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Ralph Houlbrooke





Britain: ‘ego-documents’ and life writing 1500-1900


Census? The question of numbers 

A systematic census of surviving British ‘ego-documents’ written during the period 1500-1900 has never been undertaken. The essential starting point for all work on memoirs, autobiographies, diaries and private journals, the types of text specifically mentioned in the Workshop’s statement of objectives is still to be found in two works by the American scholar William Matthews, published over fifty years ago: British Diaries: An Annotated Bibliography (1950), and British Autobiographies (1955). Matthews assigned each diarist to the year in which he or she began to write a surviving diary. He listed a total of 2077 diarists who began their diaries between 1500 and 1900, 39 in the sixteenth century, 317 in the seventeenth, 701 in the eighteenth, and 1020 in the nineteenth. Unfortunately, he did not follow his earlier scheme of arrangement in his bibliography of autobiographies. Instead, he listed  authors alphabetically. I have only counted the works listed under certain letters of the alphabet in order to make a very rough estimate of overall chronological distribution. Probably 3,000 at most were completed during our period. About 450 belong to the years 1600-1750.

The results of Matthews’s pioneering efforts are still very useful, but they pose various problems for scholars, and one should not rely very confidently on any statistics based on them. ‘In general’, he wrote in respect of his bibliography of diaries, ‘the book includes diaries written by Englishmen, Scotsmen, Welshmen and Irishmen in the British Isles, in Europe, and on the high seas, and also the diaries of American and other travellers in the British Isles, so far as they have been published in England and in English.’ He did not include diaries written by British travellers to, or residents in, other parts of the world. This limitation did not however apply to his list of autobiographies, which is one reason why it is so much longer than his list of diaries. His inclusion of Irish material might be regarded as somewhat problematic, but is understandable, given that the whole of Ireland was part of the United Kingdom between 1801 and 1922. 

Matthews searched, either personally or with the help of assistants, an impressive number of libraries in Britain and North America, and ‘sent about a thousand letters to town, university, cathedral, school and learned-society libraries’. Not surprisingly, however, much material, especially in manuscript, escaped his notice. In 2005, Elaine MacKay reported the addition of 102 more English diaries to the total listed by Matthews for the period 1500-1700 alone. Various other studies of particular periods or types of material have been written since Matthews completed his bibliographies. Paul Delany, British Autobiography in the Seventeenth Century (1969) listed 188 autobiographies, while Owen Watkins gave details of several more spiritual autobiographies in his The Puritan Experience (1972). The first volume of The Autobiography of the Working Class. An Annotated, Critical Bibliography, edited by John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall (1984) lists 783 autobiographies for the period 1790-1900 and 67 diaries. Matthews had included only nine of the diaries in his bibliography. New diaries and unpublished autobiographies are being discovered all the time. In conclusion: the criteria of a new census may exclude some of the material included by Matthews. However, the inclusion of fresh items that Matthews deliberately left out, or that have been discovered since he completed his work, would probably more than compensate for such exclusions. It seems likely, then, that the total number of British diarists and autobiographers included in a new census or database covering the period 1500-1900 will be well over 5,000.

Historiography, main studies, and themes frequently studied

A huge number of books and articles have now been published that either (a) explore the nature, purposes and significance of British ego-documents or (b) use them in wider-ranging historical or literary studies. My bibliography includes a small fraction of this material. I have concentrated on work produced during the last forty years, and on books rather than articles. I have tried to make the bibliography reasonably representative of different aspects of a very broad field. My own interests as a social historian of the early modern period have nevertheless inevitably biased the selection. Literary and theoretical scholarship, and the latter part of our period, are probably under-represented.

Who wrote the known surviving ‘ego-documents’? To which social or occupational groups did they belong? McKay (2005) found that in England between 1500 and 1750 clergymen wrote 16 per cent of diaries whose authors’ occupations are known, government officials 16 per cent, members of parliament 9 per cent, sailors 9 per cent, scholars 8 per cent, and soldiers 8 per cent, to mention only the largest groups. These occupational labels are not always helpful in establishing social status, but broadly speaking it is clear that most diarists belonged to the gentry or the wealthier of the middle ranking social groups. Autobiographers, who often wrote as the result of a life-changing experience such as a religious conversion, or after achieving upward social mobility during their careers, included many more individuals of relatively low social origins: see Spufford (1979). As time passed, the authors of ‘ego-documents’ were drawn from an ever-larger social pool. The index to Matthews (1955) lists a huge range of occupations for the nineteenth century. Some scholars have concentrated their attention on diarists and autobiographers belonging to particular social groups: thus Burnett (1974 & 1984), Gagnier (1991) and Vincent (1982) all focused on working class ‘ego-documents’, Amelang (1998) and Gray (2001) discussed those written by men of middling social rank.

McKay (2005) found that only 5 per cent of surviving sixteenth-century English diaries were written by women, 6 per cent of seventeenth-century ones. Pollock (1983) used 262 diaries and autobiographies written by British parents or children in her study of parent-child relationships between 1500 and 1900. Women diarists and autobiographers were arguably more likely to write about parent-child relationships then their male counterparts, but the increase over time in the proportion of Pollock’s sources written by women is nevertheless striking. It rose from 10 per cent of the diaries and autobiographies written by authors born in the sixteenth century, to 48 per cent of the much larger number written by authors born in the eighteenth.

Much of the work detailed in this bibliography is concerned with problems of definition and the relations between diaries and autobiographies, and between these two forms and what Elisabeth Bourcier in her classic study of English diaries calledles genres voisins’.  These neighbouring or related kinds of source include chronicles of national or municipal events, family histories, almanacs, financial accounts, memorandum or common-place books (miscellaneous collections of various texts ranging from maxims and epigrams to medical recipes), spiritual journals or meditation books, and personal correspondence. Authors who have discussed connections between different genres include Amelang (1998); Amigoni (2006); Bourcier (1976); Dowd & Eckerle (2007); Dragstra, Otway & Wilcox (2000); Houlbrooke (1988); Macfarlane (1970); Mortimer (2002); Smyth (2009), and Webster (1996). Some scholars have been particularly concerned with the connections between the sorts of ‘ego-document’ I have mentioned so far, and ‘literary’ or ‘fictional’ texts, and possible reciprocal influences. Sherman (1997) particularly commends Nussbaum (1995) and Spacks (1976) for ‘attending … carefully to the complicated conversation among texts and between texts and contexts’. These concerns are also prominent in Gagnier (1991), Henderson (1989), Machann (1995), Newey (1996), and Treadwell (2005), to name only a few.

Closely connected with the demarcation of genres is the question of motive or purpose. Plausibly identified reasons for keeping diaries included the recording of important, interesting, or memorable events or experiences, including those of travel and war; commemoration of, or meditation upon, divine mercies, trials and punishments; self-monitoring and self-assessment; and accounting for the spending of time, money and other vital resources. The diary was a confidant, even, some have argued, a confessor. Findlay (2002), Macfarlane (1970), Seaver (1985), Todd (1992), and perhaps most perceptively and usefully, Webster (1996), were all concerned with different types of so-called ‘spiritual’ diary.  Connor (2004), Dawson (2000), and Muldrew (1998) all took up in different ways the theme of reckoning in diaries or financial accounts. (Dawson presented that most famous of all English diarists, Samuel Pepys as an anxious social accountant, obsessively measuring himself against other men and assessing his social advances and setbacks.) Sherman (1997) explored the influence of the more precise measurement of the passage of time on the writing of narrative and the keeping of diaries.           

Most autobiographers wrote for an audience beyond themselves, though the one envisaged might be no larger than their own children or descendants, or their religious congregation, and many early autobiographies were published only long after their authors’ deaths. The desire to describe religious experience (conversion, mission, suffering persecution for one’s faith) was before 1700 by far the most important motive for the production of British autobiographies, and the more radical nonconformists, especially the Quakers, were responsible for a disproportionate number of them. Watkins (1972) supplied the fullest account of this genre: see also Bell (1977), and Mullan (2004). The motives for the production of more secular autobiographies varied from a desire for vindication of one’s reputation to a more straightforward wish to record an adventurous life. Between 1790-1900, according to John Burnett and his collaborators (1987), advancing literacy was creating an audience for a growing variety of working-class autobiographies, including picaresque reminiscence, military or maritime adventure, low life, but above all ‘the autobiography of self-improvement’.

An enduring concern shared by several writers about British ‘ego-documents’, especially literary scholars, has been their value as evidence of the emergence of a new consciousness of the self or new awareness of the individual, usually located some time between the late sixteenth and the early nineteenth century. These are key themes in the work of Gagnier (1991), Henderson (1989), Mascuch (1997), Morris (1966), Spacks (1976) and the collections of essays edited by Dragstra, Ottway and Wilcox (2000) and Regard (2003). Other authors, by contrast remarked that ‘Most … British autobiographers evinced very little interest in self-analysis or self-investigation for their own sakes’ (Delany, 1969), or that ‘few autobiographers put into their books much of that private, intimate knowledge that only they can have … fitting themselves into patterns of behavior and character suggested by the …fashions in autobiography with which they associate themselves (Matthews, 1955).

Social historians began around 1970 to turn to diaries and autobiographies as rich but neglected sources of information on the lives of women, the family, sexual practices, marital relationships, the upbringing of children, and memories of childhood. Work on early modern women’s writings has thrown considerable light on areas in which women enjoyed a degree of responsibility or even autonomy: childcare, household management, family business partnership, and personal religious practice: see Botonaki (2004), Mendelson (1985), Mullan (2004), Otten (1992), Pollock (1993), Seelig (2006), and Vickery (1998). Macfarlane (1970) and Seaver (1985) based their fine studies of the family and religious lives of two rather different puritans on exceptionally copious diaries and meditation books. Stone (1977) made highly selective and largely anecdotal use of a mass of evidence from diaries and autobiographies to support his bold thesis about the long-term development of the family. Pollock (1983, 1987) and Houlbrooke (1984, 1988) both challenged Stone’s view of parent-child relations. Thomas (2000) subsequently amplified Pollock’s findings in a study of diaries and autobiographies from the middle and lower ranks of society. Fletcher (2008) has written the most recent account of childhood during our period. Spufford (1979) and Krausman Ben-Amos (1994) drew on ego-documents to investigate children’s and adolescents’ experience of education and apprenticeship. Lane (1985), Pollock (1993), and Roy and Dorothy Porter (1988, 1989) illustrated various aspects of medical practice and the experience of sickness, while Clarke (2000) and Houlbrooke (1998) among others investigated the impact of bereavement. Hunt (1996) and Ruggiu (2007) set family life in a larger social and economic context.

Individual diaries and memoirs have been important sources for the study of politics, war, and foreign travel. One of the best studies concerned with the individual experience of war is Carlton (1992), while Edwards (1994) examined both the form and content of sea narratives and Davis (2002) explored ‘Cultural Encounters and Self Encounters’ in early modern travel autobiographies.

Collections devoted to the publication of texts

There are numerous British record series devoted to the publication of texts. In the first place is the Royal Historical Society’s Camden series, which published six diaries or journals between 1997 and 2007. Some of the longest and most valuable diaries have been edited for the British Academy’s Records of Economic and Social History. Most of the English counties and several cities have record societies. There are several Scottish national societies as well as some local ones. Separate societies exist for the publication of ecclesiastical, naval and military records. Most of these organizations have published diaries during the last ten years. (I have included in the bibliography two relevant bibliographical sections of the Royal Historical Society website.) There is no organisation specifically devoted to the publication of diaries and autobiographies.

Centres of Research

There is no research centre that focuses primarily on the study of diaries and journals. The Centre for Narrative and Auto/Biographical Studies (NABS) at the University of Edinburgh casts its net wider: to quote from its website, it ‘brings together people interested in all aspects of narrative and all forms of auto/biographical representation, from talk to transcribed text, from photographs to memorial sites, from verbal introductions to hagiography, from letters and cards to friends to memoirs and autobiographies, from obituaries to painted portraits, from academic biography to sculpture, and more’. Its ‘showcase’ describes two current projects, one of which goes back beyond 1900: an electronic edition of the letters of the South African feminist writer and social theorist Olive Schreiner (1855-1920). It also organizes seminars. The 2007-8 series was devoted to ‘Narrative Studies in Interdisciplinary Perspective: Theories, Methodologies and Revisions’. The Centre for editing Lives and Letters is at Queen Mary College, London. At present the major projects highlighted on its website are editions of the letters of Elizabeth Stuart, Queen of Bohemia; Francis Bacon; the diplomat and library benefactor Thomas Bodley; the Elizabethan ‘intelligencer’ William Herle, and the antiquary William Dugdale, as well as the work diaries of the scientist Robert Boyle. These are all texts of particular interest to historians of science and diplomacy. The Centre for Life History and Life Writing Research at the University of Sussex aims among other things to link the theory and methods of oral history with the analysis and practice of life writing, and to promote research connected with the Mass-Observation archive at the University of Sussex (1937-early 1950s and 1981 onwards). This Centre is mainly concerned with the period since 1900.