The following entry presents critical discussion of English autobiographical writing during the Victorian Age.
Critics generally regard the Victorian era as the golden age of English autobiography. Inspired by the zeal for self-discovery and recognition of the value of the individual that marked the period of their Romantic predecessors, Victorian writers became fascinated with the process of personal development in relation to external, environmental factors. Meanwhile, the Victorian penchant for retrospection and nostalgia fostered both the writing and eager reception of such works, from straightforward autobiography to numerous popular examples of semi-autobiographical fiction. Typically, mainstream Victorian autobiography depicts a process of personal transformation mediated by an overarching belief in individual progress, and endeavors to describe a flowering of artistic or intellectual development. Other works, particularly autobiographies written by women or by members of the working class, often contain elements of social critique and relate the author's efforts to affect societal change or heighten social awareness. These writings, which were eagerly read throughout the nineteenth century, have increasingly begun to elicit the attention of modern scholars in the contemporary period, sometimes after lengthy periods of critical neglect. Among the diverse autobiographical writings of the Victorian era, critics consider several works as exemplary. These include autobiographies by John Stuart Mill, Charles Darwin, John Henry Newman, Anthony Trollope, Harriet Martineau, and John Ruskin, among others. Fictional autobiography and the autobiographical novel, respectively typified by Thomas Carlyle's Sartor Resartus (1833-34) and Charles Dickens's The Personal History of David Copperfield (1850), were equally well-received by Victorian audiences. Together, the autobiography and the autobiographical novel represent an essential component of Victorian prose composition, and comprise what scholars view as a core element of the nineteenth-century English literary imagination.
In the view of critics, the mode of autobiographical subjectivity favored by Victorian writers generally placed emphasis on personal activity and self-sacrifice rather than introspection and self-consciousness. Though inspired by English writers of spiritual autobiography in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Victorian autobiographers largely rejected the confessional mode of the genre's model, St. Augustine's fifth-century Confessions. Fearing the potentially paralytic or spurious effects of an excessive self-indulgence, these writers opted instead for a seemingly impersonal tone and the more modest and objective form of the apology, wherein the author defended his or her life course without anguished admissions of guilt or expressions of regret. Such works are best exemplified by John Henry Newman's acclaimed Apologia pro vita sua (1864) and The Autobiography of Charles Darwin (1929). These and similar works demonstrate the status of Victorian autobiography as a highly interpretive rather than representational form, critics assert, in which authors offer linear reconstructions of the past, shaping their experiences to conform with a mental and social self-image of progress toward the ideal of a productive life. For female authors, self-explanation often entailed a justification for or a defense of their choice of a literary career, with a consequent focus on facts and accomplishments rather than on personal experiences and feelings. In the later decades of the nineteenth century, as authors grappled with disillusionment and despair over the loss of religious faith, confessional elements were reintroduced into autobiographical writings, often accompanied by a mask or alternative self to circumvent the discomfort associated with self-revelation in literary form.
In addition to critical interest in autobiographical subjectivity, representations of gender and class in Victorian autobiography has drawn considerable critical attention in the contemporary period, as commentators regard both canonical and less well-known autobiographical writings in order to better understand the ideological framework of nineteenth-century British society. Works such as John Stuart Mill's Autobiography (1873), Edmund Gosse's autobiographical novel Father and Son (1907), and Sir Leslie Stephen's Mausoleum Book (1977; written in 1895), are thought to reflect bourgeois ideals of masculinity and individual autonomy that prevailed in Victorian England, and have been studied by commentators for the insight they provide into the development of gendered social codes. In keeping with the contemporary critical trend toward an all-inclusive and multidisciplinary study of past literature, modern feminist and new historicist critics have also probed the more strongly moral, didactic, and socially critical orientation of autobiographical works by Victorian women, and especially those by working-class women writers. In the view of such scholars, these writers adapted mainstream literary traditions outside the genre of autobiography for the purpose of social critique and the advancement of women's or worker's rights, producing works that were at once formally conventional and socially forwardly-looking.
The unique relationship between autobiography and the novel in Victorian society has also proved to be a productive site for contemporary scholarly discussion. Many of the most popular novels published in Britain during the Victorian era can be categorized as either fictional autobiography or semi-autobiographical fiction. Indeed, the prospect of tracing the life of a real or imagined protagonist from a troubled childhood into successful maturity, according to the pattern of the Bildungsroman, frequently proved both commercially and artistically viable during this period. Charles Dickens produced several remarkable exemplars of this form, as did a host of writers such as Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, Samuel Butler, Anthony Trollope, and Thomas Carlyle, all of whom would contribute to the Victorian obsession with autobiographical fiction. In comparing standard and fictional autobiography, scholars have located numerous formal and thematic similarities between these genres. The depiction of a pivotal childhood crisis and growing awareness of the self and the environment are frequently shared characteristics of both fictional and nonfictional approaches to autobiography, as are an interest in the construction of authorial identity and the nature of alterity (the awareness of socially mediated differences between the Self and the Other). Critics have found these concepts central to both Victorian autobiography and autobiographical fiction, and have particularly studied them with relation to Carlyle's Sartor Resartus, Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847), and Trollope's An Autobiography (1883), in addition to several novels by Dickens and other similar works.
When author Pauls Toutonghi set out to write his first book, he made himself a promise: he would not be another stereotype of “the debut novelist writing about his life.” So Toutonghi penned a “really terrible” World War Two novel followed by a cringe-worthy attempt at experimental fiction — a choose-your-own-adventure rip off. He never wrote in the first person, lest readers assume he was writing about himself. He didn’t sell either book; his career — or lack thereof — was a disaster.
Eventually, Toutonghi gave up on his rigid strategy of avoidance and did what any smart writer does: he let the story and characters lead him, instead of the other way around. Toutonghi is half Latvian, half Egyptian and was raised in the U.S. He sold Red Weather, a coming-of-age story about a 15-year-old Latvian-American boy, followed by Evel Knievel Days, about a young Egyptian-American man in search of his father. Toutonghi wrote both books in the first person. And yet, he considers this less than a complete success: “I was reading Dickens,” he wrote in a recent essay for Salon, “who kept himself away from the page…and I can’t help wondering if anything is lost in the frank disclosures of our modern, first-person, memoir-driven fiction.”
This is perhaps the greatest hang-up of the modern novelist — that fiction is somehow unsophisticated or inherently cliché if it is rooted in the writer’s own life, and that writers should be creative enough to invent entirely new worlds and find drama only in the unfamiliar. None of that is true, of course: Bookstores are full of beautiful novels like Toutonghi’s, and reviewers often celebrate autobiographical debuts. And yet this fear of self-reliance can be limiting, almost crippling.
But if you talk to writers who have taken the autobiographical plunge, you’ll hear an almost universal relief — that writing about yourself allows you to follow your best instincts. Patrick DeWitt, author of The Sisters Brothers, spent a long time writing books that even his wife was unimpressed by. His problem, he decided: He was too afraid of seeming like “the white guy feeling sorry for himself.” But hey: in some way, that’s what he was. “I needed subject matter that was familiar to me if I wanted to go the distance.”
So where does this fear come from? Today’s literary criticism, for one. Laura Miller, who reviews books for Salon, is often turned off by coming-of-age debuts, particularly from writers who have just come of age themselves. She has some words for, say, white girls from Connecticut: “Your book could be really well written,” she says. But “you feel like you’ve read a million of them. It’s the story about this person growing up and learning to live and to love and whose parents get divorced and the mom dies of cancer. It feels like watching an episode of Law and Order — but that’s not really fair, because Law and Order is reliably entertaining.”
Even the New York Times can be dismissive like this. In 2005, when Deborah Solomon wrote about Jonathan Safran Foer, she praised him for avoiding “the usual rites of first-noveldom. He never wrote a tremblingly sensitive account of his adolescence, a novel featuring toxic mothers and passive, gone-to-sleep fathers, a novel abounding with malls and S.U.V.’s, and suburban anomie. Instead, he found his inspiration in the darkly fragmented masterworks of European modernism (Kafka, Joyce, Bruno Schulz)…”
But do not be fooled: Everything Is Illuminated is a wonderful book, both highly innovative and emotionally powerful, but it is also a coming-of-age, semi-autobiographical story about a young white man coming to understand himself. Solomon would never belittle Foer’s book by writing in these exact terms, but when she speaks of “the usual rites of first-noveldom,” she’s not making a neutral statement. She’s making a derogatory one. She’s throwing all of these other books — and which books, by the way? — into the dustbin, castigating them all as navel-gazing and small-minded.
And you wonder what kept Toutonghi and DeWitt from writing about their own lives.
Some writers were fortunate enough to begin writing before reading much literary criticism. “I felt free to take from personal experience,” says Justin Torres, author of the critically acclaimed and heavily autobiographical debut novel We The Animals. After the book, he says, he’d often meet writers who came out of MFA programs and seemed to believe he’s navel-gazing. “You’re mind-gazing,” he corrects. “You’re turning yourself outward, challenging your own assumptions and trying to make meaning out of life. I love Dickens, but thank god not everyone tries to write like him.” (In fact, Laura Miller cuts Torres a break here because We The Animals is based on Torres’ experience growing up gay and underprivileged in upstate New York. “To be crass,” she says, “his book was unusual in the type of people it was about. That was refreshing.”)
When writers ask Torres, “Why write fiction if you want to write about yourself?”, he tells them there’s a magic in translating personal experience into make-believe: “The composites become characters, and the scraps of lived experience morph, so that what you end up with is wholly transformed.”
And the transformation is key. There are a finite number of experiences in the world and the trick is how to present them in a way that is both relatable and unique. It would be idiotic for a young author not to write a book based on her adolescence in Connecticut, if that’s what she’s compelled to write. And if her protagonist has a toxic mother or hangs out at the mall, it would be disingenuous not to include those details. But including them doesn’t necessarily mean you’re painting by numbers or writing a story that is narcissistic. “You just have to ask yourself, ‘What can I bring to literature by writing about this?’” Torres says. To him, authors who write outside their own experience have the exact same challenge as those writing close to the bone: how best to say something valuable. “There’s a lot of people writing formulaic gunslinger Cormac McCarthy fiction,” he says.
The literary world didn’t always dismiss autobiography. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man by James Joyce, The Lover by Marguerite Duras, and The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway are all rooted in their authors’ lives. It’s impossible to trace this hang-up back to its origin, but Toutonghi has a suspicion of what triggered it: a resistance, especially prevalent in the MFA world, to the commoditization of fiction.
Literature is an art, of course — though like in any art, there are those who hate to also think of it as a business. Writers who are overwhelmingly focused on craft and style might believe that writing the story of one’s young life is too crass, too obvious, and, god-forbid, too sellable. “Writers see that autobiographical work is more marketable, so many move in that direction,” Toutonghi says. And the purists do the opposite.
Whether the market is really dictating authors’ subject matter is debatable, but it’s certainly true that right now mainstream publishing will unabashedly use an author’s back story to sell his or her book. Two recent debut novels that share similarities with Everything is Illuminated — The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht and There is No One Here Except For All of Us by Ramona Ausubel — have been marketed with the author’s life as a selling point, as if biography is the ultimate “truth” of their stories.
That’s certainly news to emerging authors. “I didn’t realize my life would be the thing I’d be talking about in the interviews,” Torres said. Patrick DeWitt told me that most interviews about his novel Ablutions revolved around parsing the imaginary parts of the book from the real ones. “It became sort of a drag,” he said.
But there’s an upside to this marketing hook, at least for me, as I shopped around my own debut: a semi-autobiographical, prep school novel called The Year of the Gadfly. Editors clearly saw the autobiographical material as a positive thing, and a potential way to market the book. Until then, I’d been so embarrassed about writing from my life that throughout my three-year MFA, I never told anybody where the story originated. I was just another white girl from Connecticut after all (well, actually, Washington DC, but same difference), writing about a young woman coming of age. I spent years feeling like a failure before I’d even started writing, all because I was terrified of producing a cliché. If only I could have written a World War II epic with a chose your own adventure twist.
But I never would have finished writing that sort of book. The Year of the Gadfly took me seven years from conception to publication. And my personal connection to the story was a key part of my stamina. It’s what fueled me to work so tirelessly in pursuit of truly unique characters and a compelling plot. My editor bought my book because the manuscript kept her reading all night. To her, to me, and hopefully to my readers, that’s all that really matters.
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