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.)

Criticism: Autobiography And The Self

Paul Jay (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: Jay, Paul. “Carlyle and Nietzsche: The Subject Retailored.” In Being in the Text: Self-Representation from Wordsworth to Roland Barthes, pp. 92-114. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1984.

[In the following excerpt, Jay outlines Thomas Carlyle's ironic critique of Romantic autobiographical subjectivity in his Sartor Resartus.]

Pity that all Metaphysics had hitherto proved so inexpressibly unproductive! The secret of Man's Being is still like the Sphinx's secret: a riddle that he cannot rede.

—Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus

While The Prelude seeks to enact the...

(The entire section is 7090 words.)

Robert Folkenflik (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Folkenflik, Robert. “The Self as Other.” In The Culture of Autobiography: Constructions of Self-Representation, edited by Robert Folkenflik, pp. 215-34. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1993.

[In the following essay, Folkenflik studies the treatment of alterity and the self in autobiographical narratives from St. Augustine to Jean-Paul Sartre, with primary reference to several Victorian autobiographers.]

My title may seem to be an abstract version of Rimbaud's “Je est un autre,” and this is certainly a line to which I will return, but what I have in mind, at least initially, is the moment in autobiography in which the subject perceives...

(The entire section is 10856 words.)

Robert D. Aguirre (essay date fall 2002)

SOURCE: Aguirre, Robert D. “Cold Print: Professing Authorship in Anthony Trollope's An Autobiography.Biography 25, no. 4 (fall 2002): 569-92.

[In the following essay, Aguirre probes the relationship between the writer, authorial identity, and the realities of the literary marketplace with regard to Anthony Trollope's An Autobiography.]

Trollope's An Autobiography is an anomaly, a work of self-representation best known for its frank view of the literary marketplace: “Brains that are unbought will never serve the public much” (107).1 Such disquieting candor has led critics to posit not one autobiography but two—the real thing and a...

(The entire section is 9794 words.)

Criticism: Autobiography And Gender

Estelle C. Jelinek (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: Jelinek, Estelle C. “The Nineteenth Century: New Voices.” In The Tradition of Women's Autobiography: From Antiquity to the Present, pp. 41-53. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1986.

[In the following excerpt, Jelinek surveys autobiographical writings by English women of the nineteenth century, concluding with a summary of their contributions to the genre.]

The subjective autobiographies of the eighteenth century had little if any influence on the autobiographies by women or men during the nineteenth century. The confessionals of Pilkington, Phillips, and Vane may have contributed to the development of the novel, but they had little effect on later autobiography....

(The entire section is 5424 words.)

Martin A. Danahay (essay date fall 1990)

SOURCE: Danahay, Martin A. “Class, Gender, and the Victorian Masculine Subject.” a/b: Auto/Biography Studies 5, no. 2 (fall 1990): 99-113.

[In the following essay, Danahay discusses the masculine, bourgeois ideals of individual autonomy constructed in the autobiographical works of Matthew Arnold, John Stuart Mill, and Edmund Gosse, comparing these with the feminine, communal subjectivity of Margaret Oliphant's Autobiography.]

The interrelated categories of class and gender have become increasingly subject to scrutiny in recent analyses of autobiography. Following the deconstruction of the concept of the unitary individual, criticism of autobiography has begun to...

(The entire section is 5919 words.)

Criticism: Autobiography And Class

Julia Swindells (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: Swindells, Julia. “Women's Issues.” In Victorian Writing and Working Women: The Other Side of Silence, pp. 137-61. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985.

[In the following excerpt from her book-length study of Victorian working women's writing, Swindells explores the various literary modes adapted by nineteenth-century women autobiographers (from romance and melodrama to religious discourse), and describes these writers' interest in the advancement of women's rights through their literary pursuits.]

I have been placing the emphasis, in writing about working women autobiographers, on an experience which, though it has its individualistic and...

(The entire section is 9173 words.)

Regenia Gagnier (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Gagnier, Regenia. “The Literary Standard, Working-Class Lifewriting, and Gender.” Textual Practice 3, no. 1 (1989): 36-55.

[In the following essay, Gagnier evaluates the extent to which nineteenth-century working-class writers of autobiography adopted bourgeois gender ideology in their works.]

A decade ago in ‘Working/Women/Writing’ Lillian S. Robinson asked that criticism, especially feminist criticism, not accept the doctrines of individualist aesthetics uncritically:

It is a fundamental precept of bourgeois aesthetics that good art … is art that celebrates what is unique and even eccentric in human experience or...

(The entire section is 9281 words.)

Nan Hackett (essay date summer 1989)

SOURCE: Hackett, Nan. “A Different Form of ‘Self’: Narrative Style in British Nineteenth-Century Working-class Autobiography.” Biography 12, no. 3 (summer 1989): 208-26.

[In the following essay, Hackett emphasizes the didactic and socially critical functions of narrative in British working-class autobiography of the nineteenth century.]

Francis Russell Hart noted that “Memoir is the autobiography of survival,”1 yet working-class autobiographers' techniques of survival have caused their works to be ignored as literary works; they have been left to historians for use as documents of social history. John Burnett and David Vincent2, singly...

(The entire section is 7520 words.)

Criticism: Autobiography And Fiction

Robert Tracy (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: Tracy, Robert. “Stranger Than Truth: Fictional Autobiography and Autobiographical Fiction.” Dickens Studies Annual 15 (1986): 275-89.

[In the following essay, Tracy compares Charles Dickens's novel David Copperfield and Anthony Trollope's An Autobiography in order to suggest generic affinities and distinctions between autobiographical fiction and autobiography.]

… Il me semblait que j'étais moi-même ce dont parlait l'ouvrage … le sujet du livre se détachait de moi, j'étais libre de m'y appliquer ou non …

Proust, Du coté de chez Swann


(The entire section is 6770 words.)

Janice Carlisle (essay date fall 1990)

SOURCE: Carlisle, Janice. “The Mirror in The Mill on the Floss: Toward a Reading of Autobiography as Discourse.” Studies in the Literary Imagination 23, no. 2 (fall 1990): 177-96.

[In the following essay, Carlisle analyzes the autobiographical structural patterns, action, and characterization of George Eliot's novel The Mill on the Floss.]

When in the fifth book of The Mill on the Floss, Maggie Tulliver glances instinctively toward an inverted mirror, “the square looking-glass which [she has] condemned to hang with its face towards the wall,”1 her gesture renders suspect the strength of her impulse towards renunciation. The mirror, like...

(The entire section is 9489 words.)

Sara Murphy (essay date winter 2001)

SOURCE: Murphy, Sara. “The Trials of Vision: Experience and Autobiography in Charlotte Brontë and Charlotte Tonna.” a/b: Auto/Biography Studies 16, no. 2 (winter 2001): 199-218.

[In the following essay, Murphy considers the nature of Victorian literary self-representation through comparison of Charlotte Brontë's semi-autobiographical novel Jane Eyre and Charlotte Tonna's spiritual autobiography Personal Recollections.]

Autobiography and experience are inexorably linked. What after all is an autobiography but the story of how one has become who one is? One of the fundamental tenets of modernity has been that one's identity is created, shaped, informed by...

(The entire section is 8682 words.)

Further Reading


Danahay, Martin. “Selected Bibliography of Victorian Autobiography Studies.” a/b: Auto/Biography Studies 2, no. 1 (spring 1986): 19-22, 27.

Bibliography of approximately sixty books and critical essays on the subject of Victorian autobiography published from the 1950s to the mid-1980s.


Allen, Peter. “Trollope to His Readers: The Unreliable Narrator of An Autobiography.Biography 19, no. 1 (winter 1996): 1-18.

Focuses on Trollope's efforts to challenge attitudes towards his writings, career, and personal nature in his An Autobiography (1883)....

(The entire section is 773 words.)