Decorative Initial T/he problematic relationship of autobiographer to audience is central to the understanding of the form, because as Paul Delany reminds us, it is never "disinterested self-expression"-- even were such a thing possible. "Rather, it is a 'performance' staged by the autobiographer for the benefit of his audience. Erving Goffman, in The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life (p. 242), states the implications of the confrontation thus: 'When an individual appears before others, he knowingly and unwittingly projects a definition of the situation, of which a conception of himself is part. Since autobiography, unlike everyday life, does not allow direct interaction it must rely upon literary devices, such as a persona, to control the audience's reactions. Any attempt to control the reactions of the reader, however, threatens to disrupt the delicate relationship between him and the author. In "Credence and Credibility," Howard Helsinger shows how basic is this rhetorical problem of creating an appearance of honesty: "Testifying to his own cvharacter, the autobiographer is a suspect witness whom the least skeptical auditors might doubt.... 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."

Rousseau himself was aware of this central difficulty which renders the autobiographer's endeavor so problematic, and he makes several gestures at a solution. First, after telling us on the opening pages of the Confessions that he is unique, far different from other men, he later attempts to assure us that he has never bothered about "acting like other people or differently from them, a claim which, while not logically incompatible with his first one--and, indeed, which if true would "prove" its validity--remains nonetheless rhetorically ineffective. Rousseau makes a second attempt to achieve credibility by claiming that he will tell all, something which Tristram Shandy demonstrates to be clearly impossible. Explaining his use of trivial details, Rousseau informs the reader that they prove his sincerity and thus authenticate his narrative:

The task which I have undertaken, of showing myself completely without reserve to the public, requires that nothing that concerns myself shall remain obscure or hidden; that I shall keep myself continually before its eyes; that it shall accompany me in all the errors of my heart, into all the secret corners of my life; that it shall not lose sight of me for a single instant, for fear that, if it finds in my narrative the least gap, the least blank, it may ask, What was he domg during that time? and accuse me of unwillingness to tell all.

This readiness to communicate everything involves his third try at convincing us of his essential sincerity, for he adopts the rather naiye position, one admittedly shared by many, that to say something bad about oneself is necessarily to say something true. Such a strategy, however, cannot convince, since we all know that some days the ears of policemen and psychoanalysts alike are filled with false confessions.

Rousseau therefore succeeds largely because of the very abundance and intensity of the experiences he relates, but this is not a direction which many Victorian autobiographers are willing to take. One explanation for Rousseau's apparent lack of influence upon them may well lie in what Lionel Trilling takes to be differences between French and English modes of sincerity. To the French sincerity "consists in telling the truth about oneself to oneself and to others; by truth is meant a recognition of such of one's own traits or actions as are morally or socially discreditable and, in conventional course, concealed." The English, in contrast, ask of the sincere man only that "he communicate without deceiving or misleading. The English conception of sincerity, in other words, makes it largely a matter of public discourse.

Whereas Rousseau proposes to go ever deeper into himself to counter suspicions of insincerity, the characteristic Victorian response to the problem of autobiographical credibility suggests, as Howard Helsinger argues, that they understood the mode "not as intimate speech but as public discourse." Thus conceiving the history of one's own life as public speech, they avoid introspection, and adopt one of two characteristic solutions to the problem of authorial credibility. Either, like Hume and Darwin, they adopt what Helsinger terms the defence ex morte and write as though they were already dead, making pretensions to complete objectivity about themselves; or else, like Gibbon and Trollope, they adopt the defence ex vita and throw themselves, as fellow gentlemen, upon the sympathies of living men. Furthermore,, the problem of audience becomes even more complicated and difficult for women, since to write at at all was to question the role that society had assigned them: the really proper woman was not supposed to have a public audience at all. Mrs Oliphant's Autobiography points to thls problematic relation to audience with particular clarity, since her intended audience changed while she was in the process of writing the story of her life, for her son to whom it had been directed died and, having no other reader, she turned towards the public.

The chief rhetorical problem in establishing the autobiographerıs credibility before his audience comes to this: if he or she attempts the Rousseauean method of self-consciousness, the autobiographical act immediately becomes subject to all kinds of questions about accuracy.

Victorian Web Genre and Technique Autopbiography

Last modified 1988