- Victorian Biography Reconsidered: A Study of Nineteenth-Century “Hidden” Lives
William Powell Frith’s The Derby Day (Tate, London, 1858) might be an emblem for the crowded canvas of Victorian biography, in which myriad social types are characterized with realist detail that solicits a distributed if not a distracted attention. According to the usual view of Victorian biography, however, a better analogy from the visual arts would be the official portrait of one man by a well-known artist, perhaps William Ewart Gladstone by George Frederick Watts (National Portrait Gallery, 1859). Entire books—though not countless numbers—have been written on English biography with this monographic individual portrait in mind, often centering on the Victorian as an age of biography and discussing only the blockbusters in the mode of Thomas Carlyle’s Frederick the Great.
When Edmund Gosse, Lytton Strachey, Harold Nicolson, and Virginia Woolf called for a new mode of biography for the new century, they deplored the supposedly prevailing Victorian habits of hero-worship and propriety exhibited in the massive “life and letters” of an eminent individual. These modern observers questioned the value of recognizing mediocre lives, but Woolf also invoked “lives of the obscure” and selectively culled existing records of women’s lives. Juliette Atkinson concludes her book with a salutary reminder of these themes, and adds the important point that Woolf ’s father Leslie Stephen’s project, The Dictionary of National Biography, did include lives of the relatively obscure. The difference is that Woolf recognizes hidden lives “as a means of attacking social imbalances rather than as a way of smoothing them over” (252–56). Atkinson’s Victorian Biography Reconsidered recognizes fulllength biographies written about marginal figures as a means of understanding the complex Victorian orientation toward those who were unrewarded by fame and status in their day.
The crowded biographical scene in the Victorian era, and the published writings about working class or private individuals, have not been entirely ignored, of course. Richard Altick some fifty years ago observed the Frithlike canvas of Victorian printed lives, and a few scholars in intervening decades have paid attention to varieties of biographical experience other than the monumental. As Juliette Atkinson observes, most such reconsiderations [End Page 326] have focused on women’s or working class autobiographies (e.g., Linda Peterson, Mary Jean Corbett, Regenia Gagnier); some have examined collective biographies of women (e.g., Booth; Sybil Oldfield); but most still privilege Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Bronte¨, works by and about Thomas Carlyle (9), Self-Help and The Dictionary of National Biography, and a handful of other reinforcements of a national heritage. Juliette Atkinson, instead, presents an eye-opening panorama of biography in Britain off the main stage of literary histories: a study of the Victorian practice of writing biographies of “hidden lives, the lives of failures, and the lives of humble men and women” (3).
Thoroughly gleaning the regrettably small field of studies of nineteenthcentury biography to date, Juliette Atkinson yields a fully informed account of this genre. Her original contribution lies not so much in this synthesis, or in the perceptive overviews of the relevant texts and scholarship in the introduction and first chapter, or even in her insightful reassessments of Carlyle and Smiles (chapter two), Gaskell (chapter five), or her remarkable chapter on the DNB (seven). Rather, Victorian Biography Reconsidered most transforms our outlook through “discovery and rehabilitation” (1) of forgotten trends in Victorian biography, and through meticulous readings of individual works, their authors, and subjects. Excluding “domestic” biographies by family members and focusing on full-length lives, she brings to light biographies of obscure men and women, often “the posthumous recovery of a neglected genius” (183); biographies of working class subjects in which the biographer serves in the role of patron (207); and examples of “tragic failures” and “happy mediocrity” (chapter four). Atkinson also calls attention to the pursuit of hidden lives in such Victorian “commemorative enterprises” as the Postman’s Park in London (73, 216), with its series of plaques honoring “humble” people...