Men of Letters, Writing Lives: Masculinity and Literary Auto/Biography in the Late-Victorian Period

Men of Letters, Writing Lives: Masculinity and Literary Auto/Biography in the Late-Victorian Period

Men of Letters, Writing Lives: Masculinity and Literary Auto/Biography in the Late-Victorian Period

Men of Letters, Writing Lives: Masculinity and Literary Auto/Biography in the Late-Victorian Period

Synopsis

Trev Lynn Broughton takes an in-depth look at the developments within Victorian auto/biography, and asks what we can learn about the conditions and limits of male literary authority. Providing a feminist analysis of the effects of this literary production on culture, Broughton looks at the increase in professions with a vested interest in the written Life; the speeding up of the Life-and-Letters industry during this period; the institutionalization of Life-writing; and the consequent spread of a network of mainly male practitioners and commentators. This study focuses on two case studies from the period 1880-1903: the theories and achievements of Sir Leslie Stephen and the debate surrounding James Anthony Froude's account of the marriage of Thomas and Jane Welsh Carlyle.

Excerpt

A biographer has, of course, to lay down his framework, to settle all the dates and the skeleton of facts; but to breathe real life into it he must put us into direct communication with the man himself; not tell us simply where he was or what he was seen to do, but put him at one end of a literary telephone and the reader at the other. The author should, as often as possible, be merely the conducting wire.

(Stephen [1893] 1956:140)

Wire, wires and wiriness were as arresting to the nineteenth-century imagination as wirelesses would be to the modernists—and as the Internet is today. When, in the Mausoleum Book, Leslie Stephen tried to describe the physical prowess he had enjoyed in his student days, he placed the perfectly respectable and elderly word ‘wiry’ in scare quotes as if conscious of a certain modish slanginess. ‘Wiry’ captured for him the surprising paradox that he had been spare, even frail, in body, yet capable and commanding where stamina was required: ‘I could walk and run long distances and I coached the boat till it became head of the river’ (Bell [1895] 1977:6). Today we take it for granted that something as fragile as a wire can conduct electricity and can communicate over long distances, enabling things to happen at great remove. For Stephen it was remarkable.

The wider cultural resonance of wire can be glimpsed in its use, from the mid-century onwards, as a colloquial metonym for ‘telegraphic message’. As Iwan Rhys Morus has shown, the telegraph had had a profound effect on the Victorian culture of communication, requiring new norms of linguistic interaction, commodifying information, and,

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