Autobiographical Humanizing

Autobiographies are quite remarkable in that they enable one to be both the author and a character simultaneously.  Thus, in Martineau’s autobiography, she is not just Harriet Martineau the writer, H.M. the feminist, H.M the sociologist, she is Harriet the protagonist.  She, the author, has the power over the dimensions, flaws, and development of herself, the character.

As Dallas Liddle observes, Martineau’s autobiography is structured according to the journalistic genre and narrative choices are made based on the genre’s ideals (“The Triumph of Journalism in in Harriet Martineau’s Autobiography”).  Liddle also states, “For modern readers, Martineau the writer is a more puzzling and less sympathetic figure than Martineau the feminist…, the sociologist …, the successful and independent professional woman, or the political writer …” (Liddle 47).  For her readers, both then and now, Martineau has taken on many characters through her works.  Liddle goes further to add that “while Martineau’s positions on women’s issues, class issues, and international politics now seem mostly admirable, many of her statements about the theory and practice of writing are difficult even to quote or reference without seeming to intend ridicule….There is an unfortunate touch of Lady Bracknell in these wrongheaded categorical declarations that make them painful reading for admirers of Martineau’s career…” (47).

Liddle refers to Martineau’s abhorrence of revision – a firm advocate of the single, first and final, draft – and declaration that “it is impossible on principle for a human being to create a plot” (Liddle 47).  I can certainly understand Liddle’s statements; such claims from an author are bizarre to say the least.  Yet, I was intrigued that Liddle and I had such different reactions to this section in Martineau’s Autobiography.  Rather than being pained by her words, it was a moment that added another dimension to her character, letting me see her as, of all things, a fellow human.

As Liddle states, we often relate to her as the feminist, the sociologist, the professional woman, the political writer.  In studying an author, or any historical figure, we often forget to relate to them as fellow humans.  To have Martineau declare her hatred of revision – while I myself would probably not practice based on her philosophy, it was eye opening to hear a lauded writer share in the frustration of multiple drafts.  She proclaims, “Creating a plot is a task above human faculties, indeed evidently the same power as that of prophecy…  A mind which can do this must be in the nature of things, a prophetic mind, in the strictest sense; and no human mind is that” (Autobiography 189).  This is a personal connection for me, though I would surmise many have similar experiences.  Ever since childhood I have devoured plots, I have loved the world is that author has somehow had the power to conjure me to, but I have never understood them.  I have gathered a working knowledge of many genres and been relatively successful in some; with writing that is purely creative, I have continually been frustrated with my attempts, never understanding how my beloved authors worked their magic.  It amazed me to hear Martineau similarly compare it to a work of prophecy.

As Liddle explain, Martineau chooses a specific narrative arc for her autobiography.  I don’t know whether these statements were Martineau were intended to make her character more “human” – my guess would be that their intentions align more with Liddle’s analysis – I am grateful that they created another means in which to relate to Martineau

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