself in writing. In seventeenth-century Britain, says Spacks, "the propriety of feminine autobiography is dubious."1

Two centuries later, in Lady Sydney Morgan's Memoirs of 1862, one can still discern that writing an autobiography is for a woman a distinctly political act requiring careful justification. Though as a novelist and popular historian Lady Morgan has chosen a life that in some ways deviates sharply from the traditional feminine pattern, she projects the image of a woman who accepts the stereotypes and socially sanctioned roles for women. She justifies the writing of her memoirs by offering herself to her "dear, kind, fair-judging public" as an example of a female who has managed to realize her literary ambitions while at the same time fulfilling her desire "to be every inch a woman. "2 For Lady Morgan this meant being a devoted daughter, an attentive wife and hostess, but—surprisingly for her time—not necessarily a mother.3

In Passages from My Autobiography (1859), Lady Morgan reinforces the conventional belief in women's intellectual inferiority to men when she compares her husband's "clear Anglo-Saxon intellect and profound reflection" with her own "flimsy, fussy, flirty Celtic temperament, by courtesy called Mind."4 In her 1862 Memoirs, she assures her audience that

ambition and vanity, and social tastes have led me much into that chaos of folly and insincerity called the world, but domestic life is my vocation—unfortunately, my high organisation, and my husband's character of mind, our love of art, and all that is best worth knowing renders la vie domestique impossible. (II, 417)

Here Lady Morgan reveals her dilemma regarding her identity as a woman. She seems to pay lip service to traditional feminine stereo-types and social expectations for women, but at the same time she recognizes and rejects the severe limitations inherent in the orthodox female's existence.

At least Lady Morgan was able to earn money by publishing her works. The Duchess of Newcastle's remuneration came in the form of psychological release, distraction from cares, and the admiration of some of her readers. Lady Morgan, writing at a time when literary women were no longer limited to the status of amateurs, commanded good prices for her novels and histories.

Yet in the two hundred six years between the publication of the duchess's and Lady Morgan's autobiographies, although many women in Britain and America began to support themselves through writing, they seem to have made slow progress in accepting the legitimacy of their new public and professional roles.5 As Ann Douglas Wood points out, most of the American "scribbling women" (so named by Hawthorne) followed the advice of ministers, male reviewers, and certain influential writers of their own sex and used their talents to uphold the current limited notions about woman's nature and proper sphere. They published mainly in ladies' magazines and annuals, satisfying the demand for sentimental fiction and pious, imitative verse. They took pains to show their subordination of literary activities to domestic tasks and their unconcern for literary style or for recognition. In other words, says Wood, these women writers assuaged their guilt at succeeding in the "masculine" roles of breadwinner and public person and enjoying this success, "by hiding behind a conventional 'feminine' facade." In this way they avoided viewing themselves as serious professionals. Writing was simply a means to express themselves or to earn money in one of the few occupations open to educated women at the time.6

Lady Morgan took herself more seriously as a writer than these women apparently did. The editor of her Memoirs, Geraldine Jewsbury, notes that Morgan was a hard bargainer with her publishers and never sold herself short. In contrast to the "scribbling women" Wood describes, who tried to fulfill the feminine ideal of domesticity and self-effacement, Morgan took an active interest in liberal politics and championed the cause of oppressed people—the Irish and the Greeks—in some of her novels. She certainly believed herself superior to the nonliterary wives whose less finely nerved "organisations" allowed them to tolerate la vie domestique. But she was still ambivalent enough about what constituted the appropriate female vocation to use what could be called a "rhetoric of justification" to charm and placate those people of both sexes who might find her behavior audacious.

Like Lady Morgan, other women autobiographers writing before 1920 address their readers in conciliatory tones. In Autobiography and Letters (1899), Margaret Oliphant explains that she was prompted to make "a little try at the autobiography" after reading a biography of George Eliot. Ruefully comparing her achievements with Eliot's, she admits that her practice of always subordinating her career to maternal duties and family interests has negatively affected the quality of her work, and she reasons that since probably no one will want to write her biography, she will write it herself. Thus, the initial motive for the autobiography is what Oliphant calls "self-compassion" and "self-defence": showing the hardships she has endured and the financial burdens under which she has constantly labored in order to educate her own and her brother's children. Nine years later, Oliphant cites another motive for the autobiography: she had meant to leave it for her sons, and now, in 1894, both are dead. She apologizes for her frequent expressions of grief and eventually breaks off without completing the narrative.

Many readers of Oliphant's Autobiography would surely have approved her sacrifice of literary excellence to the claims of family and friends and her wish to leave an account of her life for her sons. These same readers also would have deemed appropriate the modest way in which Mary Mitford and Mrs. Humphry Ward referred to their professional achievements in their autobiographical volumes. Mitford says almost nothing about her career in Recollections of a Literary Life (1852), and when she does occasionally speak on this subject, her tone is self-deprecating. For example, she gratefully records receiving encouragement from a Mr. and Mrs. Kenyon, whose patronage of her "poor writings" has enabled her to support her improvident father and herself. Generally we learn about her writing indirectly, through the literary extracts she includes and the criticism she gives of these works.

In her two-volumed memoir, A Writer's Recollections (1918), Ward declares her intention of treating events "broadly" and "with as much detachment as possible," so as to maintain interest in her narrative. Accordingly, she devotes most of the first volume to descriptions of famous relatives and their friends (her grandfather, Dr. Arnold of Rugby; her uncle Matthew Arnold; William Wordsworth) and prominent people she knew at Oxford (the Mark Pattisons, Walter Pater, Benjamin Jowett). Yet when she comes to the point in her story where she should describe the writing of the novel with which she first achieved national prominence, Ward apologizes beforehand:

If these are to be the recollections of a writer, in which perhaps other writers by profession, as well as the more general public, may take some interest, I shall perhaps be forgiven if I give some account of the processes of thought and work which led to the writing of my first successful novel, Robert Elsmere.7

It is difficult to imagine such a statement coming from a man! For years, male novelists have described the genesis of their writing in great detail (Henry James, a contemporary of Ward, comes to mind), automatically assuming that this material was both interesting and important. Ward does focus more attention on her novels in the second volume of the Recollections, but always with the proper feminine modesty.

Harriet Martineau is modest, too, about her successes as a political economist and writer. In Autobiography (1877) she rejects any claim to genius, saying that what "facility" she possesses was developed through discipline and years of translating. Nor does she emphasize her special status as a professional woman. At one point she admits to having been "provided with what is the bane of single life in ordinary cases to want—substantial, laborious and serious occupation."8 But the passive construction of this statement conveys her characteristic reserve in referring to her literary vocation.

To explain her divergence from the feminine ideal of marriage, Martineau says she was "unfit" to marry because of a personal "disability"—her lack of the self-respect needed to fulfill familial duties without encroaching on her husband's and children's freedom (I, 132). Thus, she justifies her choice by pleading her own unsuitability to marriage and family life rather than by criticizing the institutions themselves.

When she turns to the issue of justice for oppressed people, however, Martineau exhibits a more positive sense of self. At these times she speaks authoritatively, revealing a didactic purpose. She voices particular concern for children, describing her childhood sufferings (her gradual loss of hearing) in order to alert parents to conditions about which they might otherwise remain ignorant. And she champions the cause of Catholics, American slaves, and women. Like her sister novelists, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Elizabeth Gaskell, who spoke out against the oppression of slaves and factory workers, Martineau had "access, via a sense of personal injustice," to collective problems of economic and religious discrimination.9

Martineau also seeks justice specifically for herself in the autobiography, giving her version of some controversial acts. She defends her participation in antislavery activities in America, justifies her refusal of a governmental pension, and defends her authorship with H. G. Atkinson of the Letters on Man's Nature and Development. This collaboration caused her to be called, rightly, an atheist and, wrongly, a victim of her male coauthor. (People did not seem able to accept the idea that a man and woman with similar philosophical views would freely enter into a cooperative publishing venture.) On the whole, her work of self-vindication is convincing….

Women autobiographers writing before 1920 consciously worked to establish a special relation to their audience. They sought primarily to justify their ways of living and the fact of their writing. The particular acts they felt compelled to defend reflect the cultural stereotypes which inhibit women from fully realizing their potentialities. Reacting to the prevailing belief that women found their true vocation as wives and mothers, these women defended their choice of a career or their deviation from the traditional marital and maternal roles. In response to the notion that "good" women were modest and self-effacing, they understated their achievements, disclaimed interest in personal recognition, or stressed the broad historical value of their life stories. Generally, it was only later in this century, as stereotypes became less rigid and women writers began to experience fewer negative reactions to their untraditional assertive behavior, that female autobiographers acknowledged more personal reasons for writing and affirmed their achievements without apology.

Contemporary writers like Mary McCarthy, Lillian Hellman, and Maya Angelou have exhibited even greater self-confidence in their autobiographical works. Their self-assertive, gender-affirming narratives are encouraging models for female readers and give promise of a future in which a woman's right to write will be assured.


1 Patricia Meyer Spacks, The Female Imagination (New York: Knopf, 1975), p. 194.

2Lady Morgan's Memoirs, ed. W. H. Dixon, 3 vols. (London: William H. Allen, 1862), I, 230.

3 Perhaps Lady Morgan rejected motherhood partly because she had seen its negative effect on her younger sister Olivia. Olivia married four years before Lady Morgan and immediately began producing babies—too many of them in Lady Morgan's view. Olivia was "all over morbid maternity." Lady Morgan's husband, Sir Charles, playfully advised Olivia to read "three thick volumes of Malthus on Population." See Lady Morgan, Passages from My Autobiography (London: Richard Bentley, 1859), pp. 60, 92-93, 102-03.

4 Ibid., p. 318.

5 J. M. S. Tompkins writes that by the end of the eighteenth century, a host of young women in England had been forced by poverty to "market" their literary talents. They wrote mainly epistolary domestic novels—sentimental, didactic, occasionally satirical. See The Popular Novel in England, 1770-1800 (1961; rpt. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1976). For the situation in the United States, see Helen Waite Papashvily, All the Happy Endings (New York: Harper Brothers, 1956).

6 Ann Douglas Wood, "The 'Scribbling Women' and Fanny Fern: Why Women Wrote," American Quarterly, 23 (Spring 1971), 3-24. George Eliot deplored a similar lack of professional commitment and aesthetic integrity among "lady novelists" in England. See "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists," Westminster Review, 46 (October 1856), 442-61, reprinted in Essays, ed. Thomas Pinney (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1968), pp. 300-24.

7 Mrs. Humphry Ward, A Writer's Recollections (New York and London: Harper Brothers, 1918), I, 216. See also I, 202, where Ward asks permission to repeat a compliment she received for her work for the Dictionary of Christian Biography, and II, 18-19, for her response to Henry James's assessment of her first novel.

8 Harriet Martineau, Autobiography, 3 vols. (London: Smith, Elder, 1877), I, 101. Subsequent references appear in the text.

Linda H. Peterson (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "Institutionalizing Women's Autobiography: Nineteenth-Century Editors and the Shaping of an Autobiographical Tradition," in The Culture of Autobiography: Constructions of Self-Representation, edited by Robert Folkenflik, Stanford University Press, 1993, pp. 80-103.

[In the excerpt below, Peterson explores the structure and subject matter of women's autobiographies and notes the differences between women's and men's writings.]

What is women's autobiography, and when was it first written? Answers are difficult to give. We do not know what English-woman produced the first piece of self-writing; what women's texts we have lost from the mid-seventeenth century, the moment that seems to mark the beginning of an unbroken English autobiographical tradition; or what texts we have lost—or lost sight of—from centuries before and after the seventeenth. Despite such lacunae, feminist scholarship of the last decade has attempted to delineate a tradition of women's autobiography. Beginning with Mary G. Mason's "The Other Voice" (1980) and continuing with Estelle Jelinek's The Tradition of Women's Autobiography (1986), Sidonie Smith's A Poetics of Women's Autobiography (1987), and Carolyn G. Heilbrun'sp Writing a Woman's Life (1988), the agenda has been to (re)discover a tradition of women's own.1

That agenda has included more specific goals: the (re)discovery of lost or forgotten women's texts, the posing of literary questions about gender and genre, the posing of more general questions about women's self-representation, whether it has always been different from men's or whether women's writings show certain fundamental "human" patterns of development. Whatever the specific goals, as versions of literary history, critical studies of the 1980's have assumed a common argument: that women's autobiography represents a separate and distinct tradition, a genre or subgenre different from autobiographical writing produced by men. In Jelinek's words, "contemporary women are writing out of and continuing to create a wholly different autobiographical tradition from that delineated in studies of male autobiography."2

That women's autobiography represents "a wholly different autobiographical tradition" has been a practical, even necessary critical assumption. Prior to 1980 major critical studies of autobiography excluded serious consideration of women's texts. The fact of exclusion seemed to call for new approaches to, and new theories about, women's forms of self-representation.3 Nonetheless, the argument about a separate women's tradition is worth reexamining—not simply because, as I believe, it misrepresents a significant number of women's texts, but because it involves a blindness about the writing of literary history. To oversimplify, recent studies of women's autobiography have tended to read women's texts as if gender were the hermeneutic key to authorial intention and textual production; they have assumed that gender determines the form of women's autobiography or, at least, that it motivates women writers to seek a separate autobiographical tradition. Other possibilities—that gender may not be a crucial factor in some autobiographical writing, that some women autobiographers may deliberately avoid a female literary tradition, or that a woman's autobiography may self-consciously invoke multiple literary traditions—have been overlooked or avoided. So, too, have possibilities that implicate editors and critics in the process of defining what constitutes "women's autobiography." The desire to define a women's tradition has, in other words, shaped the writing of literary history and practical criticism. I want, therefore, to reconsider the question of women's autobiography not by presupposing the existence of a tradition but instead by asking about possible traditions available to, acknowledged, or created by women writers. And I want to begin not by posing an alternate version of literary history, but by looking at early attempts to define "women's autobiography"—because as it turns out, modern literary critics are not the first to construct a tradition of women's autobiographical writing.

The effort to construct a literary past, a tradition of English autobiography that accounts for women's texts as well as men's, originated in the nineteenth century. By 1797 English literary critics had coined the term autobiography for a "new" genre.4 Within three decades Victorian antiquarians, scholars, and critics had begun to resurrect and publish the texts we cite today when we write about the "emergence" or "origins" of women's autobiography: the Memoirs of Ann Lady Fanshawe (1829); A Legacy, or Widow's Mite, Left by Alice Hayes (1836); the Autobiography of Mary Countess of Warwick (1848); The Autobiography of Mrs. Alice Thornton (1875); The Autobiography of Anne Lady Halkett (1875); and numerous spiritual accounts written by Nonconformist women. Indeed, except for the autobiography of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, which first appeared as part of her Natures Pictures Drawn by Fancies Pencil to the Life (1656), these seminal women's autobiographies would be lost to literary history were it not for the editorial efforts of the Victorians.

The Victorians rescued and wrote about these texts for reasons similar to our own: for their historical interest, for the social and familial information they contained, for their contribution to literary discussions of the "new" genre, for their relevance to their own lives. Thus nineteenth-century efforts at reconstructing literary history can illuminate our own contemporary efforts at delineating traditions of...

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