- Creating Identity in the Victorian Fictional Autobiography by Heidi L. Pennington
Heidi L. Pennington
U of Missouri P, 2018, 240 pp. ISBN 978-0826221575, $50.00 hardcover.
Heidi Pennington's Creating Identity in the Victorian Fictional Autobiography begins with a challenge to our understanding of identity. The book's central tenet is that identity creation in the real world uses the same cognitive and narrative processes as those used by readers of works of fiction. Consequently, Pennington argues, fictional autobiographies can be used to investigate the strategies we use to become real to ourselves and others: readers of fictional autobiographies occupy a doubled reading stance where "the experience of seeming to discover the genuine identity of the main character through the text coexists with the readerly awareness that this character's identity has no real referent to be discovered" (6). Pennington's most notable deviation from other theories of (fictional) autobiography lies in proposing that readers will be focusing on the fictional character as both subject and narrator of the text, leaving the author outside the scope of her argument.
The introduction and first chapter offer a comprehensive account of the fictional autobiography as a genre: drawing on a great number of secondary sources, Pennington demarcates its properties and peculiarities against the related subgenres of (realist) novels and autobiography, and traces its development from the early novels of Daniel Defoe to its culmination in the Victorian period. That the twentieth century and the rise of Modernism's often semi-fictional New Biography are outside the scope of this discussion is perfectly understandable, but nevertheless a slight disappointment. Given Pennington's thorough examination of the subject, a brief comment on how these future developments relate to their Victorian predecessors would have been a valuable and interesting addition to this otherwise comprehensive overview. A particular strength of her discussion lies in the detailed attention she pays to the shifting constructions of the self in a variety of fictional and factual texts. Pennington finds a tension at the heart of Victorian identity, which pits an assumedly stable and permanent interior self against the necessity to socially constitute it—a process which her study of the fictional autobiography aims to illuminate. Bringing together theorists ranging from Lejeune and Iser to Lisa Zunshine (proponent of the theory of mind approach to literature), Pennington offers a useful discussion of truth, referentiality, and the reading process as she substantiates her claim that these processes function identically for real [End Page 430] and fictional selves. Unfortunately, the reader's enjoyment of this insightful analysis is slightly hampered by the book's dense and complex style. Additionally, at times Pennington's own voice threatens to be lost amongst the copious amounts of criticism she draws on.
The subsequent three chapters offer a more concrete demonstration of the communal identity-building process at the heart of fictional autobiography, and focus on the narrator-protagonists of Jane Eyre, David Copperfield, Bleak House, and Villette. Pennington defends her textual selection with the iconic statuses of Charlotte Brontë and Charles Dickens. As generally accepted representatives of Victorian literature and familiar cultural touchstones, they allow her argument to be more accessible to a wider, non-Victorianist readership. Additionally, one might argue that the doubled reading stance demanded of the reader leads to a slightly wider focus on four fictional narrators rather than two real-world authors. However, especially when compared to the breadth of Pennington's use of secondary literature, this very narrow focus on just four texts published between 1847 and 1853 raises some questions for the more historicist-minded amongst us. Most obviously, this limited selection suggests a monolithic Victorian period and fails to address the changing literary and cultural norms of the fin de siècle, for instance. It also suggests a very conservative Victorian canon: much Victorian biography was ephemeral and dealt with obscure lives, as works like Juliette Atkinson's Victorian Biography Reconsidered and Alison Booth's study of collective biography have shown, and a perspective on the existence and popularity of fictional autobiographies outside of our Victorian canon would have offered an intriguing addition to their...