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Victorian Biography Reconsidered: A Study of Nineteenth-Century "Hidden" Lives (review)

From: Victorian Review
Volume 37, Number 1, Spring 2011
pp. 212-214 | 10.1353/vcr.2011.0001

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Juliette Atkinson's recent volume explores an overlooked trend in Victorian life-writing: that of biographies of obscure or hidden lives. Her work responds to the lingering characterization of Victorian biography as a series of "wordy hagiographical tomes penned by whitewashing amateurs" (2) and to the neglect of hidden lives in the study of nineteenth-century biography despite the attention given to the "ordinary and unheroic" (34) in Victorian fiction and poetry. By drawing upon a number of examples, Atkinson not only demonstrates that Victorians were profoundly interested in biographies of hidden lives but also explores their significance for biographer, subject, and reader.

The first two chapters of Atkinson's work provide context for the rest of the volume and consider the dominant trends in Victorian life-writing, identifying the "tradition that biographers of the 'obscure' worked within but also against" (17) as well as contemporary debates, such as the concern over publicizing private lives and the genre's didactic and literary possibilities. Atkinson further evaluates the Victorian fascination with hero-worship, suggesting that the flexibility of the term "hero" allowed for multiple configurations of what constituted an exceptional individual, creating room for the exploration of obscure lives.

In a series of engaging studies, Atkinson considers several biographies dealing with specific types of hidden subjects, such as working-class men or men of "unfulfilled promise" (126). Chapters typically consist of an analytical overview followed by a discussion of two or three single-subject works from within the type. Central to Atkinson's definition of a hidden life "is the biographer's insistence on the subject's neglect by the public" (31) and the characterization of the subject "in contrast with the idea of fame" (3). Works selected range across the lives of amateur naturalists, charismatic failures, minor female authors, and neglected Romantic poets. Domestic and collective biographies have, for the most part, been excluded, though the final chapter considers the inclusion of obscure lives in the Dictionary of National Biography (1885-1901). Atkinson's approach allows her to explore the problems inherent in writing the lives of particular types of hidden subjects. Her discussion of individual works also enables her to consider the variety of possibilities presented by the subgenre.

In analyzing individual lives, Atkinson is attentive to the language biographers used to describe hidden subjects. Particularly interesting is her examination, in the fifth chapter, of the language used to construct minor women writers (this is the only chapter to deal exclusively with the lives of obscure women). Atkinson argues that biographers often employed descriptors such as "quiet and uneventful" in order to satisfy contemporary expectations of female propriety, only to introduce a more complicated portrait of their subject, one that spoke to "the complexity of the female experience" (173). Atkinson similarly is conscious of biographers' use of narrative strategies borrowed from other literary genres and traditions. An examination of Samuel Smiles's Life of a Scotch Naturalist (1876) and William Jolly's The Life of John Duncan, Scotch Weaver and Botanist (1883) reveals the use of guidebook-style descriptions of the picturesque Scottish landscape in order to heighten the works' popular appeal and create an experience of "biography as tourism" (95).

Central to the work is an analysis of the relationship between biographer, subject, and public. Arguing that hidden lives "display a wariness of the public sphere, and the public's ability to act as an arbiter of worth" (12), Atkinson explores the role of biographer as both mediator and guardian. She notes that in the lives of working-class men, biographers constructed "a space for the public to safely encounter individuals they would not otherwise have met" (107), while biographers of "unfulfilled" men created an intimate space in which to recover and preserve the failed figure's reputation. Unlike the biographers of more traditional subjects, the authors of obscure lives, Atkinson suggests, can be regarded as kinds of patrons, "generously bestowing their services to circulate stories of working-class endeavour" (81) or bringing a neglected genius to national attention. Her book further provides evidence that biographers used hidden lives to address contemporary concerns or personal anxieties: the lives of hidden authors and intellectuals allowed biographers "to ponder their...

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