- Susan Bell’s Contributions to Autobiography
Today, everyone in America seems to be writing a memoir—the young, the old, men and women, the celebrity, and the first-time author. This was not the case when Susan Bell and I began to teach autobiography some thirty years ago and edited a collection of essays, titled Revealing Lives: Autobiography, Biography, and Gender, that were based on the conference we organized through the Clayman Institute at Stanford University in 1986.1
The very title of our collection reveals a difference between then and now. Sue and I agreed that “autobiography” was the right term for a retrospective account of one’s own life, in keeping with the linguistic convention established after the publication of Rousseau’s Confessions (in 1782 and 1789). We did not want to use the even older French term “mémoires” because that implied historical significance of a public nature, as in Saint Simon’s Memoirs of the Court of Louis XIV. And we certainly would not have used the word “memoir”—an upstart term that originally had a limited meaning, like a “report.”
We agreed that the autobiographer’s task is to present an accurate self-portrait to the extent that memory and good faith allow. As we wrote in our introduction: “We believe . . . that the autobiographical ‘I,’ however fugitive, partial, and unreliable, is indeed the privileged textual double of a real person, as well as a self-evident textual construct.”2 This carefully considered creed covered two different perspectives. As a historian, Susan was primarily interested in whether the autobiographer wrote a factually accurate narrative. I, as a literary scholar, was equally interested in the “textual construct”—that is, whether the author created an aesthetically satisfying piece of literature. When examining such works as George Sand’s Histoire de ma vie (A History of My Life) or The Autobiography of John Stuart Mill, we placed authors within the context of their own time and place, while paying attention to such literary matters as compelling content, appropriate form, and engaging style.
But most of all, as feminist scholars, Susan and I were concerned with reading autobiography through the lens of gender; What new insights could we reveal if we magnified our attention to gender, if we “overread” gender, to use the literary scholar Nancy Miller’s phrase?3 “Gender,” as first used in women’s studies, was still a relatively new term in the 1980’s, one that we defined in this way: “Gender . . . is that deep imprinting of cultural beliefs, [End Page 202] values, and expectations on one’s biological sex, forming a fundamental component in a person’s sense of identity. When viewed collectively, it is a system of difference between men and women.”4 Hmmm. Today, in an era of LGBT shorthand, we would write something less binary that speaks of gender as a continuum extending from uncompromising masculinity at one extreme to uncompromising femininity at the other.
In our collection, Susan’s essay, “The Feminization of John Stuart Mill,” dealt specifically with nineteenth-century notions of femininity and masculinity, as reassessed by Mill during his long relationship with Harriet Taylor. She and Mill enjoyed a loving, albeit chaste, friendship while her first husband was alive and then a full sexual and intellectual partnership after she and Mill married in 1851. Susan first situated Mill within the Victorian belief system that attributed intellect to men and emotion to women. Although not immune to this discourse, Mill was far ahead of his time. For one thing, he believed women the intellectual equals of men, a conviction bolstered by his relationship with Harriet. In his autobiography, he credited her with the joint authorship of his widely-read masterpiece, On Liberty, and went so far as to write that “The whole mode of thinking of which the book was the expression, was emphatically hers.”5
Harriet’s death in 1858 was the great tragedy of Mill’s adult life, but even after she died, she continued to influence his thinking. In 1867, when he delivered his groundbreaking parliamentary speech that advocated woman’s suffrage, he expressed this unorthodox view that she had inspired.