Society and Sentiment: Genres of Historical Writing in Britain, 1740-1820

By Mark Salber Phillips | Go to book overview

Eleven
“The Living Character of Bygone Ages”:
Memoir and the Historicization
of Everyday Life

IN PURSUING Francis Jeffrey's engagement with literary history and literary tradition, we have had more than one glimpse of the nineteenth century's fascination with one of its favorite narrative genres, the historical memoir. As Jeffrey wrote in reviewing the memoirs of Lady Fanshawe (a work that, he admitted, in most respects failed to live up to his expectations), “it still gives us a peep at a scene of surpassing interest from a new quarter; and at all events adds one other item to the great and growing store of those contemporary notices which are every day familiarizing us more and more with the living character of by-gone ages; and without which we begin, at last, to be sensible, that we can neither enter into their spirit, nor even understand their public transactions.”1 So appealing was the genre, in fact, that one reviewer complained of misrepresentation when a new life of Bolingbroke was given what he called “the attractive title of ‘Memoirs.’ ”2

Jeffrey's words do not suggest that memoirs are a substitute for a traditional narrative of “public transactions,” but rather that these more informal accounts capture an inner spirit that is essential to understanding the external events that are the usual preoccupation of historians. To one degree or another, of course, all forms of primary document (“contemporary notices”) held this sort of attraction, but it is not surprising that an age that saw itself as addicted to the pleasures of biography gave special prominence to historical memoirs. Among the many advantages of the genre were its lack of formality, the opportunities it offered to satisfy curiosity about the textures of everyday life, and the space it gave to female authorship and female biography. All this made for a path that—to quote Jeffrey again—avoided the “gross defects of regular history,” while also keeping clear of the seductions of fiction.

____________________
1
Jeffrey, Contributions to Edinburgh Review, 1: 464. The review of the Memoirs of Lady Fanshawe appeared in ER in October 1829.
2
The reviewer was J. W. Croker. Since the author had done nothing to search out “more secret or particular information,” he objected, “an essay on the life and writings” would have been truer and more modest. See Croker's review of Memoirs of Lord Bolingbroke, by George Wingrove Cooke, Quarterly Review 54 (1835): 368.

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