In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Autobiography

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Introductory Works
  • Reference Works
  • Anthologies
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • Eighteenth Century and Romantic Inheritance
  • Spiritual Autobiography
  • Professional Lives
  • Victorian to Modern
  • Childhood and Memory
  • Fictional Autobiography

Victorian Literature Autobiography
Samantha Matthews
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 July 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0023


The Victorian period was a golden age of English autobiography, inseparable from the great flowering of nonfictional prose and developments in the novel, particularly the bildungsroman. Many definitions of autobiography have been forged and debated: a working definition is that autobiography is a retrospective prose narrative by a real person about his or her individual life and personality. Autobiography is a distinct subgenre of life writing, distinguished from autobiographical writing (self-representation in letters, journals, travel writings, etc.). In Roy Pascal’s view, “In the autobiography proper, attention is focused on the self, in the memoir or reminiscence on others” (Pascal 1960, p. 5; cited under General Overviews). Romantic emphases on individualism and processes of self-discovery shifted in the Victorian period to a focus on personal development. There was a growing market for memoirs and autobiographical writings. Autobiography’s increasingly public status responded to calls for heroes in a time of spiritual crisis, yet its drive toward introspection and self-examination was also a symptom of that crisis. The typical narrative describes a process of personal transformation founded on belief in personal progress; the narrative goal is spiritual, aesthetic, intellectual, or vocational development. Yet the overdetermined progressive narrative, by which the life story works toward the achieved “I” writing the autobiography, threatens to fix the subject in a deathly stasis. There were different approaches in autobiographies written from socially marginal positions (working class, female, homosexual, colonial), with more overt awareness of social division and its effects on the self. Although Victorian autobiographers often adopted a confident persona, modern critics find much ambivalence, conflict, and self-doubt in self-representation. The interior self is at once sacred and dangerous; introspection creates self-division and alienation; the unified self is itself revealed as fiction. Since the birth of modern Victorian studies in the 1950s, literary scholars have found autobiography a rich resource for understanding relations between private and public, self and society, religion and science, women and men, children and parents, domestic and professional life, and between classes. Autobiography is also a litmus test for changing methodologies and interpretive approaches in Victorian studies.

General Overviews

The distinctive types, traits, and uses of autobiography in the Victorian period are best understood in the broader context of the genre’s long evolution from St. Augustine’s Confessions (AD 398–400). Shumaker 1954 was the first systematic attempt to analyze “autobiographies in the modern mode.” It summarizes earlier autobiographical forms and previous criticism, defines terms, and focuses on the “subjective” modern autobiography, established by 1800, and thereafter developing through deepening psychological insights, and through techniques borrowed from the novel. Pascal 1960 begins its critical survey by asking “What is an Autobiography?” (pp. 1–20). It explores the “subtle penetration of the past by the present” (p. 13), and the contingency of autobiographical truth: “that unique truth of life as it is seen from inside” (p. 194). Shumaker’s view of autobiography’s psychological interest is developed through Jungian psychoanalytic theory in Olney 1972, where the best works evince “consciousness [that] this continuing creation of the self accompanies the creation, and, in the moment after, becomes it” (p. 44). For Olney, narrative patterns offer the subject’s life as a symbol for the reader’s deep contemplations: autobiographies are “metaphors for our selves” (p. 50). Weintraub 1975 makes a decisive intervention in autobiography studies, arguing for the simultaneous emergence around 1800 of “the recognition of a strong historical dimension of all human reality and a modern mode of self-conception as an individuality” (p. 847). Sturrock 1993 registers the impact of post-structuralism and “the death of the author” on autobiography studies. He discusses Freud and invokes Paul de Man’s view of prosopopoeia (“face making”) as the key to understanding autobiography, but is also independent minded in his thesis that “autobiography wills the unity of its subject” (p. 4). Marcus 1994 is a deservedly widely cited major reassessment of the centrality of autobiography and biography to modern debates about tensions between subject and object, public and private, fact and fiction. Marcus achieves the robust but responsive theorization that Shumaker attempted in an earlier critical idiom, as well as engaging with the most credible earlier autobiographical theory. The specific lens of narratology is productively applied in Barros 1998, while Anderson 2011 offers an introductory critical, historical, and generic survey that engages fully with the implications of poststructuralist and other recent theory for interpretations of autobiography.

  • Anderson, Linda R. Autobiography. 2d ed. The New Critical Idiom. Abingdon, UK, and New York: Routledge, 2011.

    Reliable, readable overview of autobiographical criticism and theory, with discussion of different forms from Augustine to the contemporary. No direct commentary on Victorian autobiographies. Good study guide. Originally published in 2001.

  • Barros, Carolyn A. Autobiography: Narrative of Transformation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1998.

    Narratological approach, organized around the narrator-protagonist, with discussion of metaphors of and motives for change. Discusses Newman 1995, Mill 1989, Darwin 2002 (all cited under Seminal Autobiographical Writings), and Oliphant 2002 (cited under Women’s Autobiography).

  • Marcus, Laura. Auto/Biographical Discourses: Theory, Criticism, Practice. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1994.

    Major reappraisal of autobiography as a genre and concept in the 19th and 20th centuries. Richly informed by diverse literary and theoretical texts, and subtle on the threatening and magical potential of autobiography’s hybrid and unstable nature.

  • Olney, James. Metaphors of Self: The Meaning of Autobiography. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1972.

    Still valuable Jungian study of the “philosophy and psychology of autobiography” (p. viii), privileging universal, timeless, and poetic qualities. On Darwin, Newman, and Mill as “autobiography simplex” (pp. 182–259).

  • Pascal, Roy. Design and Truth in Autobiography. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1960.

    Classic humanistic formal and historical study of concepts and issues in Western autobiographical writing, with many suggestive comparative examples from European texts.

  • Shumaker, Wayne. English Autobiography: Its Emergence, Materials, and Form. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1954.

    The first significant systematic critical account. Formal taxonomy privileges Victorian autobiographies. Mill 1989 (cited under Seminal Autobiographical Writings) illustrates the expository mode (pp. 142–157); Trollope 2008 (cited under Seminal Autobiographical Writings), the mixed mode (pp. 158–184); and George Moore, Hail and Farewell! (1914), the narrative mode (pp. 185–216).

  • Sturrock, John. The Language of Autobiography: Studies in the First Person Singular. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

    Study from Augustine to the present, examining creative tensions between the autobiographer’s will to singularity and the address to a readerly community. On Mill, Newman, and Darwin (pp. 192–222).

  • Weintraub, Karl J. “Autobiography and Historical Consciousness.” Critical Inquiry 1.4 (1975): 821–848.

    DOI: 10.1086/447818

    Important argument that “the autobiographic genre took on its full dimension and richness” around 1800, as modern historicism emerged (p. 821). Helpfully divided into two sections: “Problems of the Genre” (pp. 822–834) and “Autobiography and Personality Conceptions” (pp. 834–848). Accessibly written.

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