This essay first appeared in Approaches to Victorian Autobiography, ed. George P. Landow (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1979). In creating this web version, Landow replaced footnotes by in-text citations that refer to the bibliography and the end of the essay.

In Book X of the Confessions St. Augustine confronts a problem intrinsic to autobiography when he asks, "What have I to do with men, that they should hear my confessions? When they hear me speak about myself, how do they know if I speak the truth, since none among men knows 'what goes on within a man but the spirit of man which is in him" (X,3,3). Testifying to his own character, the autobiographer is a suspect witness whom even the least skeptical auditors might doubt. We know our own tendencies to present ourselves, even to ourselves, as better or worse than we are, and so inevitably suspect the autobiographer of similarly painting himself in colors too light or too dark. The more personal his testimony, the less liable to corroboration by public knowledge, and hence the paradox: the greater the autobiographer's effort at introspective honesty, the more subject he grows to doubt. Even if he does not consciously suppress or distort information, he may do so unconsciously. But if memory consciously and unconsciously shapes the past to fit the needs of the present, how then can the autobiographer escape the imputation of falsehood and lying?

The autobiographer's defense against these charges reveals his conceptions of the nature of autobiography. Augustine, for example, takes autobiography to be a form of speech which is both intimate and influential — intimate in that it is both introspective and among friends; influential in that it shapes both his own life and theirs. He says:

Because 'charity believes all things' among those whom it unites by binding them to itself, I too, O Lord, will confess to you in such a manner that men may hear, although I cannot prove to them that I confess truly But those men whose ears charity opens to me believe me. . Charity tells them that I do not lie when I make my confessions: it is charity in them that believes in me. (X, 3, 3)

By charity — that is, caritas — Augustine means the love by which men are properly bound to God. According to him the things of this created world, including our fellow mor tals, are to be loved not in themselves, which would be cupidity, but in God, for only God may properly be loved in himself. The civitas dei is a society bound together by it; common love of God; bound, that is, by charity. As God is Truth, so truth and belief are characteristics of this society. By binding men together in a common love, charity binds them together as brothers enabled to see through potentially deceitful surfaces to the truth within. Charity, in other words, defines a relationship, and it is on the basis of that relationship that Augustine presumes to validate his speech. Augustine's honesty is thus confirmed by his intimacy with his readers, which is in turn a correlate of his intimacy with himself and, ultimately with God.

Few Victorian autobiographers shared Augustine's recognition of the innate difficulties in telling the truth about one's own life. Their response to that suspicion of deceit from which no autobiography can be wholly free suggests they conceived this literary mode not as intimate speech but public discourse. They write not only for themselves and their contemporaries, but for posterity. They grow concerned about propriety, avoid introspection, and produce work which is predominantly memoir. In general they lack self-consciousness. Thus, the embarrassing depths of self-pity and regret which Ruskin reveals to us in Praeterita are insights for us, but not for him, because he does not watch himself looking at himself. Carlyle's elaborate framework in Sartor Resartus serves as a conscious means of avoiding the appearance of self-consciousness. Due to this lack or avoidance of self-consciousness, the Victorians make a limited and distinctive response to the question of autobiographical honesty. Unlike Augustine, whose claim to belief rests on the relationship he affirms with himself and his audience, most Victorian autobiographers rest their claim to belief on their denial of any such relationship.

The two defenses: ex vita and ex morte

We can illustrate the two opposite modes of defense in the writings of David Hume and Edward Gibbon. In April of 1776, four months before he died, the terminally ill David Hume wrote a brief account of his life, intended as a preface to the next edition of his works. This abbreviated autobiography begins:

It is difficult for a man to speak long of himself without vanity; therefore I shall be short. It may be thought an instance of vanity that I pretend at all to write my life: but this Narrative shall contain little more than the History of my Writing; as indeed, almost all my life his been spent in literary pursuits and occupations. [I,1]

The fear of seeming vain and thus guilty of self-interest and distortion is almost enough to silence Hume, but by his consciousness of that suspicion he seeks to weaken it. He will, moreover, speak briefly and write factually, a mere "History of my Writings." His strongest defense, however, is that in his debilitated condition "it is difficult to be more detached from life than I am at present" (7). That very detachment from himself, from others, and from life in general is to be the guarantee of his honesty. Thus he says "I am, or rather was (for that is the style I must now use in speaking of myself, which emboldens me the more to speak my sentiments); I was, I say, a man of mild dispositions" (7). By speaking of himself in the past tense, like a voice from the grave, Hume claims to be beyond selfinterest, and therefore without motive to distort. We may call this, therefore, the defense ex morte. By its aid Hume can treat himself objectively, and by speaking quasiposthumously, speak frankly. But this is of course pretense, a not very effective rhetorical pose, for since the beginnings of history men seem to have been concerned for their reputations after death. Rather than solving the problem of autobiographical credibility, the defense ex morie avoids it. The autobiographer hopes such an approach will transform him into an historian, and hence enable him to escape his difficulties. But, as Hume himself seems to have realized, the escape is impossible, for he concludes, "I cannot say there is no vanity in making this funeral oration of myself, but I hope it is not a misplaced one: and this is a matter of fact which is easily cleared"(8).

Edward Gibbon is less tempted by the pose of historical detachment. He began his autobiography in 1786, and worked on various versions of it until 1791. The earliest version, wherein Gibbon first faced the difficulty of autobiography, opens as follows:

In the fifty-second year of my age, after the completion of a toilsome and successful work, I now propose to employ some moments of my leisure in reviewing the simple transactions of a private and literary life. Truth — naked unblushing truth, the first virtue of more serious history — must be the sole recommendation of this personal narrative. The style shall be simple and familiar. But style is the image of character, and the habits of correct writing may produce, without labor or design, the appearance of art and study My own amusement is my motive, and will be my reward; and if these sheets are communicated to some discreet and indulgent friends, they will be secreted from the public eye till the author shall be removed from the reach of criticism or ridicule. [27]

The expectation of posthumous publication allies this to the defense ex morte, as does the identification with "more serious history," but Gibbon's sensitivity to style indicates how conscious he is of an audience. He proposes to adopt a "simple and familiar" style fit for both his subject matter and the relationship he seeks with his audience. He aims at "truth — naked unblushing truth," and a simple and familiar style will encourage belief because "style is the image of character." We will believe him because he seems familiar, i.e., intimate and known. But character is constant, and his own may be so habituated to the forms of "correct writing," Gibbon goes on, that strive as he may to be simple, he may yet unwittingly and unintentionally "without labor or design," give the "appearance of art and study," and thereby seem false and deceitful. In short, if his style is true to his character he will be taken for a liar, and only by borrowing a style and thereby masking his character can he be sure of making a truthful impression. Unable to embrace Oscar Wilde's paradox that "Truth is entirely and absolutely a matter of style," Gibbon softens the effect of his art by apologizing for it, and thereby takes us further into his confidence. To these means of enhancing his credibility Gibbon can add his reputation as an historian, which lends weight to, and is in turn reinforced by, his tendency to generalize, for as his generalizations ring true, and are confirmed in our experience, we give credence to his account. This reliance on reputation, together with an explicit consciousness of style and its effects, indicate in Gibbon an awareness and acceptance of his relationship to his audience. His words may be published posthumously, but they are spoken by a man in touch with society, and with himself. As a means of affirming autobiographical truth such assertion of relationship, which resembles the brotherhood of charity on which Augustine relies, may be termed the defense ex vita.

We will find a clearer example of this defense ex vita in Wordsworth's Prelude, which was, as McConnell has recently stressed, known in manuscript as "the Poem to Coleridge." The poem's primary claim to our belief is its intimate voice. It is, like Augustine's confession to God, private, privileged discourse on which we are merely eavesdropping. By adopting a private voice the poet can deny all public role-playing. Whereas the defense ex morte claims truth by denying relation to living men, the fully realized defender ex vita, like Wordsworth, affirms so intimate and immediate a relationship with his audience as to allow no self-conscious separation, no division, no duplicity. He assumes, or if necessary creates, such a community as Wordsworth lauds in The Recluse:

Society is here
A true community — a genuine frame
Of many into one incorporate. [11. 614-16]

That sense of community seems to have diminished as the century wore on, and by 1850, when the Prelude appeared posthumously, the defense ex vita had fallen into disuse.

In that year, in the Preface to his Autobiography, Leigh Hunt seems to refer to a familiar intimacy with his readers:" I have been so accustomed during the greater part of my life to talk to the reader in my own person . . . that I fall more naturally into this kind of fireside strain than most writers, and the ore do not present the public so abrupt an image of indivuality" [v]. Hunt's purpose here, however. is not to evoke relationship, but to apologize for personality Propriety, far more than veracity, concerns Hunt as he admits, to the despair of anyone hoping for frankness, that: "I have lived long enough to discover that autobiography may not only be a very distressing but a very puzzling task, and throw the writer into such doubts as to what he should or should not say, as totally to confuse him" (v-vi). Such statements may stir in the reader doubts about what he should or should not believe. Although Hunt recognizes the value to his undertaking of a charitable sympathy, which he calls intuition, between author and reader, he does little to encourage that relationship, and the prayer with which he closes his Preface suggests only the difficulty of achieving it: "And so Heaven bless the reader. and all of us: and enable us to compare notes some day in some Elysian corner of intuition, where we shall be in no need of prefaces and explanations" (vi). The true community where explanation is unnecessary has withdrawn to an Elysian corner, and the autobiographer withdraws into himself. Whatever influence his work can have is purely reflexive — it makes him feel better: "I will liken myself to an actor, who though commencing his part on the stage with a gout or a headache, or perhaps, even with a bit of a heartache, finds his audience so willing to be pleased, that he forgets his infirmity as he goes, and ends with being glad that he has appeared" (iv-v). Were the issue of hon esty and credibility as sharp for Hunt as it is for Augustine, his resemblance to an actor would trouble him. That it does not is an indication of how mute the issue has become.

The autobiographer as gentleman: Trollope

I have suggested that the autobiographer is compelled to defend himself against the suspicion of falsifying or holding back the details of his life, but this is true only if he desires to seem entirely frank, if his goal is the "naked unblushing truth" Gibbon aimed at. One may aim elsewhere, and when Hunt considers what he "should not say," truth has begun to clothe herself with modesty. To at least one sensitive Victorian autobiographer, the naked truth seemed not merely improper, but unattainable. Writing in 1875, Anthony Trollope opens by asserting, "That I, or any man, should tell everything of himself, I hold to be impossible"6 and he closes on the same note: "It will not, I trust, be supposed by any reader that I have intended in this so-called autobiography to give a record of my inner life. No man ever did so truly — and no man every will" (261). Trollope asserts here not the rhetorical difficulty of convincing his audience of his honesty, but the prior epistemological impossibility of entirely accurate or honest self-knowledge, and the secondary difficulty of the complete expression of such self-knowledge as can be attained. When he says "who could endure to own the doing of a mean thing? Who is there that has done none?"(l) he seems to embrace modesty as inevitable, but he has more than just conscious modesty in mind. "Rousseau probably attempted," he admits, "a record of [his] inner life," which includes to be sure the doing of mean things, "but who doubts," Trollope goes on, "but that Rousseau has confessed in much the thoughts and convictions rather than the facts of his life?"(261) However honest a man's intentions, "A man does, in truth, remember that which it interests him to remember" (111). The exclamatory "in truth" rss full adverbial weight. One cannot report "the facts of life," because "in our lives we are always weaving novels (111). In the end there remain no facts at all. Such thorough skepticism does not, however, relieve the autobiographer of the need to convince his audience that he has at least aimed at such honesty as can be attainEd. Memory may be determined by interest, but it can be at least undertaken "in truth." Trollope may hold that to tell everything of himself is impossible, but he goes on to say "that nothing that I say shall be untrue." His defenses, however, are strangely limited.

As Trollope had intended, his Autobiography was published posthumously, but he uses the defense ex mone only to explain and apologize for what would be otherwise socially unacceptable frankness. After speaking fondly of John Everett Millais, he concludes: "These words, should he ever see them. will come to him from the grave, and will tell him of my regard, as one living man never tells another" (108). As a voice from the grave he "may dare to say what no one now does dare to say in print, — though some of us whisper it occasionally into our friends' ears. There are places in life which can hardly be well filled except by a Gentleman" (2). He excuses his speaking well of the moral influence of his own novels by evoking "that absence of self-personality which the dead may claim" (15). Despite Trollope's awareness of the problem of honesty, he cannot, as a gentleman ("one of us"), manifest "self-personality."

In so far then as Trollope seeks to convince us of his honesty, it should be the defense ex vita on which he relies. Even the posthumous voice serves the ends of this defense, by allowing him to speak as if whispering into friends' ears. An expectation that we will believe and trust him because he is known and familiar would be consonant with the Autobiography as a whole, which is conceived as an antiromantic polemic against the idea of writer as genius. Writing, we are to understand, is a profession like others, allied more to hard work than to inspiration. "It is my purpose as I go on." says Trollope,

to state what to me has been the result of my profession in the ordinary way in which professions are regarded, so that by my example may be seen what prospect there is that a man devoting himself to literature with industry, perseverance, certain necessary aptitudes, and fair average talents, may succeed in gaining a livelihood, as another man does in another profession. [77]

Writers, indeed, will do well to learn from cobblers:

I had convinced myself that in such work as mine the great secret consisted in acknowledging myself to be bound to rules of labour similar to those which an artisan or a mechanic is forced to obey. A shoemaker when he has finished one pair of shoes does not sit down and contemplate this work in idle satisfaction. 'There is my pair of shoes finished at last! What a pair of shoes it is!' The shoemaker who so indulged himself would be without wages half his time. It is the same with a professional writer of books. . . Having thought much of all this, and having made up my mind that I could be really happy only when I was at work, I had now quite accustomed myself to begin a second pair as soon as the first was out of my hands. [230-31]

The writer, in short, is a day-laborer, not a wool-gathering poet who sits "nibbling his pen, and gazing at the wall before him, till he shall have found the words with which he wants to express his ideas": "All those I think who have lived as literary men, — working daily as literary labourers, — will agree with me that three hours a day will produce as much as a man ought to write" (195).

If statements such as these convinced us that writers are just ordinary folk, they might encourage us to trust Trollope as "one of us," but pride in his own singular achievements regularly undercuts his claim to be common. Even the community of "literary men" invited to agree with him is meant to marvel when Trollope illustrates these precepts by his own practice: "It had at this time become my custom to write with my watch before me, and to require from myself 250 words every quarter of an hour. I have found that the 250 words have been forthcoming as regularly as my watch went" (195). We are struck more by the singularity of his diligence than by the familiarity of his effort. The labor may be common, but the laborer is extraordinary "I feel confident that in amount no other writer rontributed so much during that time to English literature" (194). What is to encourage us to share that confidence?

There are "two kinds of confidence which a reader may have in his author," explains Trollope, "a confidence in facts, and a confidence in vision" (94). (These correspond to the defenses ex morte and ex vita.) For the first a writer employs research, strives for accuracy, and demands of the reader faith; for the second he employs observation, aims for sensitivity and imagination, and demands judgment. Although Trollope explains that he himself employs the subjective way of vision, his Autobiography seems rather more a reporting of facts demanding faith. His account of his schooling is characteristic:

When I left Harrow I was all but nineteen, and I had at first gone there at seven. During the whole of those twelve years no attempt had been made to teach me anything but Latin and Greek. The assertion will scarcely be credited, but I do assert that I have no recollection of other tuition except that in the dead languages.

I feel convinced in my mind that I have been flogged oftener than any human being alive. It was just possible to obtain five scourgings in one day at Winchester, and I have often boasted that I obtained them all. Looking back over half a century, I am not quite certain whether the boast is true; but if 1 did not, nobody ever did. [29]

These are ostensibly facts, although they are guaranteed only by Trollope's assertion. They are, as it were, subjective facts, for which Trollope's own character, or his reputation as a truthful gentleman, can be the only ground of belief. To support our faith in his facts, we need to judge him, to know him. But his character is unique, as he has been at pains to have us realize, and hence hard to know and difficult to judge.

Trollope's difficulty in establishing a basis for belief stems from his ambivaient desire to be both common and unique, of the masses and above them. Success mattered to him intensely, but he never quite trusted the success he achieved. "To be known as somebody, — to be Anthony Trollope if it be no more, — is to be much" (78), he acknowledges, but he made the extraordinary experiment of publishing several novels anonymously to see if they would sell without his name. Perhaps Trollope's visit with Brigham Young is emblematic. "I called upon him," Trollope says:

sending to him my card, apologising for doing so without an intro duction and excusing myself by saying that I did not like to pass through the territory without seeing a man of whom I had heard so much. He received me in his doorway, not asking me to enter, and inquired whether I were not a miner. When I told him that I was not a miner, he asked me whether I earned my bread. I told him I did. 'I guess you're a miner,' said he. I again assured him that I was not. 'Then how do you earn your bread?' I told him that I did so by writing books. 'I'm sure you're a miner.' said he. Then he turned upon his heel. went back into the house, and closed the door. I was properly punished, as I was vain enough to conceive that he would have heard my name. [249]

Although he can, as here, laugh at his presumption, Trollope nonetheless presumes that we too will have heard his name, that we will know who he is. He pretends to be a laborer, but expects to be trusted as a gentleman.

When he seems to really take us into his confidence, Iss successfully evokes confidence in turn, but that happens only once, in the next to last paragraph. Speaking of his surviving sources of pleasure, he says: "Could I remember, as some men do, what 1 read, I should have been able to call myself an educated man. But that power I have never possessed. Something is always left — something dim and inaccurate,- but still something sufficient to preserve the taste for more. I am inclined to think that it is so with most readers" (262). Most readers at that point may want to say "ah, one of us at the very last," but the need in Trollope to seem singular reasserts itself, and he closes his book on the otherwise inconsequential note that he has been reading the English dramatists, and that "if I live a few years longer, I shall, I think, leave in my copies of these dramatists, down to the close of James I., written criticisms of every play. No one who has not looked closely into it knows how many there are" (262).

The sharpness of Trollope's sense of the impossibility of accurate self-knowledge or honest self-expression may have contributed to his limited response to the rhetorical problem of creating an appearance of honesty. He tells us once at the beginning that he shall say nothing untrue, and relies thereafter on his reputation as a gentleman among equals, and on our corresponding trust. But by assuming such an audience, he assumed certain limitations on frankness. There were things he might not say, even if he wished to. Manifest self-consciousness, for instance, would have been improper. The community of gentlemen does, in fact, guarantee Trollope's honesty, but it is an honesty restricted to a range much narrower 'han we may hope to find in autobiography, where polite 'ss is not always a virtue.

The autobiographer as natural historian: Darwin, Spencer, Mill

Few Victorian autobiographers share Troliope's skepticism about the possibility of honesty. Darwin, for example I claims in 1876: "I have attempted to write the following account of myself as if I were a dead man in another world looking back at my own life" (7). In Darwin this defense and its claim to objectivity suggests scientific method. The principal uncertainty of autobiography rises from the encounter of living self with deceitful memory, but Darwin's stance, "as if I were a dead man," fixes for observation his own life as surely as formaldehyde had fixed his collection of limpets. Beyond this defense ex morte Darwin's Autobiography hints at a community with the audience of his family: "A German Editor having written to me to ask for an account of the development of my mind and character, with some sketch of my autobiography, I have thought that the attempt would amuse me, and might possibly interest my children or their children" (8). Later, when he momentarily adopts the second person, all other audience than his family seems forgotten: "You all know well your Mother, and what a good Mother she has ever been to all of you" (6). Despite his immediate relation with his audience in this passage, the invocation of community is entirely naive, and made with no sense of its effects or consequences. As we read further we cannot, I think. Fail to grow skeptical: "She has ever been my greatest blessing, and I can declare that in my whole life I have never heard her utter one word which I had rather have been unsaid. . I have indeed been most happy in my family, and I must say to you my children that not one of you has ever given me one minute's anxiety, except on the score of health" (6). That account may, just possibly, be true in substance, but its style reeks of fiction, of those novels "which are works of the imagination, though not of a verv high order," of which Darwin says "a surprising number have been read aloud to me, and I like all if moderately good, and if they do not end unhappily — against which a law ought to be passed" (138). Darwin is basically unselfconscious. He doesn't hear himself speak in this passage, and is unaware of how suspicious we may be of his Pollyanna tone. It is precisely Gibbon's sensitivity to style, and the concomitant sense of audience, which Darwin lacks.

Herbert Spencer, writing between 1886 and 1894, continues the scientific tradition and calls his Autobiography a "natural history of myself" (vii). He chooses explicitly between modes of defense: "In years to come, when I shall no longer be conscious, the frankness with which the book is written may add to whatever value it has, but while 1 am alive it would, I think, be out of taste to address the public as though it consisted of personal friends" (IX). Good taste does not make good autobiography, but the English sense of reserve and decorum is at work. Self-exposure is indecent, and vanity is shameful, but some appearance of vanity is almost inevitable:

It is a provoking necessity that an autobiography should be egotistic. A biography is inevitably defective as lacking facts of importance and still more as giving imperfect or untrue interpretations of those facts which it contains; and an autobiography, by exhibiting its writer as continually talking about himself, is defective as making very salient a trail which may not perhaps be stronger than usual. The reader has to discount the impression produced as well as he can. [X]

Having expressed his generation's distaste for manifest egotism, Spencer here goes on to imply that the defects of biography are rectified in autobiography, which will have al1 the facts and interpret them correctly; and that the autobiographer's (i.e., his own) apparent egotism is a false impression generated by the medium itself. Although in this second point he is astutely aware of style, in both points Spencer reveals his basic unself-consciousness. Regarding the first, autobiographers such as Augustine have made clear the elusiveness, even in autobiography, of truth in fact or interpretation. Regarding the second, which is intended as self-defense, Darwin gives contrary testimony, having written of Spencer: "I think that he was extremely egotistical" (108). Spencer's comments may be a response to Darwin, but if so the defense is even less convincing.

In so far as Darwin and Spencer are writing "natural history," it seems appropriate that they should adopt posthumous publication and the associated defense ex morte to establish themselves as disinterested observers objectively reporting the facts. But posthumous publication is adopted also by John Stuart Mill, for whom subjective experience has major importance. Actually, Mill makes no defense at all, says nothing about when the book is to be published, says nothing about the difficulty or inaccuracy of reminiscence, nothing about vanity, nothing about truth. Lucid prose and clear intentions go far toward encouraging our belief, but we may still wonder at Mill's apparent unconsciousness of the imputations to which autobiography may be subject.

The gloomy crisis in Mill's mental history was first resolved by his reading in Marmontel's Memoires a sentimental passage that sounds today highly self-conscious and artificial. In the aftermath of his emotional response Mill adopted a theory "having much in common with . . . the anti-self-consciousness theory of Carlyle": "Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so." He might also have said, "ask yourself whether you are truthful, and you cease to be so" (100). In each case self-consciousness is the canker in the bud. Darwin, Spencer, and Mill avoid introspection and thus avoid doubts and anxiety about the veracity of their self-image. It is not surprising that they should do so, for they are, professionally, men dedicated to objective truth, to fact. Mill's discovery of the importance of feeling and emotion, his discovery, that is, of the inner life, doesn't bring him to doubt the possibility of describing that life accurately, because he immediately objectifies what he discovers. Mill urges on his friend Roebuck that

the imaginative emotion which an idea, when vividly conceivEd. excites in us, is not an illusion but a fact, as real as any of the other qualities of objects; and far from implying anything erroneous and delusive in our mental apprehension of the object, is quite consistent with the most accurate knowledge and most perfect practica! iccognition of all its physical and intellectual laws and relation. [106-107]

He thus redeems the inner life, imagination, and emotion bv identifying them with the real world of objects. If the emotions associated with perception are not erroneous and delusive, the autobiographer's fear that his highly charged memories may falsify experience becomes groundless. Mill is converted to an appreciation of individuality and imagination, but the imagination remains subject to "intellectual laws" and rational analysis and the individual excapes selfconsciousness. The extent of Mill's self-consciousness may be his observation, in a letter to Harriet of 1855, that "I know how deficient I am in self-consciousness & self observation.

The autobiographer acused: Newman

The only Victorian who equals Augustine in his awareness of the difficulty of securing unqualified belief for autobiography, or approaches his sensitivity to the elusiveness of truthful self-expression, is John Henry Newman. But, then, Newman was impelled io write the Apologia Pro Vita Sua by Kingsley's accusations, from among which he chose one against which to make his stand: "there is only one about which I much care, — the charge of Untruthfulness." Confronting Kingsley's quotation of his own words that "it is not more than a hyperbole to say, that, in certain rases, a lie is the nearest approach to truth," Newman necessarily makes his defense against the charge of lying detailed, elaborate, and explicit.

Newman was not merely accused of telling a lie, but of being a liar, and the effect, as he observes, is to "poison the wells" (6). Until that comprehensive charge is dispelled nothing that Newman says can escape its taint:

If Mr. Kingsley is able thus to practise upon my readers, the more I succeed, the less will be my success. If I am natural, he will tell them, 'Ars est celare artem'; if I am convincing, he will suggest that I am an able logician; if I show warmth, I am acting the indignant innocent; if I am calm, I am thereby detected as a smooth hypocrite; if I clear up difficulties, I am too plausible and perfect to be true. The more triumphant are my statements, the more certain will be my defeat. [7]

Kingsley here serves Newman as the traditional voice of autobiographical self-doubt, accusing him of artful deceit, hypocrisy, and acting. "He called me a liar," says Newman, and "what I needed was a corresponding antagonist unity in my defence" (11), for his very identity had been challengEd. Newman responds to Kingsley's question "What does Dr. Newman mean?" by pointing out the implications of his antagonist's question: "He asks what I mean; not about my words, not about my arguments, not about my actions, as his ultimate point, but about that living intelligence by which I write, and argue, and act. He asks about my Mind and its Beliefs and its Sentiments" (12). Words, arguments, and actions are the stuff of superficial autobiographies, the "natural histories" of sell; but the charge of lying, whether leveled by an external adversary like Kingsley or by the adversary in one's own soul, stimulates autobiography of a different sort: "I must, I said, give the true key to my whole life; I must show what I am that it may be seen what I am not, and that the phantom may be extinguished which gibbe instead of me. I wish to be known as a living man, and ot as a scarecrow which is dressed up in my clothes" (12). Newman's task is to distinguish surface from substance, to discover the real to extinguish, as did Augustine, the Manichean phantom of the false and divided self.

Newman thus faces the familiar autobiographical task of affirming his own true unity. Like other converts, he must "distinguish between his past self and his present" (402) to show that he was not then what he is now; not only to affirm the change, but also to prove that he was not then already converted — was not then lying. At the same time, to make us understand the connection between past and I present and their basic unity, he must indicate how minute were the increments of change.

Newman's own self-consciousness fed the suspicions leveled against him. When Tract 90 was published he saw, from the reaction, that "Confidence in me was lost," but he had, he says, "already lost full confidence in myself." "How was I any more to have absolute confidence in myself? how was I to have confidence in my present confidence? how was I to be sure that I should always think as I thought I now?" (88) He had, he says, a "secret longing love of Rome, . . . And it was the consciousness of this bias in myself which made me preach so earnestly against the danger of being swayed by our sympathy rather than our reason in religious inquiry" (152). This self-consciousness becomes iin element of Newman's defense as it enables him so exactly to express the position of his opponents.

Among the other elements of Newman's self-defense, his articulate style, careful logic, clear ideas, and precise facts, we must also recognize the impression he gives of self-exposure. "I mean," he says, "to be personal . . . to speak out my own heart" (13). It is commonplace to say that "It is not at all pleasant for me to be egotistical; nor to be criticised for being so" (14), but Newman's expressions of distaste are made so elaborate, and placed so significantly once at the end of the Preface, and again at the beginning of the central "History of my Religious Opinions from 1839 to 1841," that we come to credit them. The sense of self-exposure he generates works to suggest an intimacy with his readers, and hence a sense of commun'ty with them. Very early he evokes that community by reminding his readers of how well they know him:

Whatever judgment my readers may eventually form of me from these pages. 1 am confident that they will believe me in what I shall ^y in the course of them. I have no misgiving at all, that they will be ungenerous or harsh with a man who has been so long before the eyes of the world; who has so many to speak of him from personal knowledge; whose natural impulse it has ever been to speak out. [7]

He goes on to characterize himself in such a way as to impart a sense of precisely such personal knowledge. Our larger sense of intimacy comes from Newman's meticulous introspection, which encourages us to believe (as we never do Gibbon) that he is indeed naked before us. But there is also at work to encourage our belief a real community, a brotherhood of auditors, to which Newman directs this work; and which he invokes on his last page: "my dearest brothers of this House, the Priests of the Birmingham Oratory," with whom he prays to be "brought at length, by the Power of the Divine Will, into One Fold under One Shepherd" (252-253).

The affirmation of his veracity can occupy so large a place in Newman's thought because conversion yields him, as it did Augustine, a conviction of truth to which both life and autobiography must testify. Unified in soul, he must be on guard against the disunity of life. Unlike his contemporaries, he is therefore intimate, introspective, and wholly conscious of his own style.

The autobiographer as artist: Gosse

Self-consciousness and sensitivity to the issue of autobiographical honesty are natural correlates. The self-conscious autobiographer recognizes the autobiography itself as part of his self-characterization; he sees with Gibbon that "style is the image of character," and is therefore aware of the artificial element in any image of character he may create. His task becomes that of convincing us of the congruence of style and character, and h is to that end that he aims at a sense of intimacy. The would-be natural historian of himself, on the other hand, not wanting to admit to watching himself, puts on an objective style, and pretends to be talking about someone else. He thus presents himself as not only unbiased, but as free of any possible duplicity Lying speech is always duplicitous, aware of itself and of the truth it is not. Deceit, in other words, is always self-conscious, and so the natural historian avoids the appearance of self-consciousness to avoid the suspicion of deceit. But that can only be pretense, and it is really more honest to admit to self-consciousness. The difficulty this creates for an autobiographer like Augustine or Newman who has a personal truth to convince us of is not, as we have seen, insurmountable. Indeed, they find their way to truth through self-knowledge, according to the ancient injunction nosce te ipsum.

When self-consciousness becomes an end in itself, as it does for Edmund Gosse, the issue of honesty is transformed. The account which Gosse gives of his education in Father and Son is, as he says, "the record of the struggle between two temperaments, two consciences and almost two epochs."'' In broadest terms it records the struggle between Truth and Imagination, between the rigid Evangelical Puritanism of his father and his own dawning imaginative sensitivity. In the world of his parents all fiction, indeed, all art, was rejectEd. His mother noted in her diary that from early youth she "considered that to invent a story of any kind was a sin" (19), his father burned Gosse's copy of Jonson and Marlowe, and Gosse reports that "not a single fiction was read or told to me during my infancy" (20). By all their denial of the imagination his parents had, he says, "desired to make me truthful; the tendency was to make me positive and skeptical" (20).

We might imagine that as a skeptic Gosse would deal rigorously with the autobiographical claim to truthfulness, but he raises the issue only once. in his opening sentence:

At the present hour. when fiction takes forms so ingenious and specious, it is perhaps necessary to sav that the following narrative, ln all its parts, and so far as the punctilious attention of the writer has been able to keep it so, is scrupulously true. If it were not true, in this strict sense, to publish it would be to trifle with all those who may be induced to read it. (3)

Like the more conventional opposite disclaimer that "any Semblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidena ' Gosse's statement acknowledges the similarity of his account to fiction, but denies the identity. The similarity seems scarcely to trouble him, and, he shows little sensitivity to the role of style in creating the appearance of honesty. If this book is, as he claims, "nothing else if it is not a genuine slice of life," we may wonder how a plum such as the following got into the loaf from which the slice was cut:

This, then, was the scene in which the soul of a little child was planted, not as in an ordinary open flower-border or carefully tended social parterre, but as on a ledge, split in the granile of some mountain. The ledge was hung between night and the snows on one hand, and the dizzy depths of the world upon the other; was furnished with just soil enough for a gentian to struggle skywards and open its still azure stars; and offered no lodgment, no hope of salvation, to any rootlet which should stray behind its inexorable limits. [14]

Like Darwin's idealized account of his family, this is the stuff of fiction. But the "positive and skeptical" Gosse, trained to truthfulness, was not stylistically naive, and we must wonder why he felt no greater need to distinguish his account from fiction, and affirm his veracity.

The discovery of untruth was the central event in Gosse's mental history. He confused his father, he says, "in some sense with God." so that when one morning in his sixth year, he heard his father say something which "was not true" "the shock to me was as that of a thunderbolt." "The most curious" and for us most important consequence of this crisis is that "1 had found a companion and confidant in myself. There was a secret in this world and it belonged to me and to somebody who lived in the same body with me. There were two of us, and we could talk with one another" (28). The rest of his childhood is dedicated to the preservation of that secret self: "Through thick and thin I clung to a hard nut of individuality deep down in my childish nature. To the pressure from without, I resigned everything else, my thoughts, my words, my anticipations, my assurances, but there was something which I never resigned, my innate and persistent self." In the "consciousness of self" Gosse gained through this newly discovered inner duality we may recognize the potential for lying. Duality enables duplicity; if you can keep a secret you can choose to not tell the truth. In protecting that duality Gosse aims at a goal directly opposite to St. Augustine's.

Gosse's deconversion is, in significant detail, just the reverse of Augustine's conversion. Augustine's education began with literature. As a schoolboy he loved theatre, and won a pri/e for his reading of a speech of Juno's from the Ai'neid. His traiiiing in rhetoric was training in the surface rather than the substance of words, and he moved only gradually toward a penetration of the surface and an insistence on Truth. Augustine was tormented by the duality he discovered in himself, which he refers to as "this debate within my heart ... of myself against myself" (VIII, 11, 27), and he devoted all his effort and prayer to resolving that duality and restoring his soul's unity in God. At the climactic moment of conversion he refers to theater as a temptation away from Truth ("If one of us debates with himself . . . whether he should go to the theatre or to our church" [VIII, 10, 33]) and when, finally, he takes to heart the words of Scripture, "Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and impurities . . . but put you on the Lord Jesus Christ," he rejects the world of theater and "all the dark shadows of doubt fled away" (VIII, 12, 29).

The setting of Gosse's climactic deconversion is an "open window at the top of the school-house," a sort of tower from which he "gazed down on a labyrinth of gardens sloping to the sea" (20), a setting, we may note, remarkably like one in Ostia, "a certain window, where we could look into the garden" (IX, 10, 23) wherein Augustine and his mother shared their mystic vision. But for Gosse the tower is not a way of ascent to God, but a prison, keeping him from the world. As a child he was, he says, "most carefully withdrawn, like Princess Blanchelleur in her marble fortress" (26), and even later "my soul was shut up, like Ruima, in a tower to which no external influences could come" (146). Like Augustine at a comparable climax, Gosse's sense of his double nature is particularly strong: "I was at one moment devoutly pious, at the next haunted by visions of material beauty and longing for sensuous impressions. In my hot and silly brain, Jesus and Pan held sway together" (209). It is the moment of sunset, and he prays for Jesus to come "and take me before I have known the temptations of life. before I have to go to London and all the dreadful things that happen there." He concludes:

This was the highest moment of my religious life, the apex of my striving after holiness. I waited awhile, watching; and then I had a little shame at the theatrical attitude I had adopted, although I was alone. Still I gazed and still I hopEd. Then a little breeze sprang up, and the branches danced. Sounds began to rise from the road beneath me. Presently the colour deepened, the evening came on. From far below there rose to me the chatter of the boys returning home. The tea-bell rang. — the last word of prose to shatter my mystical poetry. 'The lord has not come, the Lord will never come,' I muttered, and in my heart the artificial edifice of extravagant faith began to totter and crumble. From that moment forth my Father and I, though the fact was long concealed from him and even from myself, walked in opposite hemispheres of the soul, with 'the thick o' the world' between us. [210]

What interrupts this would-be ecstasy, this yearning for surrender and unification, is self-consciousness, "shame at the theatrical attitude I had adopted," the recognition that he is acting. The world that had been stilled, stirs, and stirs desire; the shadows which had fled from Augustine tall; and the completed separation from his father, as if in "opposite hemispheres of the soul," seems a figure for the confirmed duality of his own nature.

As Gosse moves away from the unity of faith and the belief in Truth, he moves towards a theatricality which implies not only an acceptance of lying but almost a defense of it. Not that he advocates dishonesty, but rather such polite prudence as we have seen in Hunt and Trollope. "Even at the age of eleven," says Gosse, "one sees that on certain occasions to press home the truth is not convenient" (155). In the epilogue, as he judges his father who was a natural historian, Gosse defends "prudence" as part of the civilized life:

My Father was entirely devoid of the prudence which turns away its eyes and passes as rapidly as possible in the opposite direction. Tin- peculiar kind of drama in which every sort of discomfort is welcomed rather than that the characters should be happy when guilty of 'acting a lie' was not invented in those days, and there can hardly be imagined a figure more remote from my Father than Ibsen. Yet when I came, at a far later date, to read 'The Wild Duck' memories of the embarrassing household of my infancy helped me to realise Gregers Warle, with his determination to pull the veil of illusion away from every compromise that makes life bearable. [222]

Gosse comes down in favor of the veil of illusion, in defense of the lie that makes life bearable. Even if complete honesty were possible it would be undesirable, for he wants to preserve the privacy of his hard-won inner world. like Trollope, therefore, he rests his credibility on his identity as a gentleman, one who would not "trifle with all those who may be induced to read," and thereby establishes his right to privacy.

The most celebrated defense of lying is of course Oscar Wilde's essay "The Decay of Lying" (text) where he laments the increasing factuality of novels. Like Gosse, Wilde wants his veil of illusion whole: "What is interesting about people in good society," he says, ". . is the mask that each one of them wears, not the reality that lies behind the mask" (14). "Truth is . a matter of style," and reality and identity matters of appearance, for beneath the sin-face "we are all of us made out of the same stuff" (29). Wilde nonetheless finds autobiography irresistible: "when people talk to us about others they are usually dull. When they talk to us about themselves they are nearly always interesting" ("Critic as Artist, 97-98). Because autobiography interests Wilde he presumes it to be the work of liars, whose aim he has defined as "simply to charm, to delight, to give pleasure" (28).

Augustine's self-searching pursuit of Truth marks the discovery of the individual. Wilde's defense of lying, which is part of his response to the Victorian avoidance of introspection and transformation of autobiography into public, objective history, is really a reaffirmation of the individual, but it mocks the autobiographical claim to veracity because all the available truths have become truths of imagination. Gosse, speaking of himself in the third person says that "the young man's conscience threw off once and for all the yoke of his 'dedication' and, as respectfully as he could, without parade or remonstrance, he took a human being's privilege to fashion his inner life for himself." He might be describing Stephen Dedalus in Joyce's Portrait of the Artist, flying by the "nets of religion, nationality, and language," to "forge in the smithy of mv soul the uncreated conscience of my race" (253). Gosse, like Dedalus, has become an artificer, because the inner self is no longer considered a scientific fact but is recognized as an imaginative creation.

It may be, as Trollope suspected, that no autobiographer can tell the whole truth, but no autobiographer can wish to be taken for a liar either. What he writes can have no standing as autobiography if it is not thought to be true, at least as far as it goes. Narratives we know to be untrue we call fictions. Almost all autobiographers make some gesture, therefore, toward affirming their honesty, although some, like Mill, may assume that the identification of their narrative as autobiography is gesture enough. To the Victorian autobiographers who approached themselves objectively the problem of honesty apparently seemed slight, and the defense ex morte sufficient. More introspective and self' conscious autobiographers see the claim to objectivity as a rhetorical pose, and aim instead at intimacy and sincerity But this defense ex vita is rhetoric too. Because self-consciousness seems to preclude sincerity, or at least its appearance, even if you could tell the whole truth of your self, you still might be unable to convince people you were doing so. As the objective standards of truth with which Augustine and Newman could identify themselves grew inaccessible, therefore, defenses against the imputation of lying gave way to a defense of lying itself. This is not only the result of an increase in self-consciousness, or the willingness to appear self-conscious, although that plays its part too. There is also a concomitant shift in the conception of the self that autobiography intends to reveal. For the natural historians, the self was an object of description. Gosse, on the other hand, can speak of "fashioning" his inner life because the self has become something discovered, revealed, or created by the autobiographer. The self has come to be seen as the creation of its language. What I have spoken of as Gosse's defense of lying is really therefore a defense of style: a defense of language as the instrument of selfcreation, self-discovery, and self-preservation. As some autobiographers embraced once again Buffon's dictum that "le style est l'homme meme," they may have felt that protestations of honesty were unnecessary, since far more effectively than by historical fact, their naked truth would inevitably stand revealed by their very words themselves.

Bibliography

The Confessions of St. Augustine. Trans. John K. Ryan. (Im : Books: Garden City, 1960. Book X, chapter 3, paragraph 3.

The Autobiography of Charles Darwin. Ed. Nora Barlow. London: Collins, 1958. p. 21.

The Autobiography of Edward Gibbon. Ed. Dero A. Saunders. New York: Meridian Books, 1961.

Gosse, Edmund. Father and Son. Ed. William Irvine. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965.

Hume, David. "My Own Life," in Essays: Moral, Political, and Literary. Ed. T. H. Green. London: Longmans, Green, 1898.

Hunt, Leigh. Autobiography. New York: Harper Brothers, 1850.

Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. New York: Viking 1964.

McConnell, Frank D. The Confessional Imagination. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974.

Mill, John Stuart. Autobiography. Ed. John Jacob Coss. New York: Columbia University Press, 1924.

_____. The Later Letters of John Stuart Mill, 1849-1873. Ed. Francis E. Mineka. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1972.

Newman, John Henry. Apologia Pro Vita Sua. Ed. Martin J. Svaglic. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967) .

Spencer, Herbert. An Autobiography.New York: Appleton, 1904.

Anthony Trollope, An Autobiography. volume 1 of "The Shakespean Head Trollope." Oxford: Blackwell, 1929.

Wilde, Oscar. "The Decay of Lying," Intentions. London: Osrood, Mcllvaine, 1891.


Victorian Web Genre and Style Literary Technique Autopbiography

Last modified 1 July 2012