Autobiography and the fictional autobiography each present an unwieldy and intriguing entanglement of lives. An autobiography does not simply represent its writer's life; a fictional autobiography often conflates the lives of its writer and narrator. The writer's and the narrator's lives are situated in the autobiography and the fictional autobiography, which in turn are situated in a larger matrix: the culture that contains these texts. Three fictional autobiographies — Elizabeth Barrett Browning's verse-novel Aurora Leigh (1856), Charles Dickens's novel Great Expectations (1861), and Graham Swift's novel Waterland (1983) — all test how sharply and accurately the fictional autobiography renders the development of a life and its intersection with culture.

In The Genre of Autobiography in Victorian Literature, Clinton Machann argues that the formal conventions of autobiography and the development of a life are naturally suited to each other and, moreover, inextricably intertwined.

Any attempt to describe a substantial portion of a human life must result in narrative, because each life is essentially a matter of linear development through time. The growth and subsequent deterioration of the human body is only its most obvious, outer aspect. The mind must develop through time as well, and both body and mind are enmeshed in history. [Machann 5]

Machann's position dovetails with a critical formulation in Linda Peterson's Victorian Autobiography: The Tradition of Self-Interpretation. Peterson suggests that most readers designate the autobiography as a "mirror" or a "book." Machann argues that the genre is clearly the equivalent of a mirror: the autobiographical narrative naturally reflects the progression of a life in its own unfolding.

In contrast, Robert Scholes and Robert Kellogg align the autobiographical narrative not with the mirror but the book. They argue that the book constructs writing just as the autobiography constructs life. Both forms strain their subjects through the filters of contemporary culture and literary convention. Scholes and Kellogg claim that "All knowing and all telling are subject to the conventions of art. Because we apprehend reality through culturally determined types, we can report the most particular event only in the form of a representational fiction" (Scholes 151). To code a life in terms of "culturally determined types" is to translate the life of an individual into the language of a culture, thus inscribing personal experience in a broader cultural context.

Especially within Victorian culture, these codes include Linda Peterson's "Biblical typology" and Avrom Fleishman's "personal myth." Peterson describes Biblical typology as "a specific method of Biblical hermeneutics, whose strategies for interpretation the autobiographer adopts almost directly in his attempt to discover the meaning of his life" (Peterson 6). Peterson traces the shifting cultural constructions of this code:

Biblical typology posited a system of interpretation in which characters, events, and sacred objects of the Old Testament prefigured Christ or some aspect of Christian doctrine. In common practice, however, especially among Puritans and later among Evangelicals, most of these Old Testament types were also applied to the lives of individual Christians. Samson destroying the Philistine temple, for example, might typify Christ destroying the forces of evil through his death on the cross, but he could also typify the Christian believer who, in battle with evil, triumphs but suffers greatly because of his ordeal. [Peterson 6]

Avrom Fleishman's personal myth also imposes symbolic order on a life: the myth is a "literary [resource] for developing coherent accounts of the self" (Fleishman, "Personal Myth," 216) and "a series of metaphors of the self (or of the course of its life)" (217).

E. B. Browning, Charles Dickens, and Fictional Autobiography


Vict. Web OV Aurora Leigh Gender Great Genre and Style

Last modified: 29 November 2000;
Thanks to Robert W. M. Greaves for catching some broken links.