E1-5 AUTOBIOGRAPHY AND LIFE WRITING
Jan 1 2000
Many of the foregoing life writing precedents are obvious combinations of autobiography and biography. Many are written by women. Personal letters are particularly useful in exploring "notions of self" and "life story" in autobiographical life writing (see PMLA definition at beginning of chapter). The autobiographical forms, invariably make use of personal letters (if extant) to provide historical and cultural details, dramatic effect, and authenticity in the works.
Linda S. Coleman's Public Self, Private Self: Women's Life Writing in England, 1570-1720 (1987) is a recovery of life writings in a broad range of autobiographical texts. During the historical period under analysis women were becoming educated and gender roles were being redefined. Coleman's focus is on the writings in various religious groups in which the motives were both public and private. She notes that by the end of the seventeenth century women's life writing as a genre had become firmly established.
Linda Peterson, in Traditions of Victorian Women's Autobiographies: The Poetics and Politics of Life Writing (1999), argues that Victorian women's life writing had a strong political thrust, and that by 1899 "women's life writing had become a self-conscious literary tradition, one that made writers aware of the ideological implications of the shape in which a life was presented." These models allowed women to envision and to emulate different versions of the self (201). This facilitated the women's shift from the private and domestic to a more public sphere beginning with women's church organizations such as the missionary groups and graduating to the professions.
Lauren Rusk, in Three-Way Mirrors: The Life Writing of Otherness (1995), regards autobiographical writing as any personal writing that "identifies its author as the protagonist," and clearly letter writing falls into this category. It is in the social/political dynamics between text and audience that she finds the strategies by which the work endeavours to influence the reader's actions. This political aspect is especially apparent in Mary McQuesten's missionary writings, and also in her letters to her children in which she exerts her matriarchal influence from a distance.
Lorraine York, in her article, "'The Things That are Seen in the Flashes': Timothy Findley's Inside Memory as Photographic Life Writing" (1994), notes the "generic puzzlement" and "angst" that surround the mutation of autobiography into life writing. She credits Marlene Kadar with acknowledging the flux that is inherent in the term "life writing" in the sense that it does not claim "objective" or "subjective" truth. York includes photography in the "transgressive textuality" of life writing while avoiding "an eye to generic boundaries." She argues for the broad inclusion of any form of text as life writing, including photography, even if it is delivered from the grave, in order to provide a comprehensive view of history, subjectivity, and memory. She concludes that an analysis of all available texts provides a broader moral and ethical basis for political action and social change.
John Batchelor, in the introduction to The Art of Literary Biography (1995), argues that, in England, the current interest in autobiography is fostered by a "personality-centred culture" because of "a pressing need for a reassertion of individualism" (4). This idea recalls the twentieth-century anxiety about the loss of the "private" individual, which I noted in the discussion of the epistolary tradition and its re-emergence in the latter part of this century (Cook 178-79). Bachelor views the current storm of theory as conferring freedom on the biographer, who is "forced to compromise," "invent" and be "doomed to approximation" because of information that is "intrinsically unreliable" (8, 7, 6). All of these elements attest to the inevitably imaginative and fictional quality that is inherent in all autobiography.
Evelyn J. Hinz, in her article "Mimesis: The Dramatic Lineage of Autobiography," confirms the genre's current popularity and its relationship with art and drama: "in the past couple of decades, autobiography has also emerged as one of the most popular and prolific forms of literature." She argues that it has three basic features in common with drama: "An element of conflict and dialogue, a sense of performance and/or spectatorship, and a mimetic or referential quality. . . and, moreover, that drama shares with autobiography an interdisciplinary dimension." Autobiography has "dramatic affinities," "a narrative quality," and "pictorial metaphors" such as "portrait"; it has plot, characterization, setting, and evokes the Aristotelian 'pity and fear' in its emotional, and often tragic, content (Kadar Essays 195-98). I would argue that all of the above elements are present in the McQuesten letters, which have a strong affinity with autobiography, drama and narrative.
With that view in mind, I have selected and arranged the life writings to foreground the natural narrative and dramatic content. On the basis of narrative content alone Mary McQuesten's letters could be read effectively as a novel. As a collection, they have a plot structure, a beginning, middle and end, various themes, mystery, dramatic effects, characterization and development, rising and falling action, and denouement. The story describes the marriage of Mary Baker to the wealthy young lawyer, Isaac McQuesten. It follows through the birth of their seven children, and the dramatic fall of the family fortune with Isaac's mental illness, alcoholism, possible suicide and bankruptcy. The story then continues with the tale of the widowed and impoverished Mary with her six living children, and their struggle to maintain their genteel social status as they perform remarkable social and political accomplishments in the community and in the Church. The story also describes Mary's matriarchal development as she takes control of her six children's lives, and it reveals some tantalizing details about Mary's role in the breakup of three of her children's marital prospects. Ultimately, there may be no clear or positive solution to the mystery of why the children never married. The dramatic denouement occurs in the family's gradual demise until the death of the final member in 1968. There are elements of both success and tragedy in the story.
The Victorian Gothic elements in the tale are quite apparent even in the sketchy outline above. We can add a wicked step-mother, a madwoman in the attic, inherited mental disorders, institutionalization, social stigma, secrecy, and the paradox of an intelligent, loving and devoted mother who also wields an inflexible morality and a dominant will to control all family events and values. We are reminded here of Alice Munro's "Southern Ontario Gothic," by which she describes a similar stern Presbyterianism and "life-denying rigidity" (Marilyn Redekop, "Alice Munro and the Scottish Nostalgic Grotesque," Essays on Canadian Writing 77  21-26). The McQuesten story has many of the qualities of a saga, which unfolds in the chronicle of the extra-ordinary family at Whitehern and their near-legendary status in Hamilton lore.
Mary McQuesten's life writings were produced during the Victorian era, and they reflect the ideology of their world view which had been determined by the philosophical forces of the Scottish Enlightenment and the ideals of liberty and progress. However, that world view was already in a state of flux, caused by the economic forces of migration and industrialization. The writings were produced by educated and enlightened individuals who express a sense of autonomy, purpose, and participation in a period of world change. The letters show that even the Presbyterian fundamentalism of their religious faith was being challenged by the various controversies surrounding doctrine and church politics, such as, "higher criticism" in studies of the Bible, "gender conflict" in the missionary groups, and the political movement of "Church Union" with other Protestant churches. They also reveal the political situation of women and the changes that were taking place in their lives. That period of great change formed the basis of modernism which led, in turn, to accelerated change in the later twentieth century. For these reasons the letters are invaluable for cultural studies in order to gain a more comprehensive view of the ideologies that governed that period in history. A broader understanding of all of the dynamics of the era is vital to the ethics of the present and the politics and policies of the future.
In summary of my work here on the theory of life writing, I have discussed the literary aspects of the McQuesten life writings in a review of critical and cultural theory and the precedents that establish personal letter writing and autobiography within the genre of life writing. The McQuesten material has broad interdisciplinary dimensions, it is valuable in the recovery of women's writings, and it is a rich repository for extending our understanding of family life and society in Ontario and in Canada, and of the Presbyterianism and Victorian ideas and ideals that shaped them.
I now proceed to present the chronicle of Mary Baker McQuesten and her family at Whitehern as she reveals it her life writings. The following quotation from Montesquieu describes my position with respect to Mary McQuesten's life writings. It is a declaration both challenging and anxious in its rupture with tradition in the literary field:
I do not inscribe here a dedicatory letter, nor do I demand any protection for this book; it will be read, if it is good; if it is bad, I don't care whether anyone reads it. I have extracted these first letters to test the public taste. I have many more in my portfolio, which I can give the public later. ("Introduction," Lettres Persanes, quoted in Cook 40)