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multiplicity of interpretive systems allows the autobiographer great freedom in self-writing, and in Father and Son Gosse used this multiplicity to create one of the finest autobiographies in the English tradition. Post-Victorian autobiographers knew even greater freedom. Whereas the goal of early Vicrorian aucobiographers, like Carlyle, had been to revitalize biblical hermeneutics or, like Newman, to adapt its conventions to particular religious concerns, late Victorian autobiographers maintained little interest in any system of biblical hermeneutics. Scientific autobiographers had not only suggested new modes of examining the self, thus making it possible to revise or recreate the conventions of the genre. In their effective displacement of biblical hermeneutics, they had also made possible the introduction of many other metaphors of the self, scientific and non-scientific. Gosse's easy alternation of the biological and literary illustrates this possibility and suggests the future for autobiographical writing.

Greater freedom brings its own disadvantages, however. As modern theories of poetic development have suggested, strong poets are created in and by their struggles with strong poetic precursors: in Harold Bloom's words, "Weaker talents idealize; figures of capable imagination appropriate for themselves" (5). Not only weaker talents, but weaker precedents are at issue here. Strong autobiographers, we might also say, are created in and by their struggles with strong generic precedents. The Victorian writers of this study—Carlyle, Newman, Marrineau, Ruskin, and Gosse—represent both corporately [192/193] and individually the strongest autobiographers of the English tradition. These autobiographers had known what their generic materials were. They had worked within (and against) a strong autobiographical tradition, and thus, paradoxically, they had known the real possibility of creating sophisticated literary works.

That possibility was more real for them than for their successors who faced a weakened generic tradition. The great Victorian autobiographies had depended on a hegemony of biblical hermeneutics and a common fund of autobiographical conventions. With the end of that hegemony and a diffusion of the conventions, the creation of what I have called hermeneutic autobiography became more difficult. After the publication of the last Victorian autobiographies by Spencer, Butler, and Gosse, the form that had developed from Bunyan's Grace Abounding, continued in the spiritual accounts of the eighteenth century, and then flourished in the Victorian era, met its demise. The autobiographical impulse still found expression in other literary genres, but bereft of the hermeneutic imperative that had made the Victorian autobiography a self-conscious literary tradition.


Victorian Web Genre and Style Literary Technique Autobiography

Last modified 14 February 2014