Victorian Autobiography Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.