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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Introductory Works
  • Reference Works
  • Anthologies
  • Journals

Victorian Literature Life Writing
Valerie Sanders
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 July 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0151


“Life writing” is a broad term encompassing many varieties of personal narrative, including autobiography, biography, memoir, diary, travel writing, autobiographical fiction, letters, collective biography, poetry, case history, personal testimony, illness narrative, obituary, essay, and reminiscences—testimony to its flexible and vibrant format, with an outward-facing as well as introspective purpose. From the beginning, life writing acknowledged the possibility of a reader, while conveying a sense of intimacy. It applied to poetry as well as prose, with some of the greatest 19th-century examples being Wordsworth’s Prelude (1850) and Tennyson’s In Memoriam (1850), but it equally applies to brief autobiographical statements, such as George Eliot’s “How I Came to Write Fiction” (1857) or summaries of domestic life in the Brontë sisters’ diary papers. Life writing is also multidisciplinary. In no sense should it be seen as confined to historians, literature specialists, and creative writers. Nor has it traditionally been the preserve of any one social class, as testified by the flourishing of working-class autobiography. The origins of the term can be traced back as far as the seventeenth century, but as a critical term it came to be more widely used from the 1970s onward. Virginia Woolf was using it in the 1930s, including in “A Sketch of the Past” (1939), where she stressed the importance of recording all the “invisible presences” in a person’s life, otherwise “how futile life-writing becomes.” In the nineteenth century, any one publication was likely to combine more than one form of life writing, the monumental “life and letters” being a prime example of the inseparability of the biographical narrative from the embedded correspondence and journals of the subject that allowed their “voice” to be heard from within the biographer’s controlling framework. Margaretta Jolly rightly argues, of life writing, that the “hope of describing fully a subject of such celebrated ambiguity and disciplinary iconoclasm is certainly vain” (The Encyclopaedia of Life Writing: Autobiographical and Biographical Forms, ed. Margaretta Jolly, vol. 1 [London: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2001], p. ix; see Reference Works). For the purposes of this article, the primary formats have been selected; namely, autobiography, biography, prosopography, diary, letter, and fictional life writing, with their accompanying critical literature on life writing issues. A brief section on French and German life writing and criticism closes the resource. See also the separate Oxford Bibliographies articles “Travel Writing” and “Autobiography,” with which there is some overlap here.

General Overviews

The contentious field of life writing (usually spelt without a hyphen) provides ample opportunity for theorists to survey the landscape and identify themes, patterns, shifting interests, and amalgamations of forms. While Amigoni 2006 focuses exclusively on Victorian practitioners and genres, as do Peltason 1999, Tate 2006, and Booth 2010, which are shorter surveys, the majority of overviews adopt a broader approach, backdating their surveys to the Middle Ages. The most dominant theme is the impurity of the genre, which necessitates both definitions and apologies. Contributors to essay collections write less about “life writing” as such, preferring to home in on one or other of its subgenres, while Winslow 1995 argues that there were not even many book-length studies of life writing before the twentieth century. Winslow’s book is part bibliography and part glossary, and it is included here for its usefulness as a succinct entry point into the field. The introduction to Amigoni 2006, meanwhile, in discussing “Genres, Print, Constituencies,” makes the case for acknowledging neglected forms and sources of life writing, such as newspapers and the autobiographical discourses of MPs. While promoting the importance of lesser-known subjects, Amigoni also endorses Carlyle’s continuing relevance to the study of Victorian life writing, while Alison Booth has become the champion of “prosopography,” or collections of short biographies (see Booth 2010). Kadar 1992 also begins with an overview of life writing as comprising “texts that are written by an author who does not continuously write about someone else” (p. 10). Kadar’s collection is broader than Amigoni’s but, like Leader 2015, it is ultimately less immediately useful to Victorian specialists. Peltason 1999 takes a broadly inclusive approach within the Victorian period, both in terms of themes and authors, arguing that life writing “connects in revelatory ways with other features of Victorian life and literature” (p. 356). This allows Peltason to connect life writing, at one extreme, with the aspirational and exemplary culture of “teaching by example,” and at the other with the monumental epic poems of the period, as well as the autobiographical novel. Male-authored life writing is the main concern of Saunders 2010, in what seems like a return to the stalwarts of 19th-century autobiography, were it not for a focus on the “disruptive” aspects of life writing, the coining of neologisms, and the idea that, in effect, every text is an autobiography. Culley 2014, by contrast, focuses on women writers living around the time of the French Revolution and beyond, and conceiving their work as more than a personal history. Broughton 2020, meanwhile, deplores the narrow range of canonical life writing texts addressed by critics, through an overview of Martineau’s Autobiography examining how the form embodies multiple genres. MacKay 2015 also discusses Martineau within a broad introduction to Victorian women’s auto/biographical writing that also includes Fanny Kemble, Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Eliza Lynn Linton. Such is the current status of the genre that Palgrave has launched its own critical series, Palgrave Studies in Life Writing (2017–). While this is not exclusively concerned with the nineteenth century, it includes some Victorian studies listed elsewhere in this article.

  • Amigoni, David, ed. Life Writing and Victorian Culture. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2006.

    Contains ten essays on different genres, and canonical and noncanonical figures, with an emphasis on masculinities, domestic relations, and the boundaries between public print and private experience. Includes an introduction by the editor.

  • Booth, Alison. “Life Writing.” In The Cambridge Companion to English Literature, 1830–1914. Edited by Joanne Shattock, 50–70. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

    Succinct and wide-ranging overview of the different varieties of 19th-century life writing and its practitioners, including collective biography, the traditional “life-and-letters,” female autobiographers, and a subsection on Carlyle as personifying the notion that “individuals can stand for the spirit of an age” (p. 59).

  • Broughton, Trev. “Life Writing.” In The Routledge Companion to Victorian Literature. Edited by Dennis Denisoff and Talia Schaffer, 69–82. New York and Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2020.

    Organizing her chapter under thematic headings, including “Citizen Selves,” “Life-Writing as Commodity,” and “Embodied Selves,” Broughton discusses Harriet Martineau as an exemplar life-writer whose Autobiography was characteried by “heterogeneous modes of production, and therefore incongruent understandings of the narrating ‘I’” (p. 79).

  • Culley, Amy. British Women’s Life Writing, 1760–1840: Friendship, Community, and Collaboration. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

    Stresses the communal and relational aspects of life writing in the work of miscellaneous authors from early Methodist women, through responses to the French Revolution, to the courtesan Grace Dalrymple Elliott, whose Journal of her life was posthumously published in 1859.

  • Davis, Philip. “Lives and Thoughts.” In The Oxford English Literary History. Vol. 8, 1830–1880: The Victorians. Edited by Philip Davis, 404–455. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

    Divided into two subsections, “Life-Writing” and “Writing about Life,” the first of which explores biography, autobiography, and travel narratives as a form of life writing, while the second reviews the debates of philosophical, religious, and political thinkers on “the very aims and principles of life” (p. 437).

  • Kadar, Marlene, ed. Essays on Life Writing: From Genre to Critical Practice. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992.

    Begins with Kadar’s overview of life writing, “from genre to critical practice,” before branching into four subsections, which include essays on Anna Jameson and Mary Wollstonecraft. Noting that autobiography has been a “womanless history,” Kadar adopts a broadly inclusive approach to life writing that encompasses travel writing, notebooks, and “epistolary narratives.”

  • Leader, Zachary, ed. On Life-Writing. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.

    A collection of fifteen commissioned contributions by leading writers (including a useful introduction), aimed at the general as well as academic reader. Ranges from early modern examples to the digital age, with chapters on prosopography, Romantic biography, and Benjamin Franklin.

  • MacKay, Carol Hanbery. “Life-Writing.” In The Cambridge Companion to Victorian Women’s Writing. Edited by Linda H. Peterson, 159–174. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

    Begins with the premise that “a Victorian woman was in a bind when it came to writing her own life story,” and explores the various options that she had, including a tendency to invite into her narrative “the life stories of others” (p. 159).

  • Peltason, Timothy. “Life Writing.” In A Companion to Victorian Literature and Culture. Edited by Herbert F. Tucker, 356–372. Malden, MA, and Oxford: Blackwell, 1999.

    DOI: 10.1111/b.9780631218760.1999.00024.x

    Overview of the many varieties of Victorian life writing, ranging from Wordsworth’s Prelude to Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, noting that autobiographies are freer than biographies to apportion their attention unevenly to different stages of the subject’s life.

  • Saunders, Max. Self Impression: Life-Writing, Autobiografiction, and the Forms of Modern Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199579761.001.0001

    Two-part exploration of the overlapping forms of life writing from the 1870s to the 1930s, with Part One on Victorian male authors, including Pater, Ruskin, Gissing, Gosse, and A. C. Benson. Argues that life writing remains a contentious term because of its blurring of forms, and addresses the coining of neologisms, such as “autobiografiction,” to capture this.

  • Tate, Andrew. “Introduction: Victorian Life Writing.” In Special Issue: Victorian Life Writing. Edited by Andrew Tate. Nineteenth-Century Contexts 28.1 (March 2006): 1–3.

    DOI: 10.1080/08905490600691416

    Introduces four articles by Silvana Colella, Sarah J. Heidt, Simon Marsden, and Susan McPherson, derived from papers given at an international conference on Victorian life writing hosted by Lancaster University in July 2005.

  • Winslow, Donald J., ed. Life-Writing: A Glossary of Terms in Biography, Autobiography, and Related Forms. 2d ed. Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 1995.

    Provides a 68-page Glossary, followed by a bibliography of books on the different subgenres of life writing.

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