Reynolds, Stephen, ‘Autobiografiction’, Speaker, new series, 15, no. 366 (6 October 1906), 28, 30
The phrase autobiographical fiction is mainly reserved for fiction with a good deal of the writer’s own life in it, or for those lapses from fact which occur in most autobiographies. Hence the need for coining a rather dreadful portmanteau-word like autobiografiction in order to connote shortly a minor literary form which stands between those two extremes; which is of late growth and of a nature at once very indefinite and very definite. Perhaps a scientific analogy may clear the ground. At one particular temperature, combined with one particular pressure, the solid, liquid, and gaseous states of sulphur are in equilibrium. Alter by ever so little the temperature or the pressure, and immediately the sulphur liquefies, vaporises, or solidifies. But so long as the very definite temperature and pressure are unchanged, the sulphur remains in that indefinite state of neither solid, nor liquid, nor gas, but something between the three. So with autobiografiction. It is so indefinite, and shades off so gradually into better marked, well-known forms, that its existence as a distinct literary genre appears disputable. At the same time it is the outcome of definite tendencies and has a very definite position on the literary chart. Where the three converging lines – autobiography, fiction, and the essay – meet, at that point lies autobiografiction.
Some definition must be attempted. Premise that the term spiritual experience includes anything that reacts strongly on the mind, from a vision of heaven to a joint of beef eaten with a full perception of its meaning in life; any emotion, beautiful thing, work of art, sorrow, religion, or love, which intensifies a man’s existence; anything in short that directly touches his soul. Then autobiografiction is a record of real spiritual experiences strung on a credible but more or less fictitious autobiographical narrative. And it reads very like, is closely related to, an essay. Lamb’s Dream Children is a beautiful short example. The longing for a wife and children was one of his spiritual experiences. To express it he records a fictitious fireside gathering of the wife and children he never had. As Ainger remarks: “The emotion in this essay is absolutely genuine; the blending of fact with fiction in the details is curiously arbitrary.” In other words, it is a piece of autobiografiction.
It is not at all easy to choose specimens of a literary genre which (to return to our figure of the converging lines) occupies the point where fiction, autobiography, and the essay meet, and which fades imperceptibly into those forms. From- a number by no means great I should be
inclined to pick out three as entirely typical, and well enough known to make description needless-namely, Mark Rutherford’s Autobiography and Deliverance, The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft, and The House of Quiet. Those books occupy the aforesaid point and conform with our definition. In each of them the author strings what we may believe to be genuine spiritual experiences on a more or less fictitious but very credible autobiography.
Now, spiritual experience is an awkward thing to deal with in bulk. Pabulum for a few, it is spice to the many, and mightily difficult to make a dish of. Like nitro-glycerine and absolute alcohol, it positively demands absorption or dilution. It is apt to be rhapsodical, wearisome, or incredible; witness Blake’s Prophetical Books, Wordsworth’s Excursion, or the philosopher Teufelsdröckh in Sartor Resartus. Jefferies’ Story of My Heart, which contains the minimum of material detail, would scarcely bear lengthening. John Inglesant is no thoroughbred novel. The Religio Medici, even, could not do without its unique style and humour; without our mental picture of old Sir Thomas Browne. (He wrote it in his youth.) Doubtless my friend’s inner life is the most interesting thing about him, but for him to spend all day and every day in telling me of nothing except his spiritual adventures would be as intolerable as for him never to stop singing “Beer, beer, glorious beer!” Overmuch spirit becomes a thorn in the flesh.
So the genesis of autobiografiction may be imagined thus. A man, usually of an introspective nature, has accumulated a large body of spiritual experiences. He feels that he must out with it; cacothes loquendi is upon him. What is he to do? Fiction is impracticable. He does not wish, or is not able, to invent such a complicated apparatus for self-expression. Besides, the story’s the thing in fiction. To use that medium would be to scatter and sink precisely the spiritual experience which he wants to record. Formal autobiography would present much the same difficulty – the introduction of a large amount of (for his purpose) extraneous matter – for a man’s life and the events of it, chronological sequence and completeness, are the aim in autobiography. Essays, again, would be too disconnected and would scarcely admit of an attitude frankly egotistical enough. How, then, are the pitfalls of spiritual experience in bulk to be avoided? He invents a certain amount of autobiographical detail, or (which comes to much the same) he selects from his life the requisite amount of autobiographical material, adding perhaps a quantity of pure fiction, and on that he builds the spiritual experience, with that he dilutes it, and makes it coherent and readable. The result is autobiografiction, a literary form more direct and intimate probably than any to be found outside poetry.
As might be expected, autobiografiction is nearly always published with some degree of anonymity. Mark Rutherford’s Autobiography and Deliverance is indeed doubly pseudonymous, for that, and the other works of “Mark Rutherford” are “Edited by his [fictitious] Friend Reuben Shapcott.” The Ryecroft Papers [sic] purport to be the remains of a retired literary man, given to the world by George Gissing. The House of Quiet made its appearance as a dead man’s journal, edited by his distant cousin “J. T.” – who has since written a very similar work, The Thread of Gold. And, after all, when a writer has revealed to the world more of his inner self than he would exhibit to his friends, it is only natural that he should wish to stay behind the scenes, at least until he finds out how the world will take his revelation – whether with inattention, ridicule, or with sympathy.
Lending books discretely is often of great help in judging them. In lending these autobiografictions to all sorts of people, I have found that readers divide themselves into two classes. One class says in effect: “Yes, very nice indeed; fine writing, but too depressing, too introspective and too pessimistic, you know.” The other class finds them immensely inspiring and inspiriting. The reason, I believe, is this. A prominent spiritual ex- [/end of p. 28]
perience in most of these books in the writer’s journey through the Slough of Despond. People who have gone their way, eating their bread with joy, and drinking their wine with a merry heart (see the Preface to Mark Rutherford’s Autobiography); who are ignorant of, or determined to ignore, the Slough of Despond, find any book depressing which brings home to them the existence of it. Those, on the contrary, who are troubled in body or mind; who have been, or are, in the Slough of Despond themselves, gain courage and endurance from the knowledge that someone else has been there too, has found it just endurable and has come through. How helpful is that writer as a guide through the Slough, how calming and comforting his sympathy!
Of the many aspects of autobiografiction, that seems to me the chief. It would be interesting to discuss in more detail all the books of this genre; to determine the relationship to it of Borrows, Thoreau’s and much of De Quincey’s work, of The Compleat Angler, Rousseau’s Confessions, many of the Essays of Elia, Sartor Resartus, John Inglesant, My Trivial Life and Misfortunes, The Upton Letters, gardening books and many others; to point out what a happy medium it is for poets who can’t rhyme, for idiosyncratic views of life, literature and art, for mystical religious feeling, and for highly personal impressions of nature, without that basis of natural history which we find, for instance, in Jefferies. How much beauty there is in these books the readers of Rutherford, Ryecroft, and The House of Quiet know very well. It is difficult, however, to avoid thinking that their greatest value lies in their helpfulness to people living in a time when the anchors of orthodox religion, robust health and tranquillity are dragging. They give sailing directions for boats that have lost their rudders. They are begetters of hope and confidence; missals of a new ceremonial that has arisen on the other side of doubt and trouble. In so far as literature can be dissociated from life, their importance is greater in life than in literature.