The Happiness of Writing an Autobiography


MR. EDMUND GOSSE, commenting on the lack of literary curiosity in the early years of the seventeenth century, ascribes it to a growing desire for real knowledge, to an increasing seriousness of mind. Men read travels, history, philosophy, theology. ‘There were interesting people to be met with, but there were no Boswells. Sir Aston Cokayne mentions that he knew all the men of his time, and could have written their lives, had it been worth his while. Instead of doing this, the exasperating creature wrote bad epigrams and dreary tragi-comedies.’

A century later, when literary curiosity had in some measure revived, Sir Walter Scott, losing his temper over Richard Cumberland’s Memoirs, wrote of their author in the Quarterly Review: ‘He has pandered to the public lust for personal anecdote by publishing his own life, and the private history of his acquaintances.’

A better illustration of La Fontaine’s wisest fable, ‘The Miller, his Son, and the Ass,’ could not anywhere be found. The only way to please everybody is to have no ass, that is, to print nothing, and leave the world at peace. But as authorship is a trade by which men seek to live, they must in some way get their beast to market, and be criticized accordingly.

It is probable that the increasing vogue of biography, the amazing output of books about men and women of meagre attainments and flickering celebrity, set the modern autobiographer at work.

For now the dentist cannot die,
And leave his forceps as of old,
But round him, ere his clay be cold,
Is spun the vast biography.

The astute dentist says very sensibly: ‘ If there is any money to be made out of me, why not make it myself? If there is any gossip to be told about me, why not tell it myself? If modesty restrains me from praising myself as highly as I should expect a biographer to praise me, prudence dictates the ignoring of circumstances which an indiscreet biographer might drag into the light. I am, to say the least, as safe in my own hands as I should be in anybody else’s; and I shall, moreover, enjoy the pleasure dearest to the heart of man, the pleasure of talking about myself in the terms that suit me best.’

Perhaps it is this open-hearted enjoyment which communicates itself to the reader, if he has a generous disposition, and likes to see other people have a good time. Even the titles of certain autobiographical works are saturated with self-appreciation. We can see the august simper with which a great lady in the days of Charles the Second headed her manuscript: ‘A True Relation of the Birth, Breeding, and Life of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle. Written by Herself.’ Mr. Theodore Dreiser’s A Book About Myself sounds like nothing but a loud human purr. The intimate wording of Margot Asquith, An Autobiography, gives the key to all the cheerful confidences that follow. Never before or since has any book been so much relished by its author. She makes no foolish pretense of concealing the pleasure that it gives her; but passes on with radiant satisfaction from episode to episode, extracting from each in turn its full and flattering significance. The volumes are as devoid of revelations as of reticence. If at times they resemble the dance of the seven veils, the reader is invariably reassured when the last veil has been whisked aside, and he sees there is nothing behind it.

The happiness of writing an autobiography which is going to be published and read is a simple and comprehensible emotion. Before books were invented, men carved on stone something of a vainglorious nature about themselves, and expected their subjects or their neighbors to decipher it. But there is a deeper and subtler gratification in writing an autobiography which seeks no immediate public and contents itself with the expression of a profound and indulged egotism. Marie Bashkirtseff has been reproached for making the world her father confessor; but the reproach seems hardly justified in view of the fact that the Journal, although ‘meant to be read,’ was never thrust by its author upon readers, and was not published until six years after her death. She was, although barely out of girlhood, as complex as Mrs. Asquith is simple and robust. She possessed, moreover, genuine intellectual and artistic gifts. The immensity of her self-love and self-pity (she could be more sorry for her own troubles than anybody who ever lived) steeped her pages in an ignoble emotionalism. She was often unhappy; but she reveled in her unhappiness, and summoned the Almighty to give it his serious attention. Her overmastering interest in herself made writing about herself a secret and passionate delight. Unvexed by publishers, printers, proofreaders, and reviewers, her Journal was to Mlle. Bashkirtseff what his religion was to Sir Thomas Browne, ‘all pure profit.’

There must always be a different standard for the confessions which, like Rousseau’s, are made voluntarily to the world, and the confessions which, like Mr. Pepys’s, are disinterred by the world from the caches where the confessants concealed them. Not content with writing in a cipher, which must have been a deal of trouble, the great diarist confided his most shameless passages to the additional cover of Spanish, French, Greek, and Latin, thus piquing the curiosity of a public which likes nothing better than to penetrate secrets and rifle tombs. He had been dead one hundred and twenty-two years before the first part of his diary was printed. Fifty years later, it was considerably enlarged. One hundred and ninety years after the garrulous Secretary of the Admiralty had passed into the eternal silences, the record of his life (of that portion of it which he deemed worth recording) was given unreservedly to English readers. The Diary is what it is because of the manner of the writing. Mr. Lang says that of all who have gossiped about themselves, Pepys alone tells the truth. Naturally. If one does not tell the truth in a Greek cipher, when shall the truth be told?


The severe strictures passed by George Eliot upon autobiographies are directed against scandal-mongering no less than against personal outpourings. She could have had the English-speaking world for a confidant had she consented to confide to it; but nothing was less to her liking. She objected to ‘volunteered and picked confessions,’as in their nature insincere, and also as conveying, directly or indirectly, accusations against others. Her natural impulse was to veil her own soul — which was often sick and sore — from scrutiny; and, being a person of limited sympathies, she begrudged her neighbor the privilege of exhibiting his soul, sores and all, to the public. The struggle of human nature ‘to bury its lowest faculties,’ over which she cast unbroken silence, is what the egotist wants to reveal and the public wants to observe. When Nietzsche says debonairly of himself, ‘I have had no experience of religious difficulties, and have never known what it was to feel sinful,’the statement, though probably untrue, creates at once an atmosphere of flatness. It is what Walt Whitman ardently admired in beasts,—

They do not lie awake in the dark, and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God.

Next to the pleasure of writing lovingly about ourselves — but not comparable to it — is the pleasure of writing unlovingly about our fellows. Next to the joy of the egotist is the joy of the detractor. I think that the last years of Saint-Simon, those sad impoverished years when he lived forgotten by his world, must have been tremendously cheered by the certainty that, sooner or later, the public would read his memoirs. Nobody knows with what patient labor, and from what devious sources, he collected his material; but we can all divine the secret zest with which he penned his brilliant, malicious, sympathetic, truth-telling pages. Thirty years after his death, some of these pages crept cautiously into print; but a full hundred years had passed before the whole text was given to the world. Perhaps the dying French gentleman anticipated no earlier resurrection for his buried manuscript; but he knew his nation and he knew his work. The nation and the work were bound to meet.

A somewhat similar satisfaction must have stolen into the heart of Charles Greville when he wrote the last pages of his diary, and laid it aside for future publication. Nineteenth-century England presented none of the restrictions common to eighteenth-century France; and ten years after Greville’s death the first installment of the over-famous Memoirs exploded like a bomb in the serried ranks of British official and fashionable life. It shook, not the security, but the complacency of the Queen on her throne. It was an intelligent and impartial picture of the times; and there is nothing that people like less than to be intelligently and impartially described. Moreover, the writer was no anonymous critic whose words came unweighted by authority, no mere man of letters whom men of affairs could ignore. He had lived in the heart of administrative England, and he knew whereof he spoke.

Lord Hervey’s memoirs are not autobiographical at all: they are historical, like the memoirs of Sully, and Jean de Joinville, and Philippe de Comines. They are very properly entitled Memoirs of the Reign of George the Second, and what their author did not know about that interesting reign (as seen from the angle of the Court) was not worth the knowing. Historians have made free use of his material; and some of those to whom it has been most valuable, like Thackeray, have harshly depreciated the chronicler. Dr. Jowett, in a moment of cynical misgiving, said that every amusing story must of necessity be unkind, untrue, or immoral. Hervey’s stories are not untrue, and not often immoral; but they are unkind. What did he see about him of which he could consistently write with kindness? His sharpest thrusts have a careless quality which redeems them from the charge of vindictiveness. When he says of Frederick, Prince of Wales, ‘He was as false as his capacity would allow him to be,’ it sounds like an observation passed with casual unconcern upon a natural phenomenon which had chanced to come under his notice.

Sully was a maker of history as well as a writer of history. He had no taste and no time for self-analysis, and, like Joinville, he had the rare good fortune to serve a master whom he sincerely loved and admired. Comines also admired his master, but he did not love him. Nobody has yet been put on record as loving Louis the Eleventh. All these men wrote with candor and acumen. No pleasure which they can have taken in compiling their memoirs can equal, or even approach, the pleasure with which we read them. Their accuracy is the accuracy of the observer, not of the antiquarian. ‘In my opinion,’ writes Comines, ‘you who lived in the age when these affairs were transacted have no need to be informed of the exact hours when everything was done.’ ‘I now make known to my readers,’ observes Joinville composedly, ‘that all they shall find in this book which I have declared I have seen and known, is true, and what they ought most firmly to believe. As for such things as I have mentioned as hearsay, they may understand them as they please.’


These excursions into the diversified region of the memoir lead us away from the straight and narrow path of l he autobiography. These saunterings along the pleasant byways of history distract us from the consideration of the human soul, as shown us by its too ecstatic possessor. We know as much as we need to know about the souls of Lord Hervey, and Sully, and the Sire de Joinville, which was really a beautiful article; but we know a great deal more about the souls of George the Second, and Henry of Navarre, and of Saint Louis, shining starlike through the centuries. What we gain is better worth having than what we lose.

When we read the true autobiography, as that of Benvenuto Cellini, we see the august men of the period assume a secondary place, a shadowy significance. They patronize the artist or imprison him, according to their bent. They give him purses of five hundred ducats when they are complacent, and they banish him from their very limited domains when he kills somebody whom they prefer to keep alive. But not for one moment is our attention distracted from the narrator himself to these rude arbiters of fate. He makes it plain to us from the start that he is penning his autobiography in a spirit of composed enjoyment, and because he deems it ‘incumbent upon upright men who have performed anything noble or praiseworthy to record with their own hand the events of their lives.’ He tells us in detail how it pleased God that he should come into the world; and he tells us of all that he has done to make God’s action in the matter a source of regret, as well as of satisfaction, to others. Those true words of Frederick the Great, ‘On peut apprendre de bonnes choses d’un scélérat,’ are singularly applicable to this particular rascal. It is as difficult to find standards by which to appraise his worth as it is to find rules by which to test his accuracy. Just as it has been said of Rousseau, that even in the very ecstasy of truth-telling he does not tell the truth, so it may be said of Cellini, that even in the very ecstasy of lying he does not wholly lie.

It is characteristic of a simpler age than the one we live in now that autobiographers sang their own praises candidly and lustily. Cellini puts graceful eulogies of himself into the mouths of his contemporaries, which is one way, and a very good way, of getting them said. The Duchesse de Montpensier (La Grande Mademoiselle) goes a step further, and assures us that the Creator is sympathetically aware of her merits and importance. ‘I may say without vanity that just Heaven would not bestow such a woman as I am upon a man who was unworthy of her.’ Wilhelmina, Margravine of Baireuth, and sister of Frederick the Great, writes with composure: ‘Happily my good disposition was stronger than the bad example of my governess. ‘

This directness contrasts pleasantly with the more involved, and possibly more judicious, methods employed by memoir-writers like Richard Lovell Edgeworth, father of the immortal Maria, and by autobiographers like Harriet Martineau. Mr. Edgeworth, recounting his first experience of married life, says with conscious nobility: ‘I felt the inconvenience of an early and hasty marriage; and though I heartily repented of my folly, I determined to bear with fortitude and temper the evil I had brought upon myself.’

Miss Martineau, whose voluminous work is ranked by Anna Robeson Burr as among the great autobiographies of the world, does not condescend to naïveté; but she never forgets, or permits her reader to forget, what a superior person she is. When Miss Aiken ventures to congratulate her upon her ‘success’ in London society, she loftily repudiates the word. Success implies endeavor, and she (Harriet Martineau) has ‘nothing to strive for in any such direction.’ When she sails for the United States, it is with the avowed purpose of ‘self-discipline.’ She has become ‘too much accustomed to luxury,’ and seeks for wholesome hardships. It sounds a trifle far-fetched. Byron — an incomparable traveler — admits that folks who go ‘a-pleasuring ‘ in the world must not ask for comfort; but even Byron did not visit the East in order to be uncomfortable. He was not hunting a corrective for St. James Street and Piccadilly.

There is no finer example in the world of the happiness of writing an autobiography than that afforded us by Miss Martineau. Her book is a real book, not an ephemeral piece of self-flattery. Her enjoyment of it is so intense that it impedes her progress. She cannot get on with her narrative because of the delight of lingering. Every circumstance of an uneventful childhood invites her attention. Other little girls cry now and then. Mothers and nurserymaids are aware of this fact. Other little girls hate to get up in the morning. Other little girls are occasionally impertinent to their parents. But no one else has ever recorded these details with such serious and sympathetic concern. A petulant word from an older sister (most of us have lived through something of the kind) made her resolve ‘never to tell anybody anything again.’ This resolution was broken. She has told everybody everything, and the telling must have given her days, and weeks, and months of undiluted pleasure.

Miss Martineau’s life was in the main a successful one. It is natural that she should have liked to think about it and write about it. But Mrs. Oliphant, a far more brilliant woman, was overburdened, overworked, always anxious, and often very unhappy. Arthur Young was a melancholy, disgruntled man, at odds with himself, his surroundings, and the world. The painter, Haydon, lived through years so harassed by poverty, so untempered by discretion. so embittered by disappointments, that his tragic suicide was the only thing which could have brought his manifold miseries to an end. Yet Mrs. Oliphant took comfort in setting forth her difficulties, and in expressing a reasonable self-pity. Arthur Young relieved his mind by a well-worked-out system of intensive grumbling. Even Haydon seems to have sought and found a dreary solace in the recital of his woes. The fragment of autobiography is painful to read, but was evidently the one poor consolation of its writer’s life.

That George Sand’s Histoire de Ma Vie afforded its author more than her proper share of contentment is evidenced by its length, and by the relish which is stamped on every page. Sir Leslie Stephen pronounced it the best autobiography he had ever read. It seems to have delighted him as Rousseau’s Confessions delighted Emerson; which goes to prove that intellectual kinship need not necessarily be accompanied by any similarity of taste. ‘If we would really know our hearts,’ says Bishop Wilson, ‘let us impartially review our actions.’ George Sand and Rousseau reviewed their actions with the fondest solicitude, but were biased in their own favor. Gibbon reviewed his actions, and such emotions as he was aware of, with an impartiality that staggers us; but his heart, at no time an intrusive organ, gave him little concern. Franklin, with whom truth-telling was never an ‘ecstasy,’ but a natural process like breathing and eating, reviewed his actions candidly, if not altogether impartially, and left the record without boast, or apology, or the reticence dictated by taste, to the judgment of coming generations. He was a busy man, engaged, like Sully, in making history on a large scale. It pleased him, not only to write his recollections but to bequeath them, as he bequeathed so much else, to the young nation that he loved. He never sought to patent his inventions. He never sought to publish his autobiography. His large outlook embraced the future, and America was his residuary legatee.

John Wesley kept a journal for fifty-five years. This is one of the most amazing facts in the history of letters. He was beyond comparison the hardest worker of his day. John Stuart Mill, who knew too much and did too much for any one man, also wrote an autobiography, which the reading world has been content to ignore. But Mill’s failing health compelled him sometimes to rest. Wesley never rested. It is estimated that for over thirty years he rode, on an average, eight thousand miles a year. He preached in his lifetime full thirty thousand sermons — an overwhelming and relentless figure. He wrestled with lagging Churchmen of the Establishment no less than with zealous Antinomians, Swedenborgians, Necessitarians, Anabaptists, and Quakers. Other records of human endeavor read like the idling of a summer day alongside of his supernatural activities. Yet so great is the compulsion of the born diarist to confide to the world the history of his thoughts and deeds, that Wesley found time — or took time — to write, in a minute, cryptic shorthand, a diary which fills seven large volumes. He not only wanted to do this; he had to do it. The narrative, now bald and itemized, now stirring and spirited, now poignant and terrible, was part of himself. He might have said of it more truly than Walt Whitman said of Leaves of Grass, that whoever laid hold upon the book laid hold upon a man.


To ask that the autobiographer should ‘know himself as a realist, and deal with himself as an artist,’is one way of demanding perfection. Realists are plentiful, and their ranks are freshly recruited every year. Artists are rare, and grow always rarer in an age which lacks the freedom, the serenity, the sense of proportion, essential to their development. It has happened from time to time that a single powerful and sustained emotion has forced from a reticent nature an unreserved and illuminating disclosure. Newman’s Apologia pro vita sua was written with an avowed purpose—to make clear the sincerity of his religious life, and to refute a charge of deceitfulness. The stern coercion which gave it birth, and which carried it to a triumphant close, was remote from any sense of enjoyment save such as might be found in clarity of thought and distinction of workmanship. The thrust of truth in this fragment of autobiography has carried it far; but it is not by truth alone that a book lives. It is not by simple veracity that minds ‘deeply moralized, discriminating, and sad ‘ have charmed, and will always charm, the few austere thinkers and fastidious critics whom a standardized world has spared.

The pleasure derived by ordinary readers from memoirs and reminiscences is twofold. It is the pleasure of acquiring agreeable information in an agreeable way, and it is, more rarely, the pleasure of a direct and penetrating mental stimulus. The Education of Henry Adams has so filtered through the intelligent public mind that echoes of it are still to be heard in serious lectures and flippant after-dinner speeches. We can, if we are adroit borrowers, set up intellectual shopkeeping on Mr. Adams’s stock-in-trade. We can deal out over our own counters his essentially marketable judgments.

The simpler delight afforded us by such a charming book as Frederick Locker’s Confidences, which is not confidential at all; nr by John Murray’s well-bred Memoirs of a Publisher; or by Lord Broughton’s Recollections of a Long Life, is easy to estimate. We could ill spare Lord Broughton’s volumes, both because he tells us things we do not learn elsewhere, and because of his illuminating common-sense. The world of authorship has of late years so occupied itself with Lord Byron that we wince at the sound of his name. But if we really want to know him, we must still turn to Broughton for the knowledge. The account of Byron’s wedding in the Recollections is as unforgettable as the account of Byron’s funeral in Moore’s diffuse and rambling Memoirs. It is in such narratives that the eyewitness eclipses, and must forever eclipse, the most acute and penetrating investigator. Biographers cannot stand as Broughton stood at the door of Seaham, when the ill-mated couple drove away to certain misery: ‘I felt as if I had buried a friend.’ Historians cannot stand as John Evelyn stood on the Strand, when the second Charles entered London: ‘I beheld him and blessed God!’ Or at Gravesend seven years later, when the Dutch fleet lay at the mouth of the Thames: ‘A dreadful spectacle as ever Englishmen saw, and a dishonor never to be wiped off!’

Dr. Crothers, who thinks autobiographers have more than their share of vanity, says that he has never come across one whose confessions included a well-grounded apprehension that his friends often found him a little wearing. But the diarist Crabb Robinson comes close to this supreme ideal of candor. ‘When my vivacity is checked by old age,’ he writes wistfully, ‘and I have lost my companionable qualities, I shall then have nothing left but a little goodnature to make me tolerable to my friends.’ It is a misgiving common to reasonable minds; but who can imagine Margot Asquith contemplating her waning vivacity! Who can imagine Marie Bashkirtsell’ or Harriet Martineau admitting the likelihood of her ever boring her acquaintances! Even Mrs. Pat Campbell conveys to us, directly or indirectly, on every page of My Life and Some Letters, the assurance that she pleased. The letters are a great help in this good cause. When a woman publishes the haphazard but ardent notes of her impressionable friends, she extracts from these somewhat withered garlands a late and lingering tribute to her charms.

Ever since that most readable book, An Apology for the Life of Mr. Colley Cibber, Comedian, was given to the English world, actors and playwrights have been indefatigable autobiographers. They may write about themselves alone, as did Macready, or about themselves and the world, after the fashion of Frances Kemble. They may be amusing, like Ellen Terry, or discursive, like Augustus Thomas, or casual, like John Drew. But they fall into line, and tell us what dramas they wrote, what companies they managed, what parts they played, and when and where they played them, together with any scraps of theatrical gossip they may be fortunate enough to recollect. All, at least, except the once celebrated Mrs. Inchbald. She recollected so much that the publisher, Phillips, offered her a thousand pounds for her manuscript; and her confessor, a wise and nameless Catholic priest, persuaded her to burn it unread. Yet there are people so perversely minded as to disapprove of auricular confession.

The golden age of the autobiographer has come, perhaps to stay. Mr. Howells, observant and sympathetic, welcomed its dawning, and the fullness of its promise. He was of the opinion that this form of composition represented ‘the supreme Christian contribution to literature’; and, while admitting that there were bad as well as good specimens of the art, he stoutly maintained that one more autobiography, however indifferent, was better than one less — a disputable point.

The question which confronts the reading public is this: ‘How far should the law of kindness, which we all profess to follow, influence us in allowing to our fellow creatures the happiness of writing books about themselves?’ There is no use saying that it would be impossible to stop them. Nothing in the way of inhibitions is impossible to the United States. ‘There is no country,’ says the observant Santayana, ‘in which people live under more powerful compulsions.’

Americans have so far been inclined to tolerate the vanity of the autobiography, because mankind is naturally vain, and to forgive its dullness, because life is frequently dull. Moreover, they are well disposed toward any form of art or letters that lays claim to the quality of truth; and it is generally conceded that a man knows himself better than others know him. He does not know, and he never can know, how he appears to his acquaintances. The sound of his own voice, the light in his own eye, his accent, his mannerisms, his laugh, the sensations, pleasurable or otherwise, which he produces by his presence — these things, apparent to every casual observer, are unfamiliar to him. But his naturel (a word too expressive for translation) which others must estimate by the help of circumstantial evidence, he can, if he be honest, know and judge.

This, at least, is the theory on which rest the lucidity of art and the weight of conscience. Yet George Sand, who was given to self-inspection, self-analysis, and self-applause, admitted the dimness of her inward vision. ‘The study of the human heart,’ she wrote, ‘is of such a nature, that the more we are absorbed by it, the less clearly do we see.’