from Cambridge University Library
Part 1: Rare printed autobiographies covering thirty-three womens lives, 1713-1859
Part 2: Rare printed autobiographies covering twenty-two womens lives, 1780-1889
Women’s autobiographies provide a rich and diverse source of information for social historians, literary scholars, and students studying women and gender issues.
We may wonder what compelled women to write their life histories. Some autobiographies were crafted by experienced writers with the intention of publication. Others were by less experienced writers, and intended only for private reading by family and friends. For some it was to relate a particular personal experience, and for others to retell their involvement in a movement or activity.
From these first-hand accounts much information can be learned. For example, recollections of a family history can reveal differing regional cultures. Childhood memories frequently recall the inequalities between brothers and sisters, particularly in relation to education; the different types of work undertaken by women, and the wages they received; the numbers of women involved in voluntary work for which no official records were held; private thoughts relating to marriage, spinsterhood and romance. These autobiographies also reveal women’s aspirations in life: socially what was expected of them, and privately what they felt they should aspire to.
Women in Context: Two Hundred Years of British Women Autobiographers: A Reference Guide and Reader by Barbara Penny Kanner (G K Hall & Co, 1997) provides students with a structured overview of more than 1,000 women’s autobiographical texts from the 1720s through two hundred years. Women’s Autobiographies aims to make these resources more widely available by reproducing the original text (filming first or early editions).
Part 1 covers the lives of thirty-two women who lived between 1713 and 1859 with a total of forty-three texts.
One of the first autobiographies is A Narrative of the Life of Mrs Charlotte Charke, Daughter of Colley Cibber (1755) which describes the life and experiences of Charlotte Charke (1713-1760). There is much on the 18th century theatre, as she both acted and wrote farces for the stage and knew Henry Fielding and David Garrick. Her great success as Macheath in The Beggar’s Opera is described, as well as her proclivity for cross-dressing off-stage, which will make her of interest to gay studies.
The Memoirs of Laetitia Pilkington, Written by Herself (3 volumes, 1749-1754) offers a polished account of the life of an Anglo-Irish writer (c.1706-1750) whose fortunes veered from friendship and patronage of Jonathan Swift, to imprisonment in London for debt. At one stage her husband encouraged her to form liaisons with other men to further his career and she later bemoaned the lack of jobs for women, so there is much interesting commentary on the position of women in the 18th century. By way of counterpoint, we also include her husband’s reaction to the Memoirs and her own Biography for Boys (1799) and Biography for Girls (1800) suggesting gender differences.
Ann Candler (1740-1814), workhouse inmate and poet, details her troubled life in Poetical Attempts by Ann Candler, a Suffolk Cottager, with a Short Narrative of Her Life (1803). The loss of three children in infancy, desertion by her husband and workhouse life are all described.
The Memoirs of the Late Mrs Catharine Cappe, Written by Herself (1822) take us into the life of an Evangelical social reformer who established a Female Bebefit Club for miners’ wives and daughters in Yorkshire and founded District Committees of Ladies to help poor women throughout the country. Once again, in addition to the autobiography we also feature her Observations on Charity Schools, Female Friendly Societies and other Subjects (1805). Thoughts on the Desirableness and Utility of Ladies Visiting the Female Wards of Hospitals and Lunatic Asylums (1816).
Part 2 continues with a selection of autobiographies from nineteen women who lived between the years 1780 and 1889.
Twenty-three texts recall the lives and experiences of women from all social classes, involving a wide range of professions and interests. They include an emigrant farmer’s wife, teacher, governess, author, poet, itinerant preacher, artist, journalist, lady-in-waiting, astronomer, scientist, slavery abolitionist, feminists, and reformer for social welfare. The social and cultural traditions of women are also revealed, for example as a clergyman’s daughter, a society woman, a military spouse, and a colonial farmer’s wife in India.
An autobiography written by a woman from the poorer classes is that of Rebecca Burlend (1793-1872). As the wife of a tenant farmer, she travelled with her husband and family to America in 1831 in search of a better life. In her book A True Picture of Emigration (1848) she recalls their life as homesteaders in mid-19th century Illinois. Burlend recounts the legal details of homesteading as well as the practicalities of making their own furniture, soap and candles, along with local methods of fence building and cattle raising. Throughout her narrative she compares the depressed state of British farming with the modest prosperity achieved by her family in America.
A very different life is revealed by Susan Sibbald (1783-1866) in her autobiography The Memoirs of Susan Sibbald, 1783-1812 (1926). Born into a naval military family Sibbald relates first-hand anecdotes about the lives and social customs of the upper military classes during late 18th and early 19th century Britain, including her acquaintance with Admiral Sidney Smith, who late helped defeat Napoleon’s navy in Egypt. The memoir includes recollections from her childhood to early married life as the daughter and wife of military men. It is of significant interest that this autobiography was written during Britain’s involvement in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Sibbald’s self-history ends in her twenty-ninth year, but extracts from letters included in this book contain contemporary views on the Crimean War, the Fenian Raids in Canada, and the American Civil War.
Nostalgic recollections of a rural childhood are retold by Louisa Potter (c.1800-?) in her autobiography Lancashire Memories (1879). The author recalls holidays in Riverton, Lancashire ‘in the age before railroads’, and travelling by packet boat on the canal. Whimsical, satirical names are used to disguise identities of people such as ‘Mrs Ruleit’ the headmistress, and ‘Lofty Highway Esq’ the neighbouring squire. However, Potter also reveals a firm grasp of social realities in the early 19th century. She discusses such topics as the inequalities in education between boys and girls, the growing unrest among the working classes, and the divisive social class structure.
The autobiography by astronomer-geographer, Mary Somerville (1780-1872), recalls her life over a period of nine decades throughout the Georgian and Victorian periods. In her book Personal Recollections, from Early Life to Old Age of Mary Somerville (1873) she recalls friendships with Sir John Herschel, Michael Faraday, and Joanna Baillie. Somerville reveals that as a woman intellectual in the 18th century she met with contemporary prejudice, and was seen as an oddity. Seeking equality for women was an important issue for Somerville throughout her long life. In recognition of her work as a scientist she received several important awards, and will be permanently remembered in the foundation of Somerville Hall, a new women’s college at Oxford University.
Also included in the collection are: Wanderings of a Pilgrim in Search of the Picturesque (1850) by Fanny Parks (1794-1875), which details Indian peoples and customs over a thirty year period; My Own Story, Autobiography of a Child (1849) and An Autobiography (1889) by Mary Howitt (1799-1889) poet, social reformer and abolitionist; Personal Recollections by Charlotte Elizabeth (1841) by Charlotte Elizabeth Tonna (1790-1846) religionist/spiritualist writer, and social reformer; Recollections of a Literary Life: or, Books, Places and People (1870) by Mary Russell Mitford (1787-1855) poet and novelist.
Women’s Autobiographies provides fresh insights into the diversity of women’s lives, and reveals their beliefs, opinions and aspirations. It provides a valuable body of evidence for those studying childhood, class, education and the creation of gendered spaces and identities.