In his anthology The Unattended Moment, Michael Paffard speaks of ‘ransacking’ the shelves of autobiography and memoir – from de Quincey and Wordsworth to Koestler and Nabokov – for the epiphanies, visions, revelations, illuminations, fits and trances that make up his mystical and quasi-mystical collection.


As Paffard points out, what connects many of these sudden, unlooked-for, transcendental experiences is that, however ‘worked over’ they might have been in the imagination, the memory and the process of writing, they are very often pivotal in an autobiographer’s life. They are moments of conversion: one of the things that makes the unattended moment important and a subject of our special wonder, is that it does often seem to the people who have it that it transforms them. A. 0. J. Cockshut, reversing Paffard’s procedure and coming to conversion from the starting point of an analysis of autobiography, has elaborated the unattended moment thus: But when [conversion] does come it appears as the practical enactment of something settled long before. It encapsulates a long process of thought, of weighing arguments, of rejecting old ideas and adopting new ones, or of developing old ideas in a new direction. Its momentary quality does not make it sudden.


The thoughts that existed on the other side of the gulf of oblivion return, now vivid and opertive, speculative no longer. A new life is waiting to be lived.’ It is the possibility of a relationship between Victorian autobiography and conversion – the moment which is momentous but not momentary – which is the starting point of this thesis. I shall examine the case in favour of the conventional reading of English autobiography as conversion narrative, before moving on, in the main body of the thesis, to suggest ways in which this reading might fail to take account of the complexity and variety of nineteenth-century experiments in the genre. Literary historians have made many connections between the development of autobiography and the evolution of the spiritual ‘conversion’ narrative. The problems inherent in the construction of such a history I shall discuss in Section Two, but for the moment I shall simply sketch its outline. Conveniently, Augustine provides, in his Confessions, (c. 400,) the first recognized example of both genres, and a gesture is often made to this work as representing the beginning of autobiographical history. But the real ‘seed-time’ of both genres is deferred in most accounts another twelve hundred years, to the Puritan revolution of the seventeenth century. The conglomeration of factors involved in the generation of an ‘autobiographical consciousness’ – from the development of a concept of individuality and the Puritan horror of wasted time, to the technological advances in mirror-making and printing—has been discussed elsewhere,


but most historians agree in seeing the particular character of Protestant theology as crucial. I follow George Landow in citing Karl Mannheim’s view that the Protestant movement set up in place of revealed salvation, guaranteed by the objective institution of the Church, the notion of the subjective certainty of salvation … It was not a long step from the doctrine of the subjective certainty to a psychological standpoint in which gradually the observation of the psychic process, which developed into a veritable curiosity, became more important than the harkening to the criteria of salvatlon which men had formerly tried to detect in their own souls. Roger Sharrock likewise regards autobiography as receiving a special impetus from the Calvinist emphasis on election. From informal diaries and confessions, in which the writer, by enumerating doubts, sins and blessings, would gauge the state of his or her soul, there evolved a recognized literary form ‘cultivated especially by the Puritans, and developed on more specialized lines after 1640 by the leaders of the radical sects.’


Sharrock suggests a link, as early as the mid- seventeenth century, between this nascent genre and the idea of social and moral authority: There was a new development in spiritual autobiography in the period of religious ferment between 1640 and 1660. Baptists, Quakers, and Seekers injected fresh vitality into the form and applied it to new purposes. Bunyan and his like, socially inferior to the Presbyterian and Independent clergy and without formal education for the ministry, attempted to justify themselves and to establish their special galling by detailed accounts of the work of grace upon their souls./ Such documents gradually became more detailed and more public, feeding off, and contributing to the ‘psychological’ novel and the ‘method’ of Methodism in the eighteenth century, and emerging, in about 1800, as an identifiable (that is to say, named) genre distinguishable from biography on the one hand, and fiction on the other. The proliferation of autobiographical writing from this point onwards was such that by 1826 J. G. Lockhart could complain that ‘England expects every driveller to do his Memorabilia’.


It has been remarked many times that the ‘classic’ autobiographers of the Victorian period tend to describe the major event or events in their Lives in terms of conversion. It has also been observed that virtually none of these celebrated conversions represents a simple Pauline acceptance of Christianity. (In his extensive survey of English autobiography, Wayne Shumaker played down the importance of religious confession altogether because, as he saw it, ‘of the “great” English autobiographies of the nineteenth century and later, only one, Newman’s focuses on religion


Most of them, indeed, involve reactions against some aspect of Victorian Protestantism: its defunct theology, its sectarianism, its sabbatarianism, its threadbare rituals, Its perpetuation of intricate class distinctions, its repressiveness or its double standards in the areas of sexual behaviour or commerce. But to say that the great Victorian autobiographers rejected some aspect of Victorian Protestantism is to say little more than that they objected to some aspect of Victorian society. It does not explain why even progressive unbelief resorted to the paradigms of Christian faith in order to explain itself, or why these paradigms were somehow seen to constitute the raison d’Ztre of autobiography. It has become, of course, a clich6 to point out that the more orthodox theology came under fire, the more tenaciously the ‘freethinking’ intellectuals of the nineteenth century adhered to the very concepts of duty, morality, and zeal which we associate with Victorian Evangelicism. William Burrell Mallock remarked upon the persistence of moral earnestness among even the militant unbelievers of his time: With an astonishing vigour the moral impetus still survives the cessation of the forces that originated and sustained it; and in many cases there is no diminution of it traceable, so far as action goes. This, however, is only true, for the most part, of men advaued in years, in whom habits of virtue have grown strong…


The number and ingenuity of the attempts during the period to justify a qualified acceptance of the ethical or aesthetic side of Christianity – to retain a belief in the ‘real meaning of the life of Christ’ – without recourse to notions of immortality, and perhaps even without God – are well known. Volumes of tortuous theological debate often represented a deep-seated need, not to abandon, but to reclaim the values and assurances of the New Testament. Even Charles Darwin, who effected the most profound undermining of Christian orthodoxy, was compelled to acknowledge, in retrospect, his attraction to unquestioning, preferably unquestionable, faith: Beautiful as is the morality of the New Testament, it can hardly be denied that its perfection depends in part on the Interpretation which we now put on metaphors and allegories. But I was very unwilling to give up my belief. – I feel sure of this for I can well remember often and often inventing day-dreams of old letters between distinguished Romans and manuscripts being discovered at Pompeii or elsewhere which confirmed in the most striking manner all that was written in the Gospels.

May 21, 2018


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