Victorian Autobiography as Victorian

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Decorative Initial L/ike all writings about the self, Victorian autobiographies embody the question of how the individual relates to what is outside himself; and what makes autobiography as a literary mode so representative of its time -- in a word, so "Victorian" -- is that a concern with this problematic relationship lies close to the heart of all literature, all culture, of the age. As E.D.H. Johnson long ago taught students of the period, its major literary figures made heroic attempts to strike a proper balance between the demands of society and self. In particular, Tennyson, Browning, and Arnold strove "to define the sphere within which the modern poet may exercise his faculty, while holding in legitimate balance the rival claims of his private, aristocratic insights and of the tendencies existing in a society progressively vulgarized by the materialism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Thus it came about that the double awareness, which so generally characterized the Victorian literary mind, grew almost into a perpetual state of consciousness in these poets through t'neir efforts to work out a new aesthetic position for the artist." Many components contribute to this characteristic "double awareness," for the major writers of the Victorian age attempted to maintain their hold upon a series of polarized oppositions, refusing to choose between (and thus relinquish) either private or public, subjective or objective, feeling or fact. Like poetry, the novel, painting, and other nonfiction in the period, autobiography sought new forms to accommodate private experience simultaneously making it relevant to the needs of others. Like In Memoriam, David Copperfield, The Light of the World and Modern Painters, these histories of the self find public uses for private experience in forms which simultaneously open the self to others and yet seek some way to protect that fragile individuality against them.

Victorian autobiography, in other words, is characterized by many of the central concerns which also inform modern literature. Critics of the past decade have increasingly begun to recognize that Victorian literature has similarities to the work of the first third of this century, and now that modern literature, the literature, say, of Joyce, Eliot, Yeats, and Pound, is no longer contemporary -- now that we have seen these once so daring, so abrasively new creations begin to recede into the past -- we are beginning to observe that no great divide separates Victorians and moderns. The time has come, perhaps, when critics can realize that it is just as useful to see Eliot as the last great Victorian poet as the first great modern one. Indeed, when students of modern literature perceive, as some have just begun to do, that the imagery of the wasteland, use of personae, rhetorical discontinuity, and personal appropriations and recreations of myth characterize Victorian poetry, then perhaps it will be possible to evaluate the true position of tradition and the individual talent -- neither overly praising Eliot for supposedly radical originality nor denigrating him for lack of it, but rather observing how well he takes his place within a major poetic continuity. Similarly, it seems that we have arrived at a point from which we can perceive that Pound's translations and exploration of poetic forms follow rather naturally from the work of Rossetti; that Stevens's late poems much resemble the landscape meditations of Swinburne; that Mailer, who seeks the heroic in a mechanical age, is the true disciple of Carlyle; and that the great narrative experiments which inform the writings of Conrad, Woolf, Joyce, and Faulkner are found much earlier in Victorian poetry. Indeed (to borrow the words of Mark Twain) it is astonishing how much the Victorians have learned since the twentieth century came of age -- how much more original, how much wiser, how much more sophisticated they have become!

Therefore, a consideration of Victorian autobiography not only offers something of interest about works excellent in their own right but also promises to tell us something of value about nineteenth- and twentieth-century culture as well. Victorian autobiographers were writing the stories of their own lives at a particularly interesting moment in the history of human consciousness: romanticism had done much to change the way man thought about and experienced himself, but Freud had not yet appeared on the scene with his radical redefinitions of self, society, and discourse. This historical situation thus makes the latter half of the century simultaneously the most and least "Freudian" of ages -- the most because nineteenth-century European middle-class society with its strongly paternal family structure had a genetic relation to the neuroses Freud encountered and the theories he formulated as a result; while it was the least because men could quite unselfconsciously discuss matters soon to appear in an entirely new light. It is hard to believe, for instance, that John Stuart Mill could have recounted his famous reading of Marmontel so frankly had he read Freud. As Paul Murray Kendall remarks:

Today the self is more exposed and yet more elusive, more comprehensible but less manageable, more fascinating but not so palatable. In undertaking an autobiography, under the aegis of modern psychology, is like signing a contract with the Devil: there is much to be won and everything, especially honor, to be lost. In the Age of Freud, to look no deeper than Gibbon looked in the Age of Hume is to perpetrate an anachronism; but to subject oneself to even amateur psychological scrutiny seems rather like performing an act of private therapy in public.

According to Kendall, the chief result is that most twentieth-century autobiography avoids these fatal depths by keeping close to the safer coasts of memoir, and one may add that the autobiographical impulse, when it does turn inward therefore tends to appear in more explicitly fictional modes.

Autobiography thus embodies a unique moment in the history of man's conception of himself, a moment which comes as the heir of two millenia of western civilization. Autobiography, as many students of the mode remind us, is a rare and very late phenomenon in the growth of the human spirit, requiring literacy, individuality, and a sense of history. Without literacy the author cannot write his own life for others and without widespread literacy there are not enough others for whom to write. Of course, one can envisage illiterate people dictating their life histories, but to conceive such an enterprise is only possible in a cultural setting which already possesses autobiography. More basically, without a conception of individuality, without a notion of one's own selfhood, autobiography is impossible.

As many philosophical anthropologists have observed, primitive, tribal man does not possess a sense of individuality, and this sense of himself is lacking precisely because he lacks a sense of history. Emphasizing that "from the point of view of anhistorical peoples or classes 'suffering' is equivalent to 'history,'" Mircea Eliade reminds us that archaic man achieves his sense of communitas by denying history and the individuation it creates.

Interest in the 'irreversible' and the 'new' in history is a recent discovery in the life of humanity.... The crucial difference between the man of the archaic civilizations and modern, historical man lies in the increasing value the latter gives to historical events, that is, to the 'novelties' that, for traditional men, represented either meaningless conjunctures or infractions of norms (hence 'faults,''sins,' and so on) and that, as such, required to be expelled (abolished) periodically.

In other words, for archaic, preliterate, tribal humanity, which conceives of the universe in terms of archetypal, ever-recurring processes and rituals, to be different — to be individual — is to fall. For to be different is to botch a planting ritual, violate some taboo, or otherwise fall away from the way things are and always have been. "We are therefore," says Nietzsche, "to regard the state of individuation as the origin and primal cause of all suffering, as something objectionable in itself." Such is the manner in which primitive civilization regards the unique, the individual, man or woman, and this kind of "difference" is not something for which one strives or, having attained it, wishes to remember.

Last modified 2001