"The aesthetic of lived life" from Wollstonecraft to Mill
Chaney, Eve Christine
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The six canonical male poets of the Romantic period are usually given credit for the late-eighteenth-century turn toward a new interest in issues of the self in literature. However, I argue that an under-explored counter tradition of the self in literature was initiated by Mary Wollstonecraft four years before these poets and inherited and expanded by Elizabeth Barrett Browning and John Stuart Mill in the Victorian period through their "literary self-portraits."These texts have often evaded the scrutiny of scholars because they reject the hardened generic categories of traditional autobiography and embrace instead the "imaginative" literary traditions of poetry and the novel. However, I believe that rather than being problematic or "fragmented" works, they are in fact more accurate textual embodiments of actual life narration. Critic Mikhail Bakhtin uses term "the aesthetic of lived life" to describe the relationship between inner and outer discourse which informs human life on a day-to-day basis. We live our lives, he writes, as a "possible story to be told by the other to still others." The smooth and teleological form of the traditional autobiography is a seductive one (who would not want such a life of unity and integration). Yet, life itself is not so neat.I argue, therefore, for a new understanding of self-narration in text, initiated by Wollstonecraft's Letters in Sweden, which follows a textual form more akin to women's writing in the period diaries, journals, letters--and whose very fragmentation is a marker of their textual "authenticity" and "character." Wollstonecraft used these grounds to authenticate an ethos form of argument in the Letters which is at once confessional and ideological "polemics of self" which argue for right ways of seeing life, culture, and society, while simultaneously confessing the selfhood of their author.I argue, as well, that both Elizabeth Barrett Browning in Aurora Leigh and John Stuart Mill in his Autobiography extended this literary self-portrait form in a way that addresses the issue of Victorian "sage" discourse as at once a more culturally prominent yet covert form of the same ethos polemics.
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