- Life Writing and Victorian Culture
"Life writing" in the Victorian period is now well recognized to comprise a diversity of literary forms. Diaries, obituaries, journals, fictionalized autobiographies, and letters are among the genres recently established alongside the corpus of formal biographies and autobiographies as legitimate topics for scholarly study. David Amigoni's new collection of essays is a decisive confirmation of the current trends in the study of life writing, and will prove, I think, an extremely useful exemplification of developments in this area over the last ten years or so. Modern concerns with gender, sexuality, nationality, and class are prominent. Suspicion of any notion that writing reveals transparently is evident too, and the essayists to different degrees work with the assumption that writing gives impressions, that it is to some degree involved in acts of strategic shaping, that it is always-already involved in some form of ideological contest. Such theoretical postures are, of course, more or less universal in literary study and cultural history now, though their prominence in life writing studies is still noticeable. The language of self-description, most readers now assume, is axiomatically un-innocent, and such assumptions, born chiefly of Barthes, Foucault, and Stephen Greenblatt, but with Oscar Wilde in the background, have made it difficult for readers wholly to believe that expressions of human virtue, wisdom, or decency can be really what they seem. Victorian earnestness has become, under such conditions, pretty much unreadable. Widely accepted here as familiar motivations, conscious or otherwise, for the shaping of life-writing's rhetoric are the matters of arranging one's life for posterity, and of legitimizing it in culturally dominant and approved terms. The languages of class affiliation—understanding class here in no narrow sense—emerge in the foreground as a dominant interpretative category for reading.
Martin Hewitt's opening essay returns him to the subject of Samuel Bamford and to the important question of the relationship between diary and autobiography. Exploring the "post-autobiographical" nature of Bamford's diaries, Hewitt's engaging essay is a reminder to historians approaching such documentary sources of issues in the evidential status and rhetorical purposes of diary writing. Alison Booth moves away, rewardingly, from the study of what she calls "individualist models of identity and development" [End Page 105] (41) to consider collective biographies or "prosopographies" before the Dictionary of National Biography (1885–). It is easy to forget that the DNB had a conspicuous tradition behind it of collective representations which, Booth argues, functioned to provide exempla of good citizenship. Her interest is particularly in biographical collections that portrayed literary homes, especially those that preserved the "commonplace middle-class interiors of men and women of letters" (61). Donna Loftus is intrigued by discourses of control in narratives of self-help in the period, and in the creation, as she sees it, of professional identities in middle-class male autobiographies. Male masochism interests Martin Danahay, and he proposes the controversial notion that "Rather than recognize the psychic pain that they were causing themselves, Victorian men would look 'outward' to find compensation for their own inner pain in idealised images of the other" (87). Masochism is not in this respect sexual, but proposed as a defining feature of male self-control in the period. Not all readers will find the theoretical underpinning of this account helpful, but the analysis of matters of self-restraint, of the inner conflicts necessary for civilized behavior, emerge beyond that as a productive frame for debating male identity in the period before Freud produced a notion of self-control as fundamental to human maturation.
Trev Lynn Broughton's work on masculinity in the late Victorian period has been of consequence. In her essay on Philip Meadows Taylor's The Story of My Life (1877), she considers autobiographical writing from the Indian civil service, challenging Benita Parry's somewhat off-hand remark that such writing was "self-congratulation couched in flatulent prose" and "preoccupied with rank and advancement" (qtd. 105). Broughton's most interesting argument is to...