Decorated initial W

hen John Ruskin traveled abroad for the fitst 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 Bunyan's in the bag," Ruskin wrore back. "You know it is not at all in my way." Bunyan's book—an autobiographical account of youthful depravity, conviction of sin, and dramatic conversion—was not to Ruskin's taste because, as he explained to his mother, it displayed a man who dwelt "painfully and exclusively on the relations of the Deity to his own little self," who puzzled over promptings he believed were of the devil and let biblical texts come "jingling into his head," who was "always looking to his own interests or his own state, loving or fearing or doubting, just as he happened to fancy God was dealing with him."1 The book was, in other words, a classic version of the spiritual autobiography, and Ruskin's complaints against it virtually define the genre. From Bunyan's era to Ruskin's, the spiritual autobiography demanded an intense introspection and retrospection of the writer's life and a rigorous interpretation of his experience in terms of biblical texts or patterns of biblical history. Ruskin put the matter to his mother in specific rather than generic terms, but when he decided to write his own autobiography in 1885, forty years after that European rour, he set out to produce a different sort of book. As if in answer to Bunyan's morbid fancies and self-lacerations, [1/2] Ruskin decided, as he explained in the preface to Praeterita, that he would compose his autobiographical sketches "at ease," "speaking of what it gives me joy to remember" and "passing in total silence things which I have no pleasure in reviewing" (25.11). His autobiography was to reject Bunyan's mode of spiritual introspection, just as he had by then rejected his mother's religion. It was to be a memoir of past experience, an extroitive account of what he chose to recall and record.

Despite the disclaimer, Bunyan's funny little book stayed quite a bit "in the way" for Ruskin. For Bunyan's autobiographical mode was nor easily avoided—either by Ruskin or by other Victorians who attempted to write autobiography, whether in its spiritual or newly secular form. Victorian autobiographers had to contend with a generic tradition that had developed from the spiritual autobiographies of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and with the methods of imagining and interpreting the self that that tradition had shaped. Their ways of contending, which comprise the chapters of this book, are diverse and fascinatingly complex, but for all of them the generic tradition presented a curious paradox: that autobiography, apparently the most personal and individual of literary genres, is in fact a highly conventional, even prescriptive form, and that its generic conventions shape our ways of thinking about the most private aspects of our lives.3 If Ruskin responded, at least ostensibly, by attempting to reject the tradition and thus evade its influence, other Victorian autobiographers acknowledged the burden of the past and coped by manipulating or modifying the forms they had inherited from their generic predecessors.

Anyone who attempts to trace the history of a literary genre, especially one like autobiography which itself raises questions of historical method, recognizes soon that histories are created by interpreters and that interpretations depend upon chosen points of origin. For most literary historians, the history of autobiography as a genre begins with either a mirror or a book. Those who choose the mirror tend to see the genre as one of self-presentation; for them autobiography begins when Renaissance man learns to make mirrors and receives a reflection back from the glass he has created. Those literary historians [2/3] who, in contrast, choose the book tend to treat the genre as one of self-interpretation; autobiography begins for them in the act of reading, initially the book of Scripture but later other books of autobiography, and this act of reading provides the versions of history that autobiographers then use to interpret the lives they cell. My own study of Victorian autobiography is deliberately bookish, and it chooses to be so on both cultural and methodological grounds. The view of autobiography as self-presentation is essentially French, the qualities of the genre finding full expression in Rousseau's Confessions. The view of autobiography as self-interpretation is more typically English, the originating example being John Bunyan's Grace Abounding.4 The decision to write literary history necessarily turns my attention to books, which were the sources that English autobiographers themselves turned to when contemplating their lives.

The line of descent from Bunyan to the Victorians, a line which this chapter traces, passes through a series of minor but popular practitioners of the spiritual autobiography in the eighteenth century-writers like William Cowper, John Newton, George Whitefield, and Thomas Scott. It bypasses more prestigious men like Edward Gibbon and Roger North who wrote in the public, res gestae mode. According to John N. Morris's account of this literary descent, the spiritual autobiographers transmitted a sensibility that "value(d) the private and the inward more highly than the public and the outward," a sensibility that we now call Romantic but that Morris argues is at root religious. The gradual ascendance of this sensibility in social and literary realms allowed the spiritual autobiography, rather than the res gestae form, to become the dominant mode of autobiography in the English tradition by the beginning of the nineteenth century. "Self," as Morris puts it, "became the modern word for soul."5

If a general shift in literary sensibility made possible the ascendance of the introspective spiritual autobiography by the end of the eighteenth century, we might focus more specifically on a continuity in method to explain the transmission of generic form from Bunyan to the Victorians. That method I shall call "hermeneutic"—hermeneutic first in the sense that it foregrounds self-interpretation rather [3/4] than narration or self-expression, but hermeneutic also in the sense that it appropriates its principles and strategies of interpretation from biblical hermeneutics. The designation "hermeneutic" recognizes that autobiography distinguishes itself as a genre by the act of interpretation rather than the act of presentation, that its emphasis lies in the understanding of events rather than in the art of narrating them. In discussions of hermeneutic method since the early nineteenth century, theologians and philosophers have made this distinction, separating explication from interpretation or, to borrow Schleiermacher's terminology, Darstellen (the art of presentation) from Verstehen (the art of understanding). According to Schleiermacher, Darstellen is a necessary part of the hermeneutic enterprise, but Verstehen is its focus, "ein Object der Hermeneutik."6 A recent commentator on hermeneutics since Schleiermacher phrases the distinction this way: "it is one operation to formulate something and bring it to speech; it is quite another and distinct operation to understand what is spoken."7

In autobiography, as in other hermeneutic forms, both presentation and interpretation play a part. The autobiographer must concern himself with the presentation of his life, a concern he may execute with the narrative skill of the novelist. But his ultimate goal lies beyond such narration, beyond thetorical formulation. In this goal the autobiography differs from the novel, which has always valued (re)presentation over other arts and which has, at least in some periods, eschewed explicit interpretation. The autobiographer focuses less on narrative emplotment than on explicit interpretation. This focus may help to explain why the finest practitioners of the genre in the Victorian era were historians, philosophers, and critics rather than novelists and why readers who value the autobiography have been those who take special interest in the interpretative act.

The fact that autobiography includes both presentation and interpretation, however, creates a continual temptation to ignore or blur the distinction. Indeed, many critics of the autobiography have simply treated the genre as a variant of the novel, whether as a sub-genre or as a prefigurative form that eventually merged with (or transformed itself into) the novel. In a seminal study of the English autobiography, for example, Wayne Shumaker classified examples [4/5] according to three modes: the expository, the narrative, and a "mixed" transitional mode that was common in the Victorian period and that suggested to him a gradual evolution throughout the nineteenth century from exposition to a "fully novelized form." In a subsequent study, Design and Truth in Autobiography, Roy Pascal implicitly adopted Shumaker's approach and raised what he defined as the related problem of narrative fiction versus historical truth. Because of his approach, Pascal had little praise for the classic Victorian autobiographies, but approved those, such as Brontë's Villette and Dickens' David Copperfield, that were already novelistic in form. Even an otherwise appealing treatment of the genre, William C. Spengemann's The Forms of Autobiography, only modifies Shumaker's original three modes with a more sophisticated taxonomy. Like Shumaker, Spengemann sees a formal modulation from the "historical" to the "philosophical" to the "poetic," a modulation that "rehears[esl the entire development of the genre from the Middle Ages to the modern era. Spengemann labels his final stage "poetic," but it is represented primarily by novels: David Copperfield, The Scarlet Letter, and (the one exception) Sartor Resartus.8

It may be true that there is a convergence of the novel and some forms of the autobiography at the end of the nineteenth century. But by describing an evolutionary progress from exposition to narrative or, alternatively, from the historical to the poetic, literary historians create a past that never was. Historically speaking, exposition and narrative did not develop as separate entities or emphases in the autobiography. Both were present from its beginning: the genre has always been, in Shumaker's phrase, a "mixed mode." Moreover, shifts in emphasis from the expositional to the narrative have often provided— from the beginning of autobiography as a genre—a pattern for novelists and storytellers to imitate in the writing of their fictional genres. As both G.A. Starr and J. Paul Hunter have shown in their studies of Robinson Crusoe, Defoe created his novel by adapting the materials of contemporary spiritual autobiography to a fictional purpose. Their descriptions of Defoe's adaptations are revealing: Defoe shifted his emphasis away from an exposition about the state of sin or gift of grace and concentrated instead on a narrative of the conversion process, rich with fascinating details. With a shift in the direction of [5/6] intricate, fascinated and fascinating presentation, the autobiographical form becomes more like what we commonly call a novel.

Shifts of this sort have occurred frequency during the past two centuries and have occurred even within the spiritual autobiography itself. It may be a mistake to see in them, however, any significant generic trend. Readers of the autobiography from Bunyan to Ruskin have always noticed how different in structure and intention the autobiographical episode is from an episode in a short taie or a chapter of a contemporary novel: whereas the novelist takes primary delight in the telling of his tale, the spiritual autobiographer often summarizes or curtails his narrative, as if he wished the telling over so that he could get on to something else. This difference reflects the autobiographer's interest in interpreranon rather than in narration or self-expression.

In short, the evolutionary meraphor, so comfortable to us in a post-Darwinian age, may be in some sense applicable to the development of the genre, but not in the sense that it sees the "novelized autobiography" or the "autobiography of poetic self-expression" as the producr of an evolutionary process. If the metaphor applies, it works best to explain the demise of a species of spiritual autobiography, plentiful during much of the nineteenth century but nearly extinct at the beginning of the twentieth.

Before considering the causes of that demise, however, we need first to trace the ascendance of the spiritual autobiography as the primary form of autobiographical writing in the Victorian era and to understand its connection with a specific method of biblical hermeneutics, whose strategies for interpretation the autobiographer adapted almost directly in his attempt to discover the meaning of his life.9 For by calling the autobiography "hermeneutic," I mean also to suggest that the genre depended upon—perhaps originated in—a particular sysrem of biblical hermeneutics known as typology.

Decorated initial I

n its most orthodox form, biblical typology posited a system of interpretation in winch characters, events, and sacred objects of the [6/7] 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 the individual Christians.10 Samson destroying the Philistine temple, for example, might typify Christ desrroying 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. Moses leading the Israelites to the promised land might typify Christ leading his followers to spirirual redemption, but he could also typify a great, divinely ordained political leader or a humble, but also divinely ordained, spiritual pastor.

In the preface to Grace Abounding Bunyan uses Moses in just this way to justify the publication of his personal narrative: "Moses (Numb. 53.I,2) writ of the Journeyings of the children of Israel, from Egypt to the Land of Canaan;... Wherefore this I have endeavoured to do; and not onely so, but to publish it also; that. if God will, others may be put in remembrance of what he hath done for their Souls, by reading his work upon me" (2) Bunyan also uses David's lyrical ourpourings in the Psalms as a type of his own literary outpourings from the Bedford jail and Samson's struggle with the lion in Judges 14, from whose carcass was extracted a drop of honey, as a type of the spiritual benefit gained from struggle with the enemy. The possibilities for the personal application of types were almost infinite, limited only by the principles of typological hermeneutics and by the interpreter's imagination.

Because the spiritual autobiographer borrowed his fundamental interpretive strategy from biblical typology, the account he produced often resembled—in its formal features—a sermon or a segment of biblical commentary. Typically, a commentary that uses typology to interpret a biblical text includes three parts: (1) the pericope or quotation of the text itself, (2) a narrative redaction of the passage if it is episodic or an expositional restatement if is is not, and (3) the commentator's interpretation of the biblical material. Of the three, the last is most significant, the pericope and the narrative redaction preparing for and sometimes anticipating the interpretation that the commentator will propose. In spiritual autobiography, most episodes combine these same parts and with the same relative emphasis. The [7/8] pericope may be present in the autobiographical text as a quotation from a diary, a letter, or even a previously published work. More likely it is absent, hidden from the reader's view, perhaps existing only in the autobiographer's memory. The narrative redaction corresponds to the text that the autobiographer creates from his past as he narrates what he remembers as significant or whar he has recorded before as significant. This narrative, (re)created by the autobiographer, becomes the written text which he, like the biblical commentator, then interprets. As in biblical commentary, the autobiographer presents pericope and narrative redaction for the sake of interpretive commentary.

The locus classicus of this autobiographical structure—and of the hermeneutic imperative I describe—appear at the midpoint of Bunyan's Grace Abounding, that funny little book of which Ruskin so disapproved.12 The episode is a crucial one, that of Bunyan's temptation to deny Christ. Recorded in sections 131 through 173, the temptation consumes Bunyan's attention for fully one-tenth of the autobiography. The episode is in trod need with the general observation char "grievous and dreadful reinpration" often strikes when the believer feels most secure, and it is followed by a straightforward narrative of Satan's prompting to self Christ, "to exchange him for the things of this life; for any thing" (sections 132—33. Despite his memory that the episode lasted for fully a year, without a day's respite, Bunyan allows very little narrative space to the temptation itself: only eight of the forty-three sections.

This brevity has nothing to do with narrative incapacity, for when Bunyan chooses to narrate, he renders his tale with remarkable skill. He suggests the scope of the temptation in a series of predicates—"I could neither eat my food, scoop for a pin, chop a stick, or cast mine eye to look on this or that, but still the temptation would come" (135)—that neatly encompass all of his experience; he uses similes—"as on a rack" (136) or "as a Bird that is shot from the top of a Tree" (140)—to convey the intensity of the temptation and the seriousness with which he struggled; and he describes the physiological effects of prolonged stress when he remembers his body, quite against his will, being "put into action or motion, by way of pushing [8/9] or thrusting with my hands or elbows" (137). But although Bunyan can write powerful narrative and seems to take pleasure in doing so, his instinct as autobiographer is to limit the narrative's space. This one he cuts short with a "But to be brief," concluding with a three-sentence account of how he finally succumbed. His inclination, like that of the genre itself, is toward interpretation, toward a resolution of the hermeneutic dilemma that his actions once created and that his narrative now revives as a rext.

For Bunyan, that dilemma has to do with meaning, with the Spiritual significance of his actions, and it is at this point that hermeneutics in the second sense impinges upon autobiographical writing. For as Bunyan begins interpretation, the strategies of biblical typology consume his attention and shape his autobiographical account. Looking with a typologist's eye for an Old Testament figure whose predicament foreshadows (and thus explains) his own, he seizes upon Esau as a likely type. Just as Esau sold his birthright for a pottage of lentils, he believes that he has sold his spiritual inheritance for the perishables of this world and has doomed himself eternally to nothing "but damnation, and an expectation of damnation" (142). Bunyan's authority for this interpretation seems almost indisputable. Not only does the Old Testament narrative of Esau's sell-out seem parallel to his own, but the New Testament concurs that the story of Esau is a type of the Christian who loses his salvation through neglect or outright apostasy. Hebrews 12:16—17, which Bunyan quotes in its entirety, warns against such neglect or denial as the sin that may find no forgiveness: "Or profane person, as Esau, who for one morsel of meat, sold his Birth-right; for you know how that aftern'ards when he would have inherited thv blessing, he was rejected, for he found no place of repentance, though he sought it carefully with tears' (141).

As Bunyan describes the hermeneutic situation, he as interpreter is quite passive, the interpretation coming to him rather than he coming upon the interpretation: "And withal, that Scripture did seize upon my Soul (l4l). Surely this is a predicament that many an autobiographer finds himself in, unable to resist interpretation, uncomfortable with the results. Yet despite the proclamation of passivity, Bunyan works actively as interpreter for the next thirty [9/10] sections, as if obsessed with the hermeneucic possibilities of his situation. The reason for his obsession is clear. If he accepts Esau as a correlative rype, he also accepts his eternal damnation. This is a fate he quite literally cannot live with. Thus, for another thirty sections, he continues to interpret, surveying both Old and New Testament types who sinned grievously, weighing New Testament promises and threats one against another—in short, re-interpreting his original sin.

Like the initial interpretation, these subsequent re-interpretations follow the procedures of biblical typology: they attempt to discover parallels between the actions of a biblical character and those of the autobiographer. Bunyan tries out David because Ins "heinous crimes" were "committed after light and grace received (151), Peter because he denied his Savior "after warning given him" (154), Solomon because he fell into idolatry, "doing this after light, in his old age, after great mercy received" (170), and a series of other biblical types, all of whom sinned after receiving the blessing of God. Ultimately, Bunyan rejects all of these types as inapplicable to his situation.

What is important for the reader of Grace Abounding as autobiography to recognize is that Bunyan has already devoted five times as much effort to interpretation as to narration and that he seems willing to continue such interpretation indefinitely—or at least until he finds a hermeneutic solution that releases him from damnation. Indeed, in sections 151—60 and again in 165—71, Bunyan runs through the list of possible biblical counterparts not once but twice. It is as if he hopes, in repetition, to stumble upon an example of mercy he missed the fitst time.

No doubt he might have run through the possibilities a third time or a fourth. What finally brings closure to the episode is not a solution, but another hermeneutic dilemma. Quite out of the blue, Bunyan feels "the noise of wind upon me" and hears "a Voice speaking, Didst ever refuse to be justified by the Blood of Christ" (174)? This new phenomenon demands interpretation, and the previous hermeneutic cycle ceases. [10/11]

<leaf image from Yale edition>
Decorated initial I

f one were to adopt Ruskin's view of the matter, Bunyan's obsession with interpretation signals the effects of ill training and an undisciplined imagination. "A man who has general knowledge," Ruskin insisted to his parents in the same letter home from the continent, "has always too many subjects of thought and interest to admit of his noticing every time that a text comes jingling into his head, and a man of disciplined mind would not suffer any such morbid fancies as Bunyan describes to take possession of him or occupy his attention for a moment" (Works, 4.348-49n4). Ruskin deliberately misrepresents Bunyan's relationship to biblical texts in Grace Abounding, which do not come jingling into his head willy-nilly but come to mind, quite appropriately, when he is puzzling out some problem. Yet even if Bunyan is guilty of what might be called interpretive excess," he is guilty only because of the excess and not because of his insistence upon interpretation.

Autobiography requires the act of interpretation, a fact that literary historians have frequently noticed, if not always considered seriously as a generic trait. In his description of the religious literature that influenced Defoe, G. A. Starr has observed that in the typical spiritual autobiography of the seventeenth century

little stress was laid on the actual recording of experience, although this obviously had to precede any interpretations instructive to oneself or others. The consistent ability to get beyond the merely documentary, however, was one distinctive feature of spiritual autobiography.... Undertaken as a religious exercise, such compositions were not to dwell on the narration ot tact: fact was to serve purely as ground for reflection, and allowing it to become an end in itself would be a vain self-indulgence. [p. 27]

John N. Morris puts the case more emphatically in Versions of the Self when he argues that to neglect interpretation is "impious," for "it implies the acceptance of meaninglessness as a possibility, a notion incompatible with the fact that the data of experience are somehow God's dealings with us" (102). No doubt Ruskin was correct that Grace Abounding exhibits "morbid fancies," for Bunyan treats all the data of [11/12] experience, including his games of cat and the muddy water in thi rills of the lane he walks, as spiritually meaningful. But whether ar autobiographer possesses an undisciplined imagination or an utterly rational mind, he will produce interpretation if he writes autobiography. And if he writes spiritual autobiography, his interpretation, because it seeks to discover divine purpose and order in everyday life, will tend toward excess.

A century after Bunyan, spiritual autobiographers of various sorts, from the highly fanciful to the eminently sober, continued to practice autobiography iis a genre of self-interpretation, using the strategies derived from biblical typology that Bunyan had formulared. Their practice confirms this essential characteristic of the genre and its relation to a tradition of biblical hermeneutics. It represents, too, the link from Bunyan to the nineteenth century. As the immediate predecessors of the Victorians, these writers produced the prototypes from which the great literary autobiographies of the next century evolved.

At the fanciful extreme of the eighteenth century, the Memoir of the Early Life of William Cowper makes correct interpretation the measure of spiritual progress and faulty interpretation the mark of unpardonable sin. A man of unstable disposition from his youth, Cowper. periodically went mad, convinced that lie had sinned against the Holy Ghost. He wrote his autobiography in 1766 during a period of, psychological calm, probably in an attempt to understand his obsession and thereby rid himself or it.

Most of Cowper's account narrates the sequence of events that led to his attempted suicide in 1761, beginning with his failure to stand for an examination for a clerkship in the House of Lords and ending with his terrible "conviction of sin." As Cowper views his life rerrospectively, he concludes that much of his misfortune ensued from a willful misinterpretation of an experience that had occurred earlier in his life in the countryside near Freemantle. For months he had suffered from severe depression, seeking relief in prayer and spiritual meditation; then on a walk in the clear, calm morning air, in view of a sunlit sea, his depression lifted: "Here it was that on a sudden, as if another sun had been kindled that instant in the heavens on purpose [12/13] to dispel my sorrow and vexation of spirit, I felt the weight of all my misery taken off; my heart became light and joyful in a moment; I could have wept with transport had I been alone" (p. 11). the pun on sun/Son and the insistence on heavenly purpose suggest, Cowper had at that moment accepted the experience as an "unexpected blessing," as an "answer to prayer." Unfortunately, he later persuaded himself against the legitimacy of such a providential interpretation: "But Satan, and my own wicked heart, quickly persuaded me that I was indebted, for my deliverance, to nothing but a change of scene, and the amusing varieties of the place" (p. 12.) In rejecting his original response, Cowper takes an anti-hermeneutic stance. He decides that there can be no spiritual meaning to the Freemantle experience, only the sensory pleasure of the walk itself.

For Cowper as autobiographer, this error creates the central dilemma of his life and of his memoir. Because he once took a stance against interpretation, he fears that he has rejected the Holy Spirit and thus committed the unpardonable sin. To a modern reader, accustomed to and even pleased by a multiplicity of interpretations on the one hand and the groundlessness of interpretation on the other, Cowper's fear seems illogical in the extreme: surely one act of misinterpretation is pardonable. But Cowper's conclusion results from a finely tuned evangelical sense of hermeneutic responsibility. According to the New Testament, the Holy Ghost himself is the original Interpreter. To reject the interpretation He provides, whether of one event or all experience, is to commit an unredeemable error. It is to sin against the Holy Ghost.

To the reader, the fact that Cowper can recognize his error suggests that he is not lost. But because he once sinned by rejecting interpretation, he now feels compelled to record and analyze every possible providential intervention in his life. Because he once failed to interpret correctly, he finds himself condemned to a Sisyphean form of interpretation: although he may never interpret correctly, yet he must continue to risk the attempt. This compulsion produces the same peculiar qualities in Cowper's Memoir that Ruskin complained of in Grace Abounding. Even Cowper's publisher, who insisted that he was bringing out the work posthumously to refute the "calumny" that [13/14] "Piety has a direct tendency to produce insanity," noticed some of these peculiarities: Cowper's conviction that he was favored by dreams, his "powerful applications of certain passages of Holy Writ, in cases of perplexity," and "his minute and conflicting explanations of the designs of Providence in the circumstances which happened to him" — see the publisher's preface, and pp. vi—vii and xvi. Here, Ruskin might have said, is a man who lets biblical texts come jingling into his head and dwells all too painfully on the relations of Deity to his own little self. But these peculiarities—at least the latter two—describe essential characteristics of the genre and its hermeneutic mode. They reveal the spiritual autobiographer's confidence that he can discover design in his life by appropriating the paircrns of biblical history.

As it turns out, Cowper's confidence was mistaken. His madness returned in 1773 and again, permanently, in 1794. For a moment as autobiographer, however, Cowper discovers both a method of interpretation and a confidence in his application. At the end of his Memoir, he manages to read the experiences of his life successfully—that is, redemptively. Writing of his removal to a new home with the Unwin family, he describes it as an entry into Canaan, to "a place of rest prepared for me by God's own hand, where he has blessed me with a thousand mercies, and instances of his fatherly protection" (p. 53). This final Pisgah vision offers a classic combination of typological hermeneutics and autobiographical closure.

Although Cowper represents the fanciful extreme of spiritual auto biographers, he was certainly not the most fanciful nor all that extreme. The memoirs of an Edinburgh servant girl named Elizabeth West include some equally fanciful interpretations of the details of her everyday life—from the bleaching of mill webs she observes on her way to communion, which she reads as "the renewed soul on whom the Lord bestowed a great deal of pains before it changed its natural hue," to the ungodly acts of the family she is forced to serve, which seem to her "like going back to Egypt again" (pp. 35, 90.). More extreme than either Cowper or West was one of their evangelical contemporaries, a printer's corrector and self-designated corrector of morals who was incarcerated for taking divine vengeance into his own hands and swinging a shovel at swearers and blasphemers and who, in response, [14/15] interpreted his life as "emblematical and typical" of the misfortunes of the Old Testament patriarch Joseph. His autobiography. The Adventures of Alexander the Corrector, is a justification of his actions, written in complete confidence "that God would be with him, bless him, and make him a prosperous man after his reproaches and troubles."21

In contrast to accounts like these, yet with the same hermeneutic focus, Thomas Scott's The Force of Truth (1779) is the product of an eminently sane, psychologically balanced autobiographer. A respectable Anglican clergyman, Scott worried that readers might take him for another frenzied convert to religious enthusiasm; hence, he begins his autobiography with a long description of his rationalistic training in philosophy and concludes with a summary of the reasons that none of his behavior could "reasonably be condemned as enthusiasm." "I never was taught any thing," he insists, "by impulses, impressions, visions, dreams, or revelations; except so far as the work of the Spirit, in enlightening the understanding for the reception of those truths contained in the Holy Scriptures, is sometimes styled revelation. Other revelation I never expected or experienced, nor ever taught others to expect."22

Over the course of five years, Scott had moved from Socinianism to an acceptance of evangelical doctrine, and he recounts this conversion as a gradual and carefully considered process, the result of extensive reading in the theological literature of his day. As a narrative, then, Scott's account is obviously different from Bunyan's or Cowper's, particularly in its lack of psychological laceration and dramatic tension. But the goal of his narrative is still interpretation. Hermeneutic dilemmas propel the narrative forward, just as they do in Grace Abounding and in Cowper's Memoir.

In Scott, these dilemmas are created not by dreams, celestial voices, or encounters with Nature, but by books. Generally, these books are theological, ranging in form from biblical criticism to sermons and devotional manuals to classic religious autobiography. All of them are in some primary way interpretations ofabiblical text, interpretations which force Scott to re-examine and re-interpret his own theological assumptions and, ultimately, his life. The process of [15/16] conversion begins, for example, when he reads Bishop Burnet's History of His Own Times, a didactic piece of ecclesiastical record which convinces him that his entrance into the ministry "had been the result of very wrong motives, was preceded with a very unsuitable preparation, and accompanied with a very improper conduct" (p. 20). From Burnet, Scott continues with other texts—including Locke's The Reasonableness of Christianity, Burnet's Pastoral Care, sermons by Tillotson and Jortin, Soame Jennyn's Treatise un the Internal Evidence of Christianity, Clark's Scripture Doctrine of the Trinity, and Law's A Serious Call>, to name only a few—until he gains conviction that the evangelical interpretation of doctrine represents the "true Anglican theology" (p. 84). The autobiography becomes, in other words, the narrative of a series of encounters with written texts. These texts produce the autobiographical "events" that must, as in Bunyan and Cowper, be interpreted by the autobiographer.

With texts as events, the form of the episode in The Force of Truth remains remarkably similar to that in Bunyanesque autobiography, with its tripartite pericope, narrative redaction, and interpretation. Scott first describes a written text he encountered (the eighth article of the Athanasian Creed, for example) and reports his response ("No sooner therefore did I read the words, 'That it was to be thoroughly received, and believed; for that it might be proved by most certain warrants of holy scripture;' then my mind was greatly impressed, and affected" [p. 27]). Then he explains how the text instigated a re-interpretation of his theological beliefs at the time and how now, as autobiographer, he interprets the episode as a part of a providential pattern discernible in his life. As in Bunyan and Cowper, the narrative redaction occurs for the sake of the autobiographer's interpretation and the reader's instruction.

The autobiography of textual encounter, as Scott's work might be called, became common among educated Anglicans and Dissenters in the eighteenth century and, as we shall see, is put to clever use by Newman in the nineteenth. Modern readers who confront such works often disregard them as narratives that merely (and dully) incorporate extensive bibliographies into the text. One critic, mixing the language of psychoanalysis and religion, explains the practice as "in keeping with the habit of diagnosing one's own spiritual condition by [16/17] comparing it with the case histories of others."26 These references to other texts suggest more, however, than a bibliographic convention or characteristic mode of diagnosis. They testify to the increasing literariness of the genre and to a direction that at least one of us strains was tending.

Whereas in Bunyan or Cowper the autobiographical event might be initiated by something psychological (a demonic voice urging "Sell him") or natural (a walk in the countryside) or textual (a verse from the Scriptures or a printed sermon), in Scott it is almost exclusively textual. No doubt Scott felt psychological urges and responded to natural scenes,27 but he deliberately restricts his autobiograpical episodes to matters of textual interpretation or re-interpretation. This restriction betrays, for one thing, a cultural assumption about the primacy of the written text: one proves to readers that one is a rational man by being a literate man. Rationality in this case has really very little to do with the absence of emotion, as the common lexical contrast of "rational" to "enthusiastic" would imply. Scott's responses to the texts he reads are sometimes quite emotional—as, for instance, when he reads Burnet's History and feels "some uneasiness . . . excited in my mind." What makes him a rational autobiographer is the graphocentricity of- his experience and expression.28 His emotions occur in response to written words (a matter of literary form) and are controlled by written words (a matter of literary style).

Scott's self-imposed restriction also suggests the tendency of the spiritual autobiography to become a genre of intertextuality. By the end of the eighteenth century, one composes an autobiography by re-interpreting other texts. This may seem peculiar to say of a literary form committed to understanding the individual self, but the genre can as easily inhibit self-understanding and self-expression as permit it-—a result that may occur precisely because of a consciousness of prior autobiographical texts. Using Harold Bloom's terminology in The Anxiety of Influence, we might say that an auiobiographer can express or create an individual self only by committing textual misprision, by effecting a clinamen either from prior autobiographical texts or from the theological texts upon which those texts are based. He can be individual, at least autobiographically, only by being different.

We need not adopt Bloom's theory of influence, however, to [17/18] understand the autobiographer's predicament. We can as readily trace the difficulty to the heuristic intention of the genre as originally written and as transmitted to the Victorians. In the spiritual autobiographer's determination to illumine the way for others (or at least point out a few guideposts), he contributes to a kind of generic continuity that is effective, but at the same time restrictive. Bunyan points the way, for example, in Grace Abounding and The Pilgrim's Progress. "My dear children, the milk and honey is beyond this wilderness," he tells his readers in the preface to the former. The problem is, there's no milk and honey unless you imitate the model and do what it prescribes.

The relationship of The Force of Truth to prior autobiographical and theological works is a much gentler one than a Bloomian theory of literary succession allows or than the heuristic insistence of the genre suggests. Committed to an Anglican ideal of progress, an ideal related to late eighteenth-century versions of typological history, Scott views himself not as a contestant, but as a beneficiary of the texts he inherits.30 Their patrimony assures him that he is the legitimate offspring of Protestant Reformation theology, not a misguided enthusiast or heretical Socinian doomed to be excluded from the family of God.31

<leaf image from Yale edition>
Decorated initial T

he continuity in autobiographical form and motive from Bunyan to Cowper and Scott resembles in many ways the continuity typical among works of the same literary genre, but this matter of literary continuity deserves a more complete exploration before we turn to that of hermeneutic continuity and change. Like Wordsworth preparing to write his epic poem, The Recluse, and calling upon Milton's muse Urania to help him "tread on shadowy ground" and "sink / Deep—and, aloft ascending, breathe in worlds / To which the heaven of heavens is but a veil,"32 the autobiographer writes in dependence upon a literary past. The autobiographer calls not upon ii muse, however, but upon his generic predecessors to guide the way as he explores the shadowy ground of his memory and searches for meaning [18/19] in his past. That at least is the intention of Bunyan's heuristic, "My dear children, the milk and honey is beyond this wilderness." Not all spiritual autobiogniphers, of course, felt compelled to surpass their literary predecessors, to "pass them unalarmed" as Wordsworth did. The lesser of them were satisfied to demonstrate membership in a spiritual community by repeating the forms of narration and interpretation traditional in spiritual autobiography. Some of them, however, felt the need to create space within the form for individual differences. And the best, like Wordsworth, aspired to surpass their predecessors, though they did so not without alarm. [19/20]

Perhaps this has always been the means of writing autobiography, for the genre demands the contradictory act of interpreting within an established, authoritative framework and yet providing a fully individual life. Even in Grace Abounding there are hints of such contradiction. As William York Tindall points out, Bunyan comes early in the tradition of spiritual autobiography, but he is not an originator of the genre (22-41). Rather, Bunyan imitates, modifies, and sometimes transforms narrative patterns common in contemporary accounts of spiritual crisis. One of these, A Relation of the Fearful Estate of Francis Spira, appears in the "selling" of Christ episode and suggests, I believe, an incipient version of the uneasiness vis-a-vis generic predecessors that will become characteristic in the Victorian period.

Francesco Spira was a Venetian lawyer whose story of apostasy and self-inflicted death circulated widely during the seventeenth century, sometimes on its own, often with similar accounts of apostasy and suicide. Spira had converted to Lutheran docmnes and preached them to his neighbors, but under pressure from Rome he recanted, subsequently suffering immense psychological and physiological distress. Spira's narrative was actually a work of biography, assembled from contemporary documents and reports of conversations with friends, but it was presented as his own personal account of the fatal course of his life. Bunyan encountered the book while in despair over his own denial of Christ. It was, he says, as salt, when rubbed into a fresh wound" (163).

Although Bunyan mentions only the psychological effect, Spira's book had a significant literary effect upon Grace Abounding as well. In the Relation, Spira examines the lives of various biblical characters to determine whether or not their examples assure him of forgiveness or damn him to eternal torment. Bunyan uses this same technique and the same biblical types in his denial episode, although he debates about the parallels with himself rather than with his friends. Like Spira, he is initially driven to interpretation by Hebrews 12, a chapter that warns against falling away from the faith. Like Spira, too, he compares his actions with the sins of many biblical characters: Cain, Saul, Judas, David, Solomon, Peter. What is most interesting about the text of Grace Abounding at this juncture, however, is that Bunyan begins to apply these types just as he remembers Spira's book. [20/21] Precisely at the moment of interpretive crisis, Bunyan's method and much of his content follow Spira's model.

Or seem to. For Spira's autobiography is a stumbling block as well as a signpost, and we can sense that Bunyan stumbles over this prior text as he repeats the list of biblical characters not once, but twice. Before reading Spira, Bunyan had compared himself typologically with David, Hezekiah, Solomon, Peter, Judas, and Esau (151—60). After reading Spira, he compares himself again to these and other biblical types: Cain, David, Solomon, Manasseh, Peter—and again, Esau (164—72). This is an unusual form of repetition, without narrative or thetorical purpose. Why does Bunyan need to repeat the interpretive procedure? And why does he repeat ir not only at the original occurrence, but again as he writes his autobiography?

One possibility might be that of historical accuracy: Bunyan intends to report what happened as it happened, and hence the necessity of repetition. While the account as Bunyan presents it may be true, we cannot say, however, that historical accuracy demands structural repetition. As we have seen, when he chooses, Bunyan can sum up his activities or impressions in a series of powerful predicates. Here he might have used a single catalogue to describe his search for an appropriate biblical type.

Perhaps he does not compress his interpretive activity because Spira's book so startles him thai it makes him, even in retrospect, repeat the interpretive act and forget narrative structure. It startles him because its author had used the same hermeneutic method and biblical types that he had tried, but Spira readied no happy interpretation. After considering all the appropriate types, Spira concluded that he was damned. His suicide suggests the ultimate futility of self-interpretation. For Bunyan as autobiographer and interpreter, then, his predecessor's book represents an interpretation that must be countered—and countered with the same biblical types and hermeneutic method, although with a very different conclusion. This act of re-interpretation assumes such importance that Bunyan engages in the process obsessively, not only repeating it when he fitst reads Spira, but repeating it again as autobiographer. It is as if he hopes repetition will lead him to a more felicitous conclusion.

Bunyan's relationship to Spira represents, almost prefiguratively, [21/22] the stance that Victorian autobiographers will adopt toward their predecessors. If Victorians did not literally repeat their predecessors' texts, they often repeated the conventional forms of self-interpretation and countered them with different conclusions. Or they countered with alternative hermeneucic systems. A few, like Carlyle, managed to reassess the tradition with a rare critical distance and renovate its hermeneutic method. Most Victorians developed far more tangled relationships with the genre. Ruskin's argument with Grace Abounding and the "morbid" forms of interpretation he thought it contained continual from 1845, when his mother stuffed the copy of the book into his satchel, until 1889, when he completed Praeterita, and it was death that ended the argument. Newman's discontent began early, too, when he systematically read conversion accounts of well-known evangelicals and found that their experiences had little in common with his own. These two, like Martineau, Butler, and Gosse after them, objected to the view of the self that the tradition forced upon them and to the method of self-interpretation that its religious practitioners had fostered. All five sought to dislodge the autobiography from the typological hermeneutics in which it had originated.

<leaf image from Yale edition>
Decorated initial I

inally, then, it was typology itself that ensured an intense continuity from Bunyan to the Victorians. So long as it remained the dominant method of biblical interpretation in England, writers had to contend with its influence upon forms of understanding and interpreting the self, whether those forms were primarily religious (the devotional manual, the moral allegory, the occasional sermon) or a combination of the religious and literary (the hymn, the diary, the autobiography). Indeed, the continuing emphasis upon interpretation and the persistence of hermeneutic self-consciousness in the spiritual autobiography can be explained as much by a continuity in this extra-literary tradition as it can by an account of generic continuity. From the seventeenth century through the middle of che nineteenth, as the essays in Earl Miner's Literary Uses of Typology [22/23] demonstrate, biblical typology was the most important hermeneutic method in England, and even as more "scientific" approaches to biblical studies appeared in scholarly circles, typology continued to be the popular, familiar method. Any literary form even vaguely theological, as the autobiography was, felt the influence of typological practice.

It was a specific aspect of hermeneutic practice, however, that shaped the mode of autobiography and that contributed fitst to generic continuity, but ultimately to change—what was formally known as the subtilitas applicandi of the interpretive act, what in the eighteenth century came to be called "practical exposition" or "practical observation." Traditionally, subtilitas applicandi (the application of a text) differed in its purpose from subtilitas explicandi and subtilitas intelligent (the explication and understanding of a text). The act of subtilitas applicandi encouraged every Christian believer, clergyman and layman alike, to apply his understanding of the Scriptures to his own life; moreover, it encouraged the hermeneutic writer to produce works of practical exposition in which he applied scholarly knowledge of the biblical text, gained from the two other aspects of hermeneutic activity, to the situation of contemporary Christians.

The particular convergence of practical exposition and spiritual autobiography in England goes back to the state of hermeneutic practice in the late seventeenth century. At that time, during the incipient stages of the autobiography, most biblical commentators made no such careful distinctions between understanding, explication, and application, but wrote works of almost pure practical exposition. The seventeenth-century divine Richard Baxter assumes this approach—and quietly defends it—in his preface to A Paraphrase on the New Testanment, with Notes, Doctrinal and Practical. "Where the text is plain itself," he explains, "I fill up the space by doctrinal or practical observations, seeing practice is the end of all, and to learners, rhis part is of great necessity."37For Baxter explication merges easily, seamlessly, into application. If he thinks ir unnecessary to explain the grammatical-historical meaning of the words, he simply deals with their implications for Christian practice; he feels no obligation to make careful hermeneutic distinctions. [23/24]

Baxter's attitude was typical in the late seventeenth century. In a study of the theological sources of The Pilgrim's Progress, for example, U. Milo Kautrnann cites commentary after commentary that fits this pattern, that produces Baxter's sort of practical application and considers it a primary responsibility of the theologian to do so. Richard Rogers, author of A Commentary upon the Whole Book of Judges (1615), introduces his srudy as a work with a practical end: "I intended.. .to benefit Students and Preachers.. .so they may learne how to use the historicall part of the Bible, and learne to draw doctrine and instruction our of the examples thereof, for the people." Similarly, William Perkins explains in The Arte of Prophecying (1612). that he takes the historical books of the Old Testament, from Genesis to Job, as "stories of things done, for the illustration and confirmation of that doctrine which is propounded in other bookes." And in An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews (1668—74) John Owen discusses the account of Rahab the harlot, typically, in terms of its practical meaning for his contemporaries: 'This Rahab was by nature a Gentile, an alien from the stock and covenant of Abraham. Wherefore, as her conversion unto God was an act of free grace and mercy in a peculiar manner, so it was a type and pledge of calling a church from among the Gentiles."38 For these writers, as for evangelicals in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, such practical exposition was the primary activity—and ultimate goal—of hermeneutics.

With the advent of higher critical approaches to the Scriptures, the disn notions between subtilitas applicandi on the one hand and subtilitas intellgendi and subtilitas applicandi on the other became necessary, and the emphasis in hermeneutics shifted away from matters of application to problems ofconstrual and meaning. Although this shift had a profound impact on the theoretical basis of biblical typology (and eventually on the form of Victorian autobiography), it had little effect upon the production of practical commentaries, which continued to be published in the same great quantities that manuals of popular psychology are today. The very fact that hermeneutics had become a scholarly enterprise, seemingly divorced from Christian faith and practice, inspired pious theologians to produce even more commentaries for the layman, books which would not, as Philip Doddridge put it, be "useless and burdensome piece[s] of pedantry" (xi). [24/25]

When Hannah More decided to compose "An Essay on the Character and Practical Writings of St. Paul" (1815), then, the inclusion of the word practical in the title served as a ready indication of the work's hermeneutic intentions. More believed that, as a woman, practical application was the only hermeneutic activity legitimate for her to undertake, and in the preface she insists upon "her incompetency to the proper execution of such a work, on her deficiencies in ancient learning. Biblical criticism, and deep theological knowledge." Her justification to publish, however, relies upon the acknowledged distinction between critical and practical hermeneutics. "If may serve as some apology for the boldness of the present undertaking," she explains, "that these volumes are not of a critical, but of a practical nature."40

What More recognized as a standard distinction between critical and practical hermeneutics became, by the end of the eighteenth century, a visual distinction in the format of Thomas Scott's commentary on the Bible (1788—92) with its "Original Notes, Practical Observations, and Copious References." In his Socinian days Scott had immersed himself in the most radical critical studies of the Bible available in England, and although he later converted to a devout evangelical position, he did not banish from his commentary the insights that these earlier critical and grammatical-historical studies had taught him. He wanted to convey both critical insight and practical instruction, but he wanted to maintain the distinction, too. Thus he devised a special format, including both "Notes" and "Practical Observations" for each chapter of the Bible, but printing them in separate segments below the text itself. This separation of critical notes and practical application marks a century of hermeneutic change from Richard Baxter's New Testament Paraphrase, with its grammatical, critical, and practical matters mixed together, to Scott's commentary, with its visually divisive layout. (The hierarchy implicit in Scott's format, nevertheless, is significant. For him, as for Baxter, the biblical text itself is the beginning of all wisdom. The end of wisdom—and of all critical study—is the application of the text to the Christian life.)

The commentaries written by Baxter, More, Scott, and others like them and the hermeneutic distinctions they represent influenced the [25/26] practice of clergymen and hence the assumptions ofautobiographers. The Reverend Henry Melvill, to cite only one prominent Victorian example, was widely admired as an explicator of difficult biblical texts and as a skilled defender of typological hermeneutics in arguments of evangelical doctrine.41 But Melvill also delivered what he called "Lectures on Practical Subjects," giving his most famous series at St. Margaret's, Lothbury, in the 1850s. These sermons were deliberate exercises in subtilitas applicandi, and the words applied and application appear repeatedly as Melvill wrests practical meaning from his text.42 Melvill chooses his texts from all parts of the Bible— Numbers, Deuteronomy, Ruth, Isaiah, the Gospels, and the Epistles— and after a brief narrative redaction or explication of a difficult word or phrase, he concentrates his efforts on the text's relevance to his Victorian parishioners. The lectures were widely attended, then handsomely printed and distributed, copies making it inro the libraries of the Ruskins, Brownings, and Gladstones, a testimony to the popularity of the preacher and his method.

The distance from Melvill's practical lectures to autobiographical forms of writing is quite short. In a journal, for example, an observation about a biblical character may be applied to the writer's own personality or actions; in a funeral sermon, the practical relevance of a biblical type may be extended to the life of the deceased. The same sort of application or extension occurs in the writing of spiritual autobiography. If, as Henry Melvill explained to his congregation, the history of the Israelites is "a typical or figurative history, sketching, as in parable, much that befalls the Christian Church in general, and its members in particular," then the spiritual autobiographer, quite apart from any knowledge of a literary tradition, need only turn to the story of the Exodus for an "account" of his life.43 The transition from practical hermeneutics to autobiographical writing becomes simple and direct; what the autobiographer does is appropriate personally the subtilitas applicandi, making another application of the application.

Of course, the writing of autobiography is never this simple—and was not so for the Victorian autobiographers we still consider worth reading. As I have suggested, part of the challenge lay in the genre itself, which asked writers to interpret within established conventions [26/27] and yet produce fully individual lives. As most Victorians understood it, however, the immediate challenge lay in the typological her*meneutics with which autobiographical interpretation had traditionally been carried out. For if the predominance of practical exposition and its relationship to autobiographical writing explain a continuity in generic form, there was also, during the seventeenth and eigrhteenth centuries, an increasing disjunction between the practical and critical aspects of hermeneutics, one made visible—if nor articulated—by Scott's commentary.44 This disjunction was consequently felt in a similar disjunction between the forms of autobiography and the theological and philosophical assumptions of Victorians who practiced the genre.

The major Victorian autobiographers were writers interested, in a theoretical sense, in such problems of interpretation: Carlyle in historical interpretation, Newman in theological hermeneutics, Ruskin in art and social criticism, Butler and Gosse in literary criticism and scientific theory. The one woman who succeeded in the genre, Harriet Martineau, was primarily a theologian and philosopher, although she made her name by writing practical tales that illustrated principles of political economy. These Victorian autobiographers were writers aware of the scholarly tradition in German and English biblical studies and of the implications for many varieties of interpretation. They chose to write autobiography in part because it was a genre concerned with the interpretive act and hence suited to their habits of thought. Some of them also chose autobiography, I think, because they sensed the disjunction between the inherited literary forms of self-interpretation and contemporary hermeneutic theory. By using theory to re-make form, they sought to re-vitalize the genre.

No doubt their motives were personal as well as literary. All of them came from intensely religious backgrounds. All had undergone experiences of conversion or de-conversion, and some relt compelled to recount them for therapeutic reasons. Most important, their experiences had occurred when inherited forms of faith confronted newer modes of thought, whether in biblical hermeneutics, science, or philosophy. Through personal experience, the major Victorian autobiographers both recognized and (re)presented the disjunction between inherited forms of self-interpretation and modern theories of [27/28] hermeneutics. The genre provided the perfect melding of personal, literary, and theoretical interests.

In writing of these autobiographers, I have chosen to begin with two whose works most purely represent experiments in form: Carlyle's Sartor Resartus, which, as its title suggests, seeks a reconstruction of personality and literary form; and Ruskin's Praeterita, which, if we accept the terms of the preface, attempts a deconstruction of autobiography as genre. I continue with three works that establish new directions for autobiography: Newman's Apologia Pro Vita Sua, which reintroduces the model of Augustine's Confessions to the English tradition and reconsiders the relation of narrative to exposition in the autobiographical text; Harriet Martineau's Autobiography, which confronts the Victorian debate over feminine forms of selfinterpretation; and Gosse's Father and Son, a work that both embodies and criticizes the attempts at "scientific" autobiography that emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century.

In all five cases, I have chosen to speak of the authors of these autobiographical texts as self-conscious literary writers, aware of generic precedents and deliberate in their intentions to adopt, revise, or circumvent them. I have done so not to revive a debate on the "intentional fallacy," but to suggest a sophistication on their parts about generic form. What I mean to argue by this critical choice, in short, is that the great Victorian autobiographies are not only examples of the genre, but critical reflections upon it as well.

Thus I am arguing that Victorian autobiography is hermeneutic in a third, modern sense. In a discussion of Gadamer's philosophical hermeneutics, D. C. Hoy distinguishes between the older sense of hermeneutics as an enterprise for formulating and applying rules of proper interpretation and the more modern sense of hermeneutics as an activity of self-conscious reflection upon the nature and process of interpretation itself. Autobiography is intrinsically a hermeneutic genre in the older sense. It is such self-conscious reflection, however, that distinguishes Victorian autobiography from its generic predecessors and, in the nineteenth century, brings the genre to full literary status. [28/29]

Victorian Web Genre and Style Literary Technique Autobiography next

Last modified 9 July 2014