- Romantic Autobiography in England
In his introduction to this collection of essays on English Romantic autobiography, Eugene Stelzig writes that this "ill-defined and contested" genre is "still up for interpretative grabs" (5). The contributions to this volume suggest the truth of these words, testifying both to the lack of modern critical consensus on what exactly constitutes a "Romantic autobiography," and to the opportunities for new approaches to the subject that such uncertainty opens up. Coming in the wake of James Treadwell's provocative discussion of Autobiographical Writing and British Literature, 1783–1834 (Oxford UP, 2005), and other recent work, such as Arthur Bradley and Alan Rawes's Romantic Biography (Ashgate, 2003), the collection is a valuable addition to current debates about the nature and limits of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century British life writing. Its aim is "to map the debatable, unsystematic, and hybrid practice of Romantic autobiography in England from a variety of perspectives and in a variety of genres and modes … by a broad spectrum of practitioners, from the high and the semi to the non-canonical, from the famous to the little known and marginal" (4). Authors covered range from William and Dorothy Wordsworth, Thomas De Quincey, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Mary Shelley, to Mary Hays, Mary Robinson, Joseph Severn, James Ridgway, "Ned Ludd," and an all but forgotten sonneteer, Mariann Dark.
The generic boundaries of Romantic autobiography, as interpreted by the contributors, are elastic, and there is an emphasis throughout on the collective nature of autobiographical authorship. Diane Hoeveler, for instance, teases auto/biography out of fiction, by reading Mary Shelley's Mathilda and "The Mourner" in the light of Freud's theory of the screen memory. The stories are viewed as attempts by Shelley to process her troubled relationships with her father and husband and to merge an idealized version of Percy's life with her own, in a composite "redeemed self" (83). Miriam Wallace also finds autobiography operating obliquely, this time within biography. She interprets Hays's Female Biography as an autobiographical text on the grounds that these "Lives" of eminent women encouraged their readers to engage in a collective act of female self-making. Autobiographical collaborations were not always this harmonious of course, and other essays show us how they could be troublingly self-serving. Sue Brown looks at how the record of Joseph Severn's life—in his memoirs and letters—became dependent on his self-mythologizing autobiographical construction as "the friend of Keats." Susan Levin's essay on James Ridgway's partially ventriloquized Memoirs of Mrs Billington focuses on a blatantly exploitative appropriation of someone else's life. Her discussion raises pertinent questions about whose memories a memoir really records, and [End Page 557] about the nature of authorial control in autobiographical writing. Yet collective authorship in autobiography could also be empowering, as seen in one of the most interesting and informative essays included here—Kevin Binfield's discussion of Luddite writing. He reads this diverse group of texts, including "threatening letters, proclamations, verses, and satires" (161), as a collective laboring-class autobiography. "Ned Ludd" is a name that cannot be traced to a single, historical individual, but Binfield makes a convincing case for looking at the documents bearing this signature as the autobiography of an eponym.
Philippe Lejeune's neat and settling definition of autobiography as a "retrospective prose narrative written by a real person concerning his own existence, where the focus is his individual life, in particular the story of his personality" (qtd. 200) will clearly no longer do. As is already apparent, Romantic Autobiography in England not only emphasizes generic hybridity and collective authorship, but takes it as read that women writers were among the most important autobiographers of the period. The first and most substantial section of the collection is devoted to "The Variety of Women's Life Writing," and canonical, male-authored autobiography takes something of a back seat. There is an insightful and wide-ranging discussion of De Quincey as autobiographer from Frederick Burwick, but there is little or no comment...