Nineteenth-Century Lives: Essays presented to Jerome Hamilton Buckley edited by Laurence S. Lockridge, John Maynard, and Donald D. Stone, and: The Victorian Self: Autobiography and Biblical Narrative by Heather Henderson (review)
- Victorian Review
- Victorian Studies Association of Western Canada
- Volume 16, Number 2, Winter 1990
- pp. 99-103
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- Additional Information
Reviews99 research, Volume 2 of Victorian Periodicals: A Guide to Research will surely stimulate the interest of younger scholars. Works Cited Walter Houghton, ed. Wellesley Index to Victorian Periodicals, 5 vols. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1966-1988. Alvin Sullivan, ed. British Literary Magazines, 4 vols. 1983-86. Volume 3: The Victorian and Edwardian Age, 1837-1913 Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1984. Patricia Thomas Srebrnik University of Calgary Laurence S. Lockridge, John Maynard, and Donald D. Stone, eds. Nineteenth-Century Lives: Essays presented to Jerome Hamilton Buckley. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989. xix + 216. $29.95 (cloth). Heather Henderson. The Victorian Self: Autobiography and Biblical Narrative. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1989. ? + 205. $29.95 US (cloth). The rapidly growing critical literature on life-writing has focused attention on a number of key questions. Several of these have to do with the idea of biographical "fact" and the relation between fact and fiction. Is there any real boundary between supposed fact and the subjective interpretations, the inevitable fictions ofthe (auto)biographer? What does it mean to narrate a life? What conventions inform these genres? Gender implications provide another area of concern: can a male biographer really know and adequately represent a woman ' s life? And whose lives should be written, anyway: those of the famous or the "lesser lives" of the obscure? These questions and others, and indeed the problematic nature of all forms of life-writing, are addressed, in essays both traditional and innovative, in Nineteenth-Century Lives. The first essay, by Margaret Atwood, and the last, by Phyllis Rose, are certainly among the finest in the volume. Both probe the notions of fact and definitive presentation of the subject.Atwood writes that she finally overcame her "biographobia"—her fear and hatred of a form that too often resembled 100Victorian Review "ragbags ofconjecture" (4), authenticating gossip, trivia, or the haphazard details of a writer ' s life—when she realized that the biographer was only a "constructor ofnarratives," telling the "stories of lives" (6). We may be relieved to see the displacement of a core self or "real me" by what Rose describes as the "partial, tentative, and temporary creation of selves" (195), yet both Atwood and Rose recognize, interestingly, that this happy relativism does not dispel the need to learn things about people and to "extend [our] range of Uved experience" (201). All life-writing may be fiction more or less. But still, "when we read biographies and when we write them," as Atwood remarks, "we want . . . some contact, some communication, some way to know and to pay tribute" (8). This forceful tension pervades the volume. Rose ' s stimulating essay urges biographers to abandon excessive devotion to fact and aspire to the condition of the experimental novel. She recommends such innovations as family biography, a shifting point ofview, disrupted chronology, and the conception of character as discontinuous. Such departures from the archetypal biographical plot—the subject as a plant, whose genius has an inevitable seed-time—would also enable the representation of women ' s Uves, which the traditional formulations of the genre have too often ignored or warped into an alien narrative. Two essays contribute directly to the dialogue on fictional boundaries. Richard Altick imagines writing the life of J. J. Ridley, Thackeray's fictional painter. Ridley provides a clever focus for Altick' s erudite exploration of the rigid conventions and limitations of Victorian art biography, and allows him to examine the genre ' s relationships to fiction. Carl Woodring argues that, in spite of its "passages of inquiry into memories and events" in Wordsworth ' s life, The Prelude is best read not as a factual autobiography but as a "Bildungsroman in blank verse" (9), whose mdetenninacies invite the reader "to make a self" (22). Other essays dramatize rather than discuss problems of life-writing. Morton Cohen ' s and John Rosenberg ' s essays, for example, are especially revealing in their use of evidence. Cohen gives a preview of his forthcoming biography of Lewis Carroll by recounting some of the detective work that led to new discoveries, and reveals his current belief that Carroll ' s relationship with his father was more complex than he had earUer supposed. Cohen ' s enthusiastic reinterpretation of the evidence...