Tudor Autobiography: Listening for Inwardness

January 22, 2009

While it sounds like a television drama starring Trevor Eve as a cold-case copper revisiting gruesome murders from the Seventies, "Speaking with the Dead" is, in fact, the locus classicus of an entire movement in literary studies that postulated the existence of, and attempted to permit airtime to, the voice of Tudor individuals.

Stephen Greenblatt's opening sentence of Shakespearean Negotiations - "I began with the desire to speak with the dead" - remains one of the most enthralling and yearning of postwar criticism. Greenblatt et al sought to demonstrate the autonomy of the early modern subject by, as Feste puts it in Twelfth Night, allowing vox. The assumption was that if these selves existed, we would be able to hear them speaking, that traces of their utterances, and so their subjectivity, would be manifest in the Elizabethan artefacts that remain: portraits, architecture, music and, for a literary critic, written texts.

Yet in spite of Greenblatt's Ouija-board aspirations, he was forced to conclude glumly that so embroiled were they in the state apparatuses that surrounded them - church, family, gender, the structures of court life and the state - such voices had never existed: "there were, so far as I could tell, no moments of pure, unfettered subjectivity" (Renaissance Self-Fashioning). It wasn't merely a case of their being too deeply buried, rather that they were never there to begin with.

If "speaking with the dead" sounds like a tall order, how much more so would it be to listen to the dead speaking to themselves - the task that Meredith Anne Skura sets herself in Tudor Autobiography: Listening for Inwardness. Impatient with Greenblattian scepticism (in a neat dig she combines moral indignation and critical vocabulary a la mode in her description of Greenblatt as "posthuman"), Skura aims to demonstrate not only the existence of autonomous and integral selves but their capacity, their enthusiasm even, to speak about and with themselves. Greenblatt's denial of a viable early modern identity started a debate in literary circles well over quarter of a century ago, and Skura is the latest in a long line of champions for the Tudor self. What is both original and courageous about Tudor Autobiography, though, is its insistence that not only did such a self exist, but that it was determined to announce its own existence and even debate the difficulties of making such an announcement.

The sedulous delicacy of Skura's critical method is immanent in her subtitle: Listening for Inwardness. She strains her ears to hear these utterances rather than talk with or over them. Implicit is the suggestion that those who have dismissed the existence of 16th-century autobiography are cloth-eared: John Kerrigan's patrician "selfhood is in abeyance" clearly riles Skura, as does Andrew Mousley's insistence that what looks like self-consciousness is really a conventional symptom of larger external social and economic anxieties. Skura counters with case studies that allow her to assert that if they are not autobiography as we know it, then at least these texts manifest "the complicated self-consciousness of the autobiographical form".

Of Thomas Tusser's self-referential additions to his own A Hundreth Good Points of Husbandary, for instance, Skura pronounces, "by this time (1574) rather then (sic) being unusual, the autobiographical impulse among the educated seems to have been growing stronger".

The works of Isabella Whitney, Thomas Whythorne and George Gascoigne illustrate autobiography's "move towards representing concrete individual experience". Even John Skelton's "continued analysis of his own struggle for professional and spiritual achievement" is most fruitfully decoded, insists Skura, as an incipient assertion of "his own poetic identity".

Herein lies the problem. If these writings are autobiographical rather than autobiography per se, then the generic label is stretched beyond its point of elastic return: the number of autobiographical modes is vaguely plural - miscellany, letter, dedication, complaint, sonnet, husbandry handbook, comedy, satire and even drama. Occasionally Skura is naive: of Thomas Wyatt's protean verse, she writes: "This movement of the mind ... is recognisably Wyatt's". But this is no more certain than suggesting that the speaker of "For God's sake hold your tongue" is Donne himself or that the poet of and in the Sonnets is Shakespeare. Apropos Whythorne's stated reasons for writing, that it represented a relief, "Whythorne's explanations for his poems indicate that he meant it." How can we know?

Moreover, this most intentional kind of writing occasionally sounds involuntary. Skura concludes of John Bale: "He is rarely self-reflexive (... and he) does not talk about his inner life." Similarly, of Gascoigne: he "may not have set out to write autobiography".

What seems to emerge here is the notion of autobiography as accidental exposure of the self rather than its deliberate or calculated revelation. Perhaps this is a problem not over the existence or otherwise of early modern voices but a taxonomic conundrum about what to call them.

Tudor Autobiography: Listening for Inwardness

By Meredith Anne Skura. University of Chicago Press 2pp, £26.50. ISBN 9780226761879. Published 19 September 2008

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