The Construction of Masculinity in Victorian Autobiography

By Machann, Clinton | Nineteenth-Century Prose, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

The Construction of Masculinity in Victorian Autobiography


Machann, Clinton, Nineteenth-Century Prose


Autobiographies have held a central place in Victorian prose since the revitalization of that field of study in the 1950S and 1960S; however, the application of gender studies to this "male-dominated" genre has been neglected. This essay suggests an approach to studying the "masculinites" in autobiographies by John Henry Newman, John Stuart Mill, Anthony Trollope, and John Ruskin.

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Since the study of Victorian prose was revitalized in the fifties and sixties by such landmark critical studies as John Holloway's The Victorian Sage (1953) and George Levine and William Madden's edition of essays The Art of Victorian Prose (1968), autobiographies have occupied a crucial place in the canon. George P. Landow's 1979 edition of essays, Approaches To Victorian Autobiography, called attention to the centrality of "autobiography" in the field, although scholars quarreled about definitions of the term. Linda H. Peterson's Victorian Autobiography: The Tradition of Self-Interpretation (1986) treated autobiography as a prose genre (1) and reaffirmed the significance of key texts, including John Henry Newman's Apologia Pro Vita Sua (1864), John Stuart Mill's Autobiography (1873), John Ruskin's Praeterita (1885-89), Charles Darwin's Autobiography (1887), and others that had already received a great deal of critical attention. Critical interest in these "classic" Victorian autobiographies continues today, as evidenced most recently in Carolyn A. Barros' Autobiography: Narrative of Transformation (1998). However, concurrent critical developments have complicated this interest. By the early 1970s, feminist scholars, by focusing on gender issues, were beginning to interrogate the ways in which Victorian literature and culture had been studied. Although feminist scholars have been associated with a variety of innovative theoretical methodologies, it is the ideology of feminism and the methodological emphasis on gender study that have been decisive in transforming Victorian studies in general and the study of autobiography in particular. Elaine Showalter, Sandra Gilbert, Susan Gubar, Martha Vicinus, Mary Poovey, Margaret Homans, Judith Newton, and Cora Kaplan are only a few of the important writers who helped to make feminism dominant in Victorian studies by the 1990s.

Victorian autobiography clearly is a "male-dominated" genre, as Peterson acknowledged in her book, and she cited the autobiography of Harriet Martineau as the exception to the rule, a point she developed in the essay "Harriet Martineau: Masculine Discourse, Female Sage." It has become conventional to contrast the "logocentric" language of the Victorian Sage tradition (part of the larger tradition labeled by the telling phrase "men of letters") with the "democratized and feminized" language of the novel, and to redirect some of the attention from the autobiographical texts of public men like Newman and Mill to the (often unpublished) letters and journals more typical of women's life-writing. (2)

Nevertheless, we should not be too quick to assume a dichotomy between critical studies that focus on "traditional" autobiographies by men and those that introduce gender as a way of rediscovering previously overlooked works by women or of re-evaluating the traditional works as oppositional to women writers and feminine modes of writing. In this essay I want to suggest ways in which gender studies can be profitably applied to canonical Victorian autobiographies by examining the construction of masculinity in these texts. In the process I will take a brief look at the texts by Newman, Mill, and Ruskin, in addition to Anthony Trollope's An Autobiography (1883), the most prominent autobiography by a Victorian novelist.

Men's studies focusing on the issue of same-sex desire have been the first to be encouraged by feminism, because they too can be seen as transgressive of hegemonic cultural codes that reinforce the values of heterosexual males. …

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