Jill Ker Conway describes autobiography as "our favorite form of fiction." A distinguished and best-selling autobiographer herself (The Road to Coorain and True North) as well as a scholar of the subject, she knows the genre well. In her stimulating and enlightening new book, When Memory Speaks: Reflections on Autobiography, she gives us historical perspective on the subject, emphasizing how gender, race, and societal attitudes have influenced what autobiographers write about themselves.
"For men," she notes, "the overarching pattern for life comes from adaptations of the epic hero in classic antiquity. Life is an odyssey, a journey through many trials and tests, which the hero must surmount alone through courage, endurance, cunning and moral strength . . . His achievement comes about through his own agency . . ." With St. Augustine, the odyssey in time moved from the external world to the inner consciousness. Rousseau's Confessions brought us a "secular hero creating himself," the story "of the individual against society."Classic antiquity was not helpful in the same way for women. "It was within the special enclave of religious life that the tradition of Western European women's autobiography was first established, in narratives about the autobiographer's relationship with God." Therefore women did not discuss "the sense of agency and acting on one's own behalf," which continued in secular narratives.
Ker Conway considers the works of such well-known writers as Benjamin Franklin, Frederick Douglass, Virginia Woolf, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. But many of her subjects are not as well known: Harriet Martineau, Emmeline Pankhurst, and Mabel Dodge Luhan. And in contrast to the writings of such male explorers as Richard Burton, David Livingstone, and Henry Morton Stanley, Ker Conway points out overlooked female accounts of "travels into territories every bit as dangerous" like those by Mary Kingsley and Gertrude Lowthian Bell.
Of particular interest are Ker Conway's discussions of contemporary works such as Angela's Ashes, The Liars' Club, The Color of Water, All Over but the Shoutin', The Shadow Man, and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. The author reminds us that we are all autobiographers, "but few of us give close attention to the forms and tropes of the culture through which we report ourselves to ourselves . . ." She emphasizes the importance of cultivating the power to confidently speak for ourselves out of our understanding of our own experience. She encourages us to find our own voices.
Reviewed by Roger Bishop.