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In My Good Books

Founded on Pilchards

James Fenton
copyright © 2006

Originally published in The Guardian
22 April 2006

The Bodleian Library has just reprinted the autobiography of its great benefactor, Sir Thomas Bodley. This is a short work, and it comes in a small format, which might put you in mind of a thinking person's stocking-filler. It makes a nice souvenir, and it is important because this is in some sense the first English autobiography. That is to say, it is the first, as William Clennell explains in his introduction, "in which the subject's life is so narrated, within a rhetorical framework, as to constitute an apologia, thus constituting a new genre".

There is no surviving original manuscript, but the life was clearly widely circulated in the period between its composition in 1609 and its first publication in 1647. It was written exactly two centuries before the first recorded use of the word autobiography, so this "new genre" had to wait patiently before being named.

It comes naturally to Bodley, born in 1544, to make it plain in the first sentences that he comes from "worshipfull parentage" on both sides, and that his father's is an "antient Family". But he famously omits any mention of his wife, the wealthy fish-merchant's widow Ann Ball, in deference to whom it is often said that the Bodleian Library was founded on pilchards.

This oversight was criticised very early on, in a letter written in 1613, shortly after Bodley's death, by one John Chamberlain: "He hath written his owne life in seven sheetes of paper, and not leaving out the least minutezze, or omitting nothing that might tend to his owne glorie or commendation, he hath not so much as made mention of his wife or that he was married, wherby you may see what a mind he carried, and what account he made of his best benefactours."

No doubt this censure of Bodley's character was well founded, but the passage also shows what a novelty and what an act of immodesty writing one's own life must have seemed to most of Bodley's contemporaries. Seven sheets of paper! "Not leaving out the least minutezze," the least minutiae, as if this were an act of phenomenal indiscretion.

Of course Bodley leaves out a great deal of what one might expect. The story he tells is of a man brought up in the Protestant circles of Calvin's Geneva, who comes to England on the accession of Queen Elizabeth, has a distinguished academic career at Oxford before becoming a diplomat and/or secret agent. On which topic he remains secretive: "My next employment was to Henry the third, at such time as he was forced by the Duke of Guise to fly out of Paris; which I performed in such sort, as I had in charge with extraordinary secrecy; not being accompanied with any one servant (for so much was I commanded) nor with any other Letters then such as were written in the Queenes own hand, to the King, and some selected persons about him; the effect of that message it is fit I should conceale."

This discretion covers a mission in 1588 to deliver a letter to Henry III, at the time of the assassination of the Duc de Guise, assuring the French king of Elizabeth's support.

Such usefulness to the state was rewarded by eight years as the queen's ambassador to the Netherlands. He regularly reported to the Lord Treasurer, Lord Burghley. Unfortunately he got into the habit of simultaneously reporting to the Earl of Essex, Burghley's rival. When Essex recommended Bodley as Secretary of State, suspicions were aroused. Burghley's camp thought Bodley had behaved duplicitously. Feeling something of a stain on his honour, he returned to England and to academic life. The library became his great project.

No doubt there remained a sense that he would not ensure his immortal fame without doing something to meet the criticisms of his role as envoy. That is why this short text is called an apologia. It does not tell us very much about the library, but Bodley no doubt did not feel he needed to underline that part of his achievement. Instead it puts the establishment of the library in its context: this is what Bodley went on to achieve, having already done the state some service. This then is how one branch of autobiography begins: it is the case for defence.

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