- Autobiographical Writing and British Literature, 1783-1834
If you cherish The Prelude as the greatest example of Romantic autobiography, this book may not be for you. Wordsworth's poem hovers at the edges of James Treadwell's discussion, but remains marginal on the grounds that it is "not a Romantic-period autobiography, as far as this study is concerned" (110). The reason for this somewhat startling announcement is, simply, that Wordsworth avoided publishing his poem, and for Treadwell, the moment of publication is what, above all, defined autobiography before the 1830s.
Autobiography happened, Treadwell argues, when private life was thrown into public circulation, creating a new kind of transaction between author and readers. Autobiography cannot yet be described as a literary genre at this period, and we should also resist thinking about it as a set of texts exploring the subjectivity of their authors. Instead, we should make our starting-point "autobiography's problematic place in the world of readers and writers," so that "questions of writing come before questions of selfhood" (177). Why was the publication of private life "problematic"? Treadwell argues that late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century commentators and autobiographers, following Dr. Johnson, tried to justify autobiography as instructive history. The exposure of private life could be both amusing and useful to the reader, in the standard Horatian formula. But autobiographical writing resisted such prescriptions. Even as writers attempted to explain it as offering entertainment and universal truths, there was an uneasy awareness that it re-inflected amusement as "prurience, voyeurism, or gossip" (27), and privileged "disclosure [End Page 341] over evaluation" (23). Autobiography, not least because it defied prescriptions, was always "potentially indecorous or offensive," always "contentious" (7). Thus Treadwell reads Rousseau's Confessions as the seminal text in the inception of "Romantic autobiography," on the grounds that a private life was presented without the means for a reader to make sense of it either through the pleasures of sympathetic identification or as a representative example of human nature. Instead, by means of the vaunted uniqueness of the project and of the life narrated, Rousseau circulated "privacy for public consumption, and nothing but consumption" (55). This, as Treadwell reads it, was the true shock delivered by the Confessions, rather than the more obvious scandal of Rousseau's frankness about his sexual preferences.
By getting away from "subjectivity" to "textuality," Treadwell urges us to look upon autobiography from the 1780s to the early 1830s as an emergent practice, radically self-questioning and questioned within literary culture at large. One of the great strengths of this serious, subtle, and thought-provoking book is the way it manages to convey this sense of autobiography in the act of making itself. Autobiography is captured as a messy process, rather than an ordered history of theory and practice. Treadwell believes that the perception of autobiography in the public literary sphere (represented here principally by the literary reviews) was as important as its practice. Another great strength of the book is that its approach, which constantly intercuts reception and practice, fully embodies this conviction.
Although Wordsworth is largely excluded from this study, there are readings of texts by other canonical autobiographical writers, including Rousseau, Coleridge, Wollstonecraft, Hazlitt, De Quincey, and Byron, as well as some consideration of non-canonical autobiographical texts. Treadwell's analyses are admirably polished, sophisticated, and often persuasive, but because dependent on a highly exclusive understanding of what autobiography is, they can be disconcertingly dismissive of parts of the texts traditionally beloved of readers and critics alike, but here deemed not "autobiographical." The Biographia Literaria is represented as only the most extreme example of a more general tendency of Romantic-period autobiography "to make its own processes more prominent than the narratives it contains" (149). Thus, anxious prefaces, as Treadwell admits, may receive more attention than the main body of the text, since these were where the self-conscious negotiations between author and public commonly took place. De Quincey's introspective opium visions are bracketed as rhetorical excess, exceptional in the same...