- Private Lives Made Public: The Invention of Biography in Early Modern England by Andrea Walkden
Duquesne UP, 2016, 206 pp. ISBN 978-0820704821, $70.00 hardcover.
With Private Lives Made Public: The Invention of Biography in Early Modern England, Andrea Walkden provides a compelling study of a subgenre of biographical writing: what is known in early modern parlance as "the life." Yet her focus is not the genre itself as much as the impulse behind it, and the appeal it had for a massive readership. By asking "not just what the early biography is but why it is" (24), Walkden demonstrates that the written life had extraordinary ideological power precisely because it appeared to be nonpolitical. With this claim, Walkden's study enters the realm of historical as well as literary analysis, as she contextualizes the development and increasing appeal of the written life amid the political weariness of the Restoration moment. Given "segments of the population who were wary of the negative effects of the period's political culture: those who felt nostalgia for a simpler, more traditional, world; who found the pace, volume, and intensity of public discussion alienating or overwhelming; or who felt marginalized by or merely indifferent to the rhetorical maneuverings and ponderous obfuscations of disputatious prose" (161–162), the time was right for a simpler-seeming form of narrative. Thus, she claims, "the life, in its many printed and populist incarnations, was put to specific partisan and illiberal ends, seemingly detached from political conflict but implicated fully in its ideological aims and effects" (165).
Central to Walkden's argument is the concept of "biographical populism," which she defines as "the use of life stories to reinforce conservative values and positions" (14). Proof of this concept at work takes the form of detailed case studies of extremely popular texts and collections, or "best-selling, printed biographies" (22), like Thomas Fuller's The History of the Worthies of England, Izaak Walton's Lives, and John Aubrey's Brief Lives. In her close reading of these texts, Walkden does her best work. Each case study is patient, methodical, detail-oriented, and carefully situated in individual, political, and historical contexts. She further links each detailed analysis of a text or author to the one before, which has the cumulative effect of making her argument more convincing. Significantly, Walkden also considers contemporary critiques of the biographical turn, especially in John Milton's Eikonoklastes, which Walkden considers "the first polemic against biography" (25), and Daniel Defoe's The Memoirs of a Cavalier. The analysis of these texts reinforces Walkden's major claim, for it is the ideological nature of the life and its populist political power that Milton in particular is concerned about. Again, Walkden demonstrates how the written life contributes to and perhaps undermines public political discourse precisely because it does not appear to be political. Private Lives is, in short, a well-written, well-organized, and effectively argued contribution to the burgeoning field of early modern lifewriting studies. [End Page 463]
This field has in the last few decades produced studies on a range of lifewriting genres, and in the process demonstrated incontrovertibly the near-endless generic variety and fluidity of auto/biographical writing before 1700. Walkden's attention to what may appear to be the most traditional form of such writing is at first surprising, but this is precisely the point, as her intervention in lifewriting studies—both in regard to the early modern period and more generally—is to draw attention to a more insidious aspect of life writing than we are typically inclined to see. As she says in her concluding comments, "the academy's life-writing movement has underestimated the power of . . . biographical populism" (165). In this way, her argument about the ideological power and appeal of written lives becomes eerily resonant with our own political moment, when populist impulses clash with more traditional intellectual argumentation. When Walkden says of the seventeenth century that in "[r]eplacing arguments with human interest stories that prove more emotionally satisfying and easier to follow, biographical narratives perform their...