This book explores how the publication of women’s life writing influenced the reputation of its writers and of the genre itself during the long nineteenth century. It provides case studies of Frances Burney, Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Robinson and Mary Hays, four writers whose names were caught up in the debates surrounding the moral and literary respectability of publishing the ‘private’ through diaries, letters, memoirs and auto/biography. Focusing on gender, genre and authorial reputation, the book examines key works, such as Frances Burney’s Diary and Letters of Madame D’Arblay (1842–46), Mary Wollstonecraft’s Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (1796), William Godwin’s Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1798), Mary Robinson’s Memoirs (1801), and Mary Hays’s Female Biography (1803), as well as responses to these texts in a range of non-canonical material such as essays, reviews, novels, poetry, multibiographies, illustrated fiction and later biographies. It also considers print runs, circulation figures, pricing and reprinting patterns. Using both qualitative and quantitative data, the book argues for the importance of life writing – a crucial site of affective identification – in shaping authorial reputation and afterlife. It also reveals the innovative contributions of these women to the genre of life writing. The book ultimately helps to construct a fuller, more varied picture of the literary field in the long nineteenth century and the role of both women writers and their life writing within it.
The stories we write and repeat about real individuals from history have a profound and enduring cultural resonance. They can uphold or explode stereotypes, shape models and mythologies of selfhood and strengthen or resist norms of gender, race, class, age, nationality and sexuality. They also have a huge impact on the reputations of their subjects. Life writing, defined broadly here as any text that has one or more historical lives as its subject, flourished in the Romantic period, though at this time it had not yet been accepted as fully respectable either in literary or moral terms. This introductory chapter sets out the stakes, history and definition(s) of life writing and theorises the special link between life writing – as a site of affective, intellectual, and imaginative identification – and reputation. It discusses the rationale for the four case studies that comprise the body chapters of this book and outlines the book’s main argument: that life writing has significant, complex and often unexpected effects on the literary afterlives of its subjects.
Frances Burney’s Diary (1842–46) and the reputation of women’s life writing
Frances Burney is often associated with a tradition of feminine diffidence and authorial anxiety, but her Diary and Letters (1842–46) tells a different story. Burney’s Diary showcased a model of female authorship that blended a shrewd sense of her position in the literary marketplace with a charming feminine persona. As the first woman’s diary to be published in English, Burney’s Diary landed at the centre of debates about the moral and literary status of publishing the ‘private’. This chapter reassesses Burney’s career, examining its development alongside its representation in the Diary. It argues that Burney took a ‘professional’ approach to her writing, from her self-fashioning in the paratexts of her anonymously published Evelina (1778) to the preparations for the posthumous publication of her Diary. Analysis of Burney’s nineteenth-century afterlife in reviews and reprints of her Diary as well as full-length biographies, scholarly studies of her work and essays, moreover, demonstrates that the publication of the Diary actually strengthened her literary status. This chapter provides a case study in the ways that life writing can enhance and consolidate a woman’s literary reputation and the ways that it can likewise contribute to the respectability of the genre itself.
Mary Wollstonecraft rose to prominence with her Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790) and Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), but she won over readers’ hearts with her confessional travelogue, Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark (1797). This chapter traces Wollstonecraft’s reputation in her lifetime, examining her early reception and self-construction in her Vindications and Letters before considering her husband William Godwin’s Memoirs (1798) and its aftermath. Critics have traditionally seen this shocking biography as killing Wollstonecraft’s reputation and silencing discussion of her for nearly a century. However, closer examination of the Memoirs and reactions to it in the century that followed makes visible a complex affective response. This response, moreover, coexisted with ongoing engagement with Wollstonecraft’s Rights of Woman. Using a range of sources, including the writing of Wollstonecraft and Godwin as well as periodical essays, reviews, entries in biographical dictionaries and group biographies, full-length biographies, fiction, poetry, political tracts and information about print runs and publication history, this chapter sheds new light on Wollstonecraft’s posthumous legacy. It also argues for Godwin’s biography as an innovative contribution to Romantic life writing and a pivotal component in Wollstonecraft’s affective and intellectual appeal in the long nineteenth century.
Reading the gaps in Mary Robinson’s Memoirs (1801)
The actress, poet and royal mistress Mary Darby Robinson spent her adult life transforming her public position from sex object to writing subject. Her Memoirs (1801), edited by her daughter and published the year after her death, has been read as an apology for her life. Yet the jarring shifts in tone, gaps in narration and structural inconsistencies have caused readers – contemporary and modern – to doubt its truthfulness and its literary integrity. However, this chapter suggests that the formal and rhetorical gaps in the Memoirs comprise a strategy of self-representation that allowed Robinson to straddle the contradictory identities of the victimised heroine of sensibility and the titillating actress. The Memoirs was reprinted ten times in the nineteenth century and spurred responses in journal articles, novels, poems and biographies. An examination of its varied nineteenth-century afterlife shows that it may be its so-called failures – its interruptions, omissions and contradictions – that made it so effective in evoking the sympathy and curiosity of readers for decades afterwards. Robinson could not obliterate the scandal of her youth, but she was able to influence reactions to it by taking control of her own story.
Mary Hays and the struggle for self-representation
From the start, Mary Hays struggled with the problem of writing as a woman. In her early works, her pious, feminine authorial persona garnered praised even as its originality was questioned. The publication of her titillating autobiographical novel, Memoirs of Emma Courtney (1796), rebranded her as a scandalous radical and positioned her as a target for the conservative backlash sweeping Britain. Her reputation suffered further after parodies of Hays swapped sexual allure for ridicule. Too womanly, too scandalous or too ridiculous, Hays seemed unable to find an authentic and acceptable voice. Scholars have suggested that Hays lost control of her reputation, abandoned her former radicalism and transitioned into didactic literature to support herself. However, the writing and reception of Hays’s ambitious Female Biography (1803), the first comprehensive English-language biographical dictionary written for and about women, suggest otherwise. With its innovative form and progressive content, Female Biography furthered Hays’s feminist and political ideals and accommodated an oblique self-defence as well. This chapter argues that Hays found an innovative mode of writing through which she defended her reputation; promoted long-held ideas about the representation, education and advancement of women; and shaped the genre of life writing for decades to come.
Virginia Woolf’s Common Reader essays and the legacy of women’s life writing
This section draws together the analysis of the book’s four case studies by turning briefly to Virginia Woolf’s Common Reader collections, published in 1925 and 1932. Like Samuel Johnson, whose ‘common reader’ becomes the central figure of these essays, Woolf envisaged reading as a conversation between reader and writer across the centuries. In these essays, Woolf’s dialogue with predecessors is often most prominent when she engages with authors of emerging genres, that is, life writing. Woolf’s fascination with life writing is twofold: It not only allows us to be transported to another time and place but it also encourages us to create this other world in our imagination. Offering both dissolution and affirmation of identity, life writing has an important place not only in the history of literature but also in the history of women’s writing. This chapter uses Woolf’s dialogic engagement with past writers to reflect on the importance of women’s life writing to an understanding of the interaction between gender, genre and reputation in the long nineteenth century.