Every Man a Phoenix: Studies in Seventeenth-Century Autobiography

Every Man a Phoenix: Studies in Seventeenth-Century Autobiography

Every Man a Phoenix: Studies in Seventeenth-Century Autobiography

Every Man a Phoenix: Studies in Seventeenth-Century Autobiography

Excerpt

Autobiography as a literary form was established in England during the seventeenth century--at first glance, a surprisingly short time ago. We are nowadays so thoroughly accustomed to the phenomenon of celebrities hastening to record their own annals in print that we find it hard to believe that three hundred and fifty years ago very few Englishmen would have dreamt of such an undertaking. Even biography was an undeveloped art during the reign of the first Elizabeth. A few historiographers there were, but the chronicling of individual lives was something new, and that an ordinary private citizen should take it upon himself to narrate his own life-story was an even more remarkable innovation.

Oddly enough, the first extant autobiography in English was written by a woman, and it does not belong, as we might expect, to the period of the Renaissance but to the close of the Middle Ages. The Book of Margery Kempe has many affinities with the confessional saints' lives that were such favourite medieval reading; but Margery, in spite of her visions and heavenly colloquies, had an observant eye and ear for mundane things, and left a most remarkable record of life and travel in the early years of the fifteenth century. Born, bred and married in King's Lynn, she made pilgrimages to Jerusalem and Rome and St James of Compostella, and as an elderly woman journeyed to Danzig. Though much of the book is given up to her 'revelations', she deals with human relationships in the . . .

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