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In My Good Books

Early Autobiographies: What They Are Like

James Fenton
copyright © 2005

Originally published in The Guardian
08 October 2005

What is the earliest English autobiography? The question has no answer if there is no definition of what counts as autobiography. The term itself was apparently first used, surprisingly late, by Robert Southey in 1809. It often happens that earlier memoirs get referred to as autobiographies, so we assume that the form is old and well recognised. But the earliest English autobiographers had few precedents for what they were doing, and no obvious word to describe it.

Perhaps autobiography is not a form so much as an umbrella term. Hume's account of his life and works is only half a dozen pages long. The Life of Sir Thomas Bodley, the Honourable Founder of the Publique Library in the University of Oxford, Written by Himselfe, in 1609, runs to 16 pages. The earliest separately published piece of autobiographical writing in English is called Vocacyon of John Bale to the Bishoprick of Ossorie in Ireland. Published in 1553, it recounts the events of one year.

The seventeenth century is when the autobiography starts to pick up speed. (It is also the period in which, shortly after 1660, the word biography suddenly starts to be used.) I bought a beautiful text the other day, a bargain at £20, written some time before 1681 but not published until 1917 under the title Autobiography of Thomas Raymond. The manuscript, which I have been able to examine in the Bodleian, comes in a small vellum-covered book which has been used by a previous author for some Latin annotations.

The intriguing title Raymond himself gave to this fragmentary work is "A Rhapsodie" or "A Rhapsodia". When he reckons he has wandered far from the original point he says: "My method is rhapsody, else you must think (by this time) I had quite forgot myself." One of the dictionary definitions of rhapsody fits this usage very well: "a written composition having no fixed form or plan."

Raymond begins with a bang: "My father, being in the fields a-coursing about the latter end of December, was surprised with an extraordinary cold in the upper part of his belly, and, retiring home and into his bed, a high fever ensued , whereof he died within some days." In the next sentence he describes his father ("of great symmetry of limb") before accusing him of ruining his life.

He, Raymond, being the least favoured of his siblings, was always the butt of his father's anger, "which was of great mischief unto me, being of a soft and timorous complexion. And indeed thus soon began the unhappy breaches made upon my spirit, which hath followed me in all the variations and course of my life, and proved a great obstacle to the advancement of my fortunes. So mischievous is the nipping in the bud of a tender masculine spirit."

So this autobiographer (born around 1610, died 1681) begins with the gripping issue, "Why was my life such a disappointment? Why was my spirit not up to it?" before going on to answer rather different questions: "What have I done, what have I seen, that was truly remarkable?"

It turns out that he has seen a lot. He has resided in the Netherlands and joined the army, becoming briefly a pike-man in 1633. He has spent a considerable time in Venice, about which he has some striking stories. Later he apparently got as far as Greece. But I am determined not to oversell this "rhapsody", which fills a mere fifty pages of scrap paper.

Perhaps there were other volumes, since lost, but the surviving fragment shows author without the stamina to sustain an extended theme. The psychological self-portrait, begun so fascinatingly, loses its interest for him. What we take away eventually is what the rhapsodic method (now we know that that is what it was called) would lead us to expect: glimpses of everyday life, gossip, good anecdotes -- the finding of a notorious burglar in cellar of his home, his consequent terror at going to bed, mistaking a rat for an intruder, and so forth.

He is good on the effects of warfare: "Straw is ready money, especially at first coming to new quarters. I remember at once place I saw a couple of soldiers that had found a house filled with straw. One of them kept the door whilst the other carried out the straw by bunches to sell. Other soldiers came and would have part: these withstood them. At last others fell to chopping down the 4 corner posts, so in a short time down fell the house and so the straw grew common." Such details are the literary equivalent of Callot's great etchings of the miseries of war. We see the camp-followers scouring the wells and ditches for pewter and brass hidden by the peasants, torturing the poor people to make them confess, trashing the crops. The kind of stories Shakespeare must have listened to, a few decades earlier. I wish we had those too.

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Autobiography of Thomas Raymond and Memoirs of the Family of Guise of Elmore, Gloucestershire, edited for the Royal Historical Society by G. Davies, Camden Third Series Vol. XXVIII, London 1917. The "rhapsody" occupies no more than 48 pages of the reprint, although the editor has left out some material "containing anecdotes of Italian crimes and cities " of "slight interest."

Sir Thomas Bodley's autobiography, and David Hume's memoir, I intend to return to. Both have been reprinted.


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