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Reviews Linda H. Peterson, Traditions of Victorian Women'sAutobiography. The Poetics andPolitics of Life Writing. Victorian Literature and Culture Series. Charlottesville and London: UP of Virginia, 1999. xiii + 256. In VictorianAutobiography (1986), Linda Peterson studied the way that Victorian autobiographers drew on and reacted to the tradition of spiritual autobiography, focussing on Thomas Carlyle,John Ruskin, John Henry Newman, Harriet Martineau, and Edmund Gosse. Those who are familiar with that book will not be surprised to find in Traditions of Victorian Women'sAutobiography a lucid work of literary history grounded in a remarkable depth of scholarship. Peterson begins by noting that "Victorian women did not publish the classic, hermeneutic autobiographies that flourished among their male counterparts " (ix). When, prompted by a colleague's question, she sought to discover what they wrote instead, she found a rich diversity of life writing. In Traditions of Victorian Women'sAutobiography she. provides both a history and a poetics of that body of writing. The range of texts which Peterson has surveyed is wide, because she interprets the term autobiography generously to include family memoirs, poems, and works of fiction. The book begins with a discussion of some of the generic options which were available to the female autobiographer early in the nineteenth-century, and proceeds to look in detail at Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna's Personal Recollections, Harriet Martineau's Autobiography, Charlotte Bronte's jane Eyre, Elizabeth Barrett Browning's AuroraLeigh, Margaret Oliphant's Autobiography, and Mary Cholmondeley's RedPottage and UnderOne Roof. Peterson acknowledges the work of feminist literary history and criticism in recovering writing by women and gaining critical attention for it, and she refers extensively to this work in the course of her argument. However, she suggests that it is time to re-examine the assumptions that women's writing constitutes a separate tradition, and that gender is a crucial feature of all literary writing: "Other possibilities —that gender may not be the crucial factor in some autobiography , that other allegiances (religious, regional, political, or social) Victorian Review99 Reviews may be equally important, that some women autobiographers may deliberately avoid a female literary tradition, or that some women's accounts may self-consciously invoke multiple traditions—these possibilities have been underexplored" (2). In several places, Peterson's analyses of the diversity and complexity of the ways that women wrote about their lives (she herself draws attention to the significance of the choice of the plural "Traditions" as the first word of her title) challenge what have become received ideas in literary studies. According to Peterson, the origins of women's autobiography are Victorian, and in her first chapter, which is a masterful demonstration of her scholarly grasp of her subject matter, she sets out three traditions which Victorian writers drew on, and in fact constructed, in their editing, criticism, and writing of autobiographical texts. The first is the tradition of spiritual autobiography, in which gender was not, at least in the seventeenth-century origin of this form in England, a significant factor. Looking at a collection of Quaker autobiographies edited as The Friend's Library in the early Victorian period, Peterson notes that they "belie the label of the Augustinian or Bunyanesque form as prototypically 'masculine'" (6). The second generic tradition is the domestic memoir, which has its origins in the family histories of aristocratic women of the early modern period. In these works gender is more prominent, and the self is seen in a more relational manner. A third category, the "scandalous memoir," originates in eighteenthcentury fiction, and it provided a precedent for Victorian women to define themselves not in terms of a pattern of spiritual conversion, or in terms of family relationships, but occupationally. In Chapter Two, Peterson contrasts the way that Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna and Harriet Martineau respond to these traditions in their autobiographies. Tonna writes a domestic memoir with a conversion narrative at the centre, which modifies the classic tradition of the spiritual autobiography by linking religion and home life in a way which we might consider characteristically Victorian. Martineau rejects this pattern, and ironically, given her Comtean view of Christianity, her autobiography conforms genetically to "an older, purer form of spiritual autobiography" (63). Instead of domestic life...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 99-102
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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