Biography 25.3 (2002) 505-509
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When discussing women's autobiography, what emphasis should we place on the issue of gender itself? This is the question which Linda Peterson raises at the beginning of her intelligent and provocative study, Traditions of Victorian Women's Autobiography: The Poetics and Politics of Life Writing. And the answer that she offers from the start is that any such emphasis should be a cautious one. Gender may well be an important factor to be taken into consideration, but other determinants—and several times over, she singles out religious, political, social, and regional allegiances and inflections as of crucial potential importance—may be as influential on a writer, or even more so.
Peterson's way into illustrating the importance, or otherwise, of gender within Victorian women's autobiographies is by examining their position within the traditions of life writing. Acknowledging the important work done by both Regenia Gagnier (in Subjectivities) and Laura Marcus (in Auto/biographical Discourses) in establishing that Victorian women's autobiography was characterized by a diversity of modes and discourses, rather than offering itself up as some homogenous whole, she locates this diversity within the plurality of available traditions. The first chapter treats three of these major strands: a tradition of spiritual autobiography, as manifested in the Quaker accounts collected in the Friends' Library (1837-50); a tradition of family memoirs, bolstered by the publications of antiquarian societies; and the artists' lives—mostly of the chroniques scandaleuses type—which appeared in Hunt and Clarke's Autobiography series (1826-33). By focusing on collections of texts, rather than individual volumes, the point that there were discrete traditions which could be recognized as such is persuasively made. The fact that women seem increasingly aware of the social limitations placed on them as a result of their sex is related to broad ideological developments, making gender a political rather than natural category, and focusing on gender issues a matter of authorial choice. Peterson rightly acknowledges the importance many Victorian women writers placed on relational narrative patterns, and the fact that women, in particular, were expected to locate themselves within a matrix of family and domesticity, rather than following a more apparently masculine model of individualistic self-determination and [End Page 505] empowerment. But in accepting that women nonetheless could freely draw on these latter autobiographical traditions—sometimes even within the same text as one which celebrated the life of the home—she points the way to the internal divisions in both subject and text which mark many Victorian women's autobiographies.
The crux of Peterson's argument rests on the close analysis of seven major texts. Three of these are autobiographical in the commonly accepted sense of the word: Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna's Personal Recollections (1841) and Harriet Martineau's Autobiography (1877), which are brought into dialogue within the same chapter; and Margaret Oliphant's Autobiography,which is treated on its own. Three are autobiographically-couched fictions: Jane Eyre, Aurora Leigh, and Mary Cholmondeley's Red Pottage, and the final work considered is Cholmondeley's hybrid Under One Roof, simultaneously memorializing her own childhood and the prematurely ended life of her sister Hester. Tonna and Martineau make a wonderful pair, since they exemplify with antithetical neatness very different responses to the traditions of spiritual biography and domestic memoir. The former, through aligning herself with the moral and spiritual legacy of Hannah More, sought to direct her readers to the importance of the domestic, something which she aligns with having a solid religious framework to one's life. This, rather than economics, provides for her the true impetus which should lie behind a woman's writing. And yet the fact that spiritual and domestic happiness and progress cannot be neatly dovetailed leaves an illogical fissure that later writers, like Annie Besant, were keen to exploit. Martineau, too, is shown to have a telling...