Biography 23.1 (2000) 254-256
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Leslie Stephen starts what is commonly called The Mausoleum Book (1895) --his eulogy of his recently deceased wife Julia, written for his children--by turning promptly to himself: "I wish to write mainly about your mother. But I find that in order to speak intelligibly it will be best to begin by saying something about myself" (qtd. in Broughton 6). And he continues to speak mostly about himself throughout the text.
James Anthony Froude, looking back on the intense controversy generated by his four-volume Life of Thomas Carlyle (1882-1884), reflects in sadness, "I loved him better for the feeling which he had shown. He was human; he had his faults like other men. . . . I supposed that what I felt myself would be felt by others, when they had taken time to consider, but I did know that the first impression would be a painful one" (qtd. in Broughton 130).
These auto/biographies by men of letters writing about women, about other men of letters, and ultimately about themselves provide the test cases for Trev Lynn Broughton's important, intensely interesting exploration of male life-writing at the close of the nineteenth century, a book that demonstrates how the interrogation of masculinities can illuminate life-writing, and, conversely, how the study of male life-writing can open new terrain for the study of men. Strikingly, Broughton's work enlarges our awareness of auto/biography and of the construction of masculinity, not by extending the canon, as has been productively done in recent years by incorporating, for example, female, working-class, and subaltern texts, but by returning to that apparently most exhausted of topics, the lives of white male authors enshrined in the multivolume Life and Letters.
Assuming the Foucauldian model of masculinity as a construction, in contrast to the pervasive essentialist view of maleness, Broughton is attentive to historical specificity in examining the social formation of the [End Page 254] Victorian man of letters. Furthermore, the study is informed by a laudable understanding that even the bearded Victorian authors, not to speak of their male acolytes and the male readers of these biographies, were occupied not only with their own perks and powers, but also with the fragility of male authority. Moving beyond the simple model of omnipotent patriarchal oppression, Broughton focuses on the ideological and social work performed by male biography. She sees that "the late Victorian sage, the hero as man of letters, was in many ways a self-consciously textual--and ultimately a biographical--construction" (63), albeit a construction that then, as now, seemed about to crumble. And she illustrates the function of these texts in "the regulation of literary masculinity" (84). The study keeps at the forefront the task of literary biography in working to resolve the contradictions of this "literary masculinity," the conflicts particular to that paragon of male subjectivity for the Victorian age.
Thus, Broughton's question is never "What was the biographical Truth?"--was Carlyle really impotent?--but rather, why were late Victorian readers so obsessed about the sexual performance of a Victorian sage? Or, why was Leslie Stephen so occupied not only with his professional success, but also with his success as a husband?
In engaging such questions, Broughton's perception of Victorian masculine sexual issues is always acute, especially in noting why certain male troubles were problematized at the end of the century, and why, particularly in the case of Carlyle, these matters generated intense public controversy. The author is nicely attentive to a perhaps no longer neglected aspect of gender studies, the history and construction of heterosexuality. Emphasizing that in the writing of the Victorian Life and Letters "one of the stakes was heterosexual masculinity" (25), she demonstrates how both Froude and Stephen were occupied with a specific problematization of heterosexual male sexuality for the...