Autobiography and the "History" of Women


Mary Wollstonecraft marks, for many historians and propagandists, the beginning not only of the history of English feminism but of the history qua history of the English woman. John Langdon-Davies, as early as 1927, wrote in A Short History of Women that the

history of women from the dim beginnings until the ends of the eighteenth century shows no absolute progress whatever: at times there are modifications, even amelioration’s of their social status, but as a whole women did not benefit, except at second hand, by all the progress, material and otherwise, the world has experienced. For women the Middle Ages, if not ancient history, lasted far longer than they did for society as a whole, and for them the date which corresponds in importance to that of the discovery of America, the capture of Constantinople, or the Reformation, is 1774 [sic; actually 1792]: and the event is the publication of the Vindication of the Rights of Women. 1

Elizabeth Gould Davis, in The First Sex, a fascinating attempt to create a usable past for women, calls her "the Tom Paine of her sex, with the one great difference that Paine’s book on The Rights of Man helped to free a colony of Englishmen in the New World who were already far freer than their sisters had been for a thousand years." 2

The idea that the common man and the conditions in which he lived might be valid subjects of historical inquiry is recent; that the history of the common woman (that is to say, virtually all women) might not be identical with that of her menfolk is even more recent. Histories which attempt to single out the significant contributions of women must either rest content with long hiatuses or fill in the gaps with much mediocrity. This sort of history, while sometimes presented by male writers (ranging from Boccaccio to George Ballard) more as a curiosity than as serious history, has the advantage of giving women a sense of their heritage and of their genuine if somewhat marginal and second-hand participation in Western culture.

An alternative lies in acknowledging, to use the words of Margaret George (drawing on Simone de Beauvoir), that "the only history of women, in short, may be pre-history," 3 and taking a more sociological approach to the subject. This is what Virginia Woolf had in mind when she said of the Elizabethan woman,

She left no plays or poems by which we can judge her. What one wants, I thought--and why does not some brilliant student at Newnham or Girton supply it?--is a mass of information; at what age did she marry; how many children had she as a rule; what was her house like; had she a room to herself; did she do the cooking; would she be likely to have a servant? All these facts lie somewhere, presumably, in parish registers and account books; the life of the average Elizabethan woman must be scattered about somewhere, could one collect it and make a book of it. 4

An example of such snippet-gathering is Doris Mary Stenton’s English Woman in History, 5 which gives a good feeling for how women in general must have lived during various periods in history. The documents themselves and their authors tend to lose their integrity and individuality, however, when they are merely culled for evidence to support a general picture.

Given the peculiar ahistorical nature of women’s situation through the course of history, what can the literary historian say about the period leading up to the explosive outburst of Mary Wollstonecraft? We know, of course, that movements such as English feminism do not generally materialize out of nothing. Indeed, the usual way of things, once an historical pattern has been discerned, is to discover a host of precursors, so that by now we are not surprised to find Pope labeled a Romantic poet or the Renaissance pushed back into the twelfth century. Certainly an interesting way to start answering the question of what was happening to English women in the period immediately preceding Mary Wollstonecraft would be to look at such earlier and milder feminist apologists as Mary Astell, who wrote in 1706:

In the first place, Boys have much Time and Pains, Care and Cost bestowed on their education, Girls have little or none. The former are early initiated in the Sciences, are made acquainted with Antient and Modern Discoveries, they Study Books and Men, have all imaginable encouragement; not only Fame, a dry reward now-a-days, But also Title, Authority, Power, and Riches themselves which purchase all things, are the reward of their improvement. The latter are restricted, frown’d upon, beat, not for but from the Muses; Laughter and Ridicule that never-failing Scare-Crow is set up to drive them from the Tree of Knowledge. But if in spite of all difficulties Nature prevails, and they can’t be kept so ignorant as their masters would have them, they are stared upon as Monsters, Censur’d, Envyd and every way discouraged, or at the best they have the Fate the Proverb assigns them: Virtue is praised and starved, 6

But such an insight into the cultural factors involved in the creation and perpetuation of the "feminine sensibility" is rare. For the most part the voices of isolated intellectuals and visionaries like Mary Astell were either ignored or rejected, by women as well as men. More typical is the opinion of Mrs. Evelyn:

Women were not borne to reade authors, and censure the learned, to compare lives and judge of virtues, to give rules of morality, and sacrifice to the Muses. We are willing to acknowledge all time borrowed from daily duties misspent; the care of children’s education, observing a husband’s commands, assisting the sick, relieving the poore, and being serviceable to our friends, are of sufficient weight to employ the most improved capacities amongst us. If sometimes it happens by accident that one of a thousand aspires a little higher, her fate commonly exposes her to wonder, but adds little to esteeme. The distaffe will defend our quarrels as well as the sword, and the needle is as instructive as the penne. A heroine is a kind of prodigy: the influence of a blazing starre is not more dangerous, or more avoyded. Though I have lived under the roofe of the learned, and in the neighborhood of science, it has had no other effect on a temper like mine, but that of admiration. 7

Her reference to the needle and pen as unequal competitors for the allegiance of women can be found repeatedly in contemporary writings.

It seems to me, then, that a more fruitful approach than listening for voices crying out in the wilderness would be to attempt a kind of history of consciousness. In this study I have chosen to examine autobiographies written before 1800 on the premise that here if anywhere, in writings where an assessment of the author’s life as an organic whole is the explicit intention, is a logical place to start looking for the changes in self-awareness which might foreshadow modern feminism. (In fact, it is probably not coincidental that the era immediately preceding the feminist movement should also be the one in which the modern autobiography began to take shape, as both developments presuppose a certain level of self-awareness and sense of individual worth.) By examining these works within their historical, sociological, and literary contents, I intend to assess the attitudes of women towards their own lives and to discuss the changes which took place in these attitudes over the course of the period. Isolating a single but significant genre and exploring it in depth seems to me to combine, for the person interested in the literary aspects of changes in feminine consciousness, the advantages of a De Claribus Mulieribus sort of study and a more sociological approach. It allows us to consider individual works as literary wholes without forcing us to ignore the historical setting from which they emerged. It also renders a teleological bias less likely, since we must take what we find rather than seeking out harbingers of what, with hindsight, we know came later. Treating Mary Wollstonecraft as the culmination of a growing wave of female dissatisfaction would be less than faithful to the truth, since changes in women’s awareness of their own situation as well as in the situation itself have tended to be retrogressive rather than progressive.

The question of exactly what constitutes an autobiography is a difficult one. Most modern readers have a rough intuition of what it is, but a rough intuition will not help us to classify borderline cases. No early author conveniently scrawled the word "Autobiography" across the flyleaf of her book; the word itself was only coined by Southey in 1809. (Early works so labeled were of course assigned that title at a later date, usually because the author gave none of her own.) In general I have used the definition worked out by Roy Pascal in the first chapter of Design and Truth in Autobiography 8 and summarized by Dean Ebner in Autobiography in Seventeenth-Century England: "a self-written, prose account which attempts the recollection of the major portion of one’s past life and which focuses upon the inner thoughts or domestic or external activities of the individual." 9 Ebner goes on to add that:

This definition insists that works which may be so classified involve a distinctive attitude on the part of the author, a special mode of presentation. An autobiography does not, like a diary or a journal (which is really only a diary written at more extended intervals), record a series of moments with a minimal amount of selection and coherency. It attempts, rather--usually toward the end of life--a long-range assessment of past experiences, a shaping of the past, as it were, into a coherent pattern with stages and with self-consistency of character. It superimposes upon the welter of remembered facts, in other words, the unity and order of a present mental outlook. . . . 10

Letters and devotional writings also provide a wealth of self-documentary material, but I have omitted them because, like diaries and journals, they do not attempt to depict a life as a coherent and integrated whole, guided by a consistent self. Admittedly even these distinctions can break down, especially in the eighteenth century when writing becomes more self-conscious and novelistic, as in the case of Fanny Burney’s diaries (which I have not included) and Mary Delany’s epistolary autobiography (which I have). Since women have left little in the way of political or military memoirs, they present fewer problems of classification in such areas than their male counterparts.

It may seem desirable to ask before going too much further whether the woman’s autobiography exists as a distinguishable subset of the genre of autobiography. Indeed, Anna Robeson Burr goes to elaborate pains to reject such a distinction and to assert that "there is no sex to the autobiographer; on this field the writer stands or falls by the performance itself." 11 Granted. Yet on another level it hardly seems necessary to defend the old assumption that there is a "feminine sensibility" which characterizes women and which can be detected in their writing about themselves. Surely it is reasonable to expect that the social experience of women--erratically educated, their interests and achievements identified with those of their male connections (even the gifted Mary Sidney has been immortalized as "Sidney’s sister, Pembroke’s mother" 12 )--would produce an outlook qualitatively different from that of a man. Moreover, it would be surprising of women, told so frequently, if seldom so eloquently, that man was "For contemplation...and valor form’d. / For softness shee and sweet attractive Grace," 13 had not to some extent internalized the notion that their virtues, capabilities, and mode of apprehension were other than (and ultimately inferior to) those of a man. When Lady Winchilsea wrote of Lady Pakington that the latter

Of each Sex the two best Gifts enjoy’d
The skill to write, the modesty to hide 14

the sentiment is as commonplace as the implications of the dichotomy are chilling. We know from each of her writings that Anne Kingsmill, Lady Winchelsea had a certain degree of feminist awareness and resented male slurs on her achievements; but it did not seriously occur to her or her contemporaries that "thinking like a man" might not mean much of anything and might not be such a compliment even if it did. Dorothy Osborne, who wrote some of the most beautiful, sensitive, and natural letters in the language, would never have dreamed of undertaking anything more ambitious in the literary line; of Margaret Cavendish she wrote: "Sure the poor woman is a little distracted, she could never be so ridiculous as to venture at writing books, and in verse too." 15 Indeed, Mary Wollstonecraft worried less about the physical and legal restraints upon women, onerous though they were, than about the shackles of the mind, the slave mentality produced by the doctrine of female inferiority: "Why do [men] expect virtue from a slave, from a being whom the constitution of civil society has rendered weak, if not vicious?" 16 In practice, there is a difference between men’s and women’s autobiographies which can be perceived fairly readily and, with care, specified to some degree of accuracy. Actually, the question itself turns out to be a sort of pseudo-question. The fact is, taking into account the totality of their life-experiences, their attitudes toward themselves and their relations with men and each other, women had more in common with other women of whatever class than they had with men even of their own class. To a large extent this statement remains true today, but it was even more applicable during the period we are considering. Hence, women’s autobiographies as a topic is so little in need of justification per se that if, by some miracle we found no difference at all, we would be bound as serious scholars to ask why against all probability there should be none.

But while it is my claim, which I intend to support in this study, that women’s autobiographies can be distinguished from those of their male counterparts, I do not in any way mean to imply that there is necessarily such a thing as The Feminine Sensibility, monolithic and unchanging. On the contrary, it is apparent to even a casual reader that there is a great change in tone and orientation over the course of the period. The seventeenth century autobiographies tend to be straightforward and unaffected accounts of either domestic or religious devotion; the eighteenth century autobiographies are a much more varied lot, influenced a great deal by the novel and its techniques and evincing a more independent attitude towards self, work, and audience. As with many abstractions, I suspect it will be judged preferable upon closer inspection to use the plural and to discriminate among "feminine sensibilities."

By now it is surely clear that I believe it is possible to consider women’s autobiographies as a class, and that a study of these works will yield insights into the development of the feminine consciousness during the era which preceded the surfacing of English feminism. I should like to add what is probably clear: that although there are perhaps no major masterpieces among the works to be considered here, many of them are of sufficient literary merit to make them well worth studying for their own sakes. Virginia Woolf, in A Room of One's Own, commented to the effect that the wonder is not that there were no female Shakespeares but that there was even a male one. 17 Similarly, it is hardly surprising that there were no female Gibbons; most of the male autobiographers, writing with many advantages and far fewer restrictions, also fell short of these high standards. We should rather be grateful that so many truly creditable performances have come down to us; and let us remember by the way that there were no male Margaret Cavendishes or Anne Halketts. The remainder of this study will be devoted to a thorough investigation of women’s autobiographies before 1800, both as indices of the feminine consciousness and as literary productions. In chapters II through VI, I shall survey the autobiographical writings of women of the period and suggest some of the reasons why women, at this point in history, should have made a significant contribution to an emerging genre (as they had not, in the past, done with other literary genres). In chapter VII, I shall delineate the distinguishing characteristics of women’s autobiography more specifically and speculate upon the possible relation between changes in the state of women’s consciousness as revealed in their autobiographies and the beginnings of English feminism.