|Early Autobiographies: What They Are Like
copyright © 2005
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
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.