Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

'Autobiografiction': Problems with Autobiographical Fictions and Fictional Autobiographies. Mark Rutherford's Autobiography and Deliverance, and Others

Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

'Autobiografiction': Problems with Autobiographical Fictions and Fictional Autobiographies. Mark Rutherford's Autobiography and Deliverance, and Others

Article excerpt

In our lives we are always weaving novels. (1)

Between 1881 and 1896 William Hale White in the name of Mark Rutherford published six interlinked fictions: (2) The Autobiography of Mark Rutherford, Dissenting Minister, Mark Rutherford's Deliverance: Being The Second Part of his Autobiography, Miriam's Schooling and Other Papers, Catharine Furze, and Clara Hopgood. All are announced as being written by Mark Rutherford and edited by his friend Reuben Shapcott. I say in the name of Mark Rutherford, for one problem that these books raise is that anonymity or pseudonymity are not fully adequate descriptive terms. Something more complex is involved. The last four titles are presented as posthumously published novels by the Mark Rutherford who has given his 'actual' life story in The Autobiography and Deliverance, themselves texts that appear after Rutherford's 'death'. The first sentence of Clara Hopgood gives sufficient witness that the books are to be read as interlinked: 'About ten miles north-east of Eastthorpe lies the town of Fenmarket, very like Eastthorpe generally; and as we are already familiar with Eastthorpe, a particular description of Fenmarket is unnecessary.' As the first sentence of a novel this is surely surprising. The only way we can be familiar with Eastthorpe is if we have read Catharine Furze, the novel immediately preceding Clara Hopgood in the sequence of Rutherford's literary productions. That the novels are to be read as 'by' Mark Rutherford rather than a pseudonymous Hale White is made clear by the first sentence of Shapcott's dedication to Miriam's Schooling and by a passage in Catharine Furze. (3) This concern to have the books read as by Rutherford is oddly revealed in the only response Hale White made to criticism. When Clara Hopgood was published, 'Claudius Clear' in The British Weekly (9 July, 1896) 'revealed' that Hale White was the real author, more seriously claimed that two of the characters in The Revolution were based on real life originals, and, perhaps most annoyingly, criticized the morality of Clara Hopgood. What outraged Claudius about Clara Hopgood was the existence of a pregnant middle-class person who refused to marry because she did not love her respectable would-be husband, and who did not come to a bad end. On 30 July in the same publication he was answered:

I must deny altogether that the portraits of John Broad and Isaac Allen were taken from the gentlemen whom 'Claudius Clear' has named ... You will please understand that, in making these corrections, I by no means imply that I could not make others. It is not, however, worth while to do so, because it really does not matter a pin who or what Mark Rutherford was.

If it really did not matter a pin, then it is odd that the writer speaks not of who Rutherford is (even if 'is' merely implied a convenient fiction), but who he was, and this when Hale White's publishers (presumably with his permission) had effectively let the cat out of the bag. (4) Odder still the letter is signed 'Reuben Shapcott.'

If, then, this series of six texts is a sequence, a coherent project, there is an intriguing set of questions, although I am concentrating principally on some contexts for reading The Autobiography and Deliverance. The issue is not merely 'What kind of fiction did Rutherford write?' nor 'What kind of fiction did White write?', but both questions. There is also the question 'Did White really write fiction at all?', a question particularly relevant to The Autobiography and Deliverance. Thus Wilfred Stone asserts that the books are to be read as naive non-fiction novels:

Nearly every word that William Hale White wrote was the product of a self-confessional impulse. [...] The Autobiography (1881) and Mark Rutherford's Deliverance (1885) [...] were, for all their fictional disguises, obvious self-confessions of a man whose aim was not to achieve literary fame but to share a burden of spiritual pain. And the four novels which followed [. …

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