Eve Claxton is the compiler of The Book of Life, a compendium of the best autobiographical and memoir writing throughout history.
“I’ve always been intrigued by memoirs and autobiographies. I remember my mother telling me that Helen Keller’s autobiography was ‘all true.’ I was eight years old and had no idea there was a distinction between books that were ‘made up’ and ‘real’. Of course, there can be a fine line between the two, as the recent James Frey debacle has proven once and for all, however, you could argue that this is part of what makes the genre so interesting. For the most part, a well-written memoir can bring an intimacy to our relationship with an author that doesn’t happen when you’re reading a novel. With a memoir you know that the protagonist has truly lived to tell the tale. The unfolding of memories on a page – exactly how and why a writer decides to recreate the past – can be fascinating to witness.”
1. The Book of My Life by Girolamo Cardano (1576)
Contrary to popular belief, memoirs weren’t invented in the mid-1990s. The genre is, of course, ancient – the Romans and Greeks wrote about their own lives; St. Augustine penned The Confessions, his full-length life story, at the turn of the 5th century. One of my personal favourites amongst the earlier works of autobiography is The Book of My Life, written in Renaissance Italy, by the polymath Girolamo Cardano. Each chapter describes a different aspect of Cardano’s life – his career and relationships; his appearance and temperament, not to mention difficulties with his sexual health. A classic of self-examination.
2. Harriette Wilson’s Memoirs by Harriette Wilson (1825)
Wilson was the most famous courtesan in Regency England – a mistress of aristocrats, politicians, poets, and military men alike. When she came to publish her memoirs in 1825, however, she was past her prime and losing her looks. In desperate need of money, Wilson posted letters to each of her ex-lovers demanding £200 or an annual pension if they wished to be omitted from her kiss-and-tell. The Duke of Wellington reportedly told her, “Publish and be damned!” (as a result, the Duke appears in her Memoirs portrayed as a dreadful bore with the looks of a “rat-catcher”). Wilson’s first line gives you a good idea of her seductively mischievous tone: “I shall not say why and how I became, at the age of fifteen, the mistress of the Earl of Craven…”
3. Autobiographical Fragment by Charles Dickens (1847)
I hadn’t known about this prior to my work on the anthology and so it was exciting to discover that Dickens had the original Dickensian childhood. This “autobiographical fragment” was included in John Forster’s 1872 biography of the great writer and although it’s only a few pages long, it’s a riveting and vivid depiction of 10-year-old Dickens after he was forced to leave school and work in a factory when his father landed in debtor’s prison. The details are grim – cruel factory masters, scuttling rats, abject hunger, a small boy’s loneliness. Dickens had planned to write a longer description but was so overcome by the anguish of remembering this period of his life that he couldn’t continue. Soon afterwards he began work on David Copperfield, where the factory of his youth is transformed into Murdstone and Grinby’s warehouse.
4. The Autobiography of Margaret Oliphant by Margaret Oliphant (1899)
Oliphant was one of the most prolific and beloved novelists of the 19th century. Today, if she’s remembered at all, it’s usually as “Queen Victoria’s favourite novelist” which doesn’t seem like much of a recommendation. Her Autobiography, however, is unusually affecting. It was written as a private record over a period of 30 years, and was patched together by her descendents after her death in 1897. Even Virginia Woolf, who reviled Oliphant’s novels, described The Autobiography as a “most genuine and moving piece of work.” Each of Oliphant’s six children and her husband died before her – including two sons in infancy and two daughters in childhood. The book ends with the death of her last surviving child: “I have nobody to stand between me and roughest edge of grief,” she writes.
5. Father and Son by Edmund Gosse (1907)
A memoir about the relationship between the English writer Edmund Gosse and his father, the naturalist and evangelical Phillip Gosse. Although the events it recreates take place in the mid-19th century, the book feels timeless. This is partly because it’s so poignant but also because the Gosses’ complex and conflicted relationship is so well rendered. In the course of the book we witness the young Gosse emerging as his own person, despite enormous pressure from his father to fit into a staunchly evangelical mould. Eventually Gosse Jr and Gosse Sr go their separate ways – a schism that’s ostensibly cause by their divergent views on Darwinism. Incredible to think such matters are still contentious in certain parts of the States.
6. My Childhood by Maxim Gorky (1913)
The first part of the Russian writer’s autobiographical trilogy, this is Gorky’s description of growing up poor in late 19th-century Russia – no fun by all accounts. Gorky’s picture of the punishing impoverishment of daily peasant life is brilliantly lucid. After his father dies, the four-year-old Gorky goes with his mother to live with his appallingly cruel grandfather. Later, our hero is orphaned entirely and like a real-life Russian Huckleberry Finn, he sets out to make his way in the world, aged only 11. A masterpiece amongst “miserable childhood” memoirs.
7. If This Is A Man by Primo Levi (1947)
This is Levi’s legendary account of his year in Auschwitz when he was 25 years old. The book first appeared in 1947 and it remains the most profoundly civilised description of profoundly uncivilised events. What’s so extraordinary is Levi’s tone, which is never one of simple outrage, but instead springs from a kind of principled curiosity; the astonishment of the scientist confronted with wholly foreign phenomena. “How is this possible?” Levi seems to be always asking us. If This Is A Man can make for extremely disconcerting reading, not only because of the systematic cruelty of the Nazis it describes, but because Levi doesn’t let you dismiss the Holocaust as the work of monsters. This was the work of men.
8. Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited by Vladimir Nabokov (1966)
Speak, Memory – about Nabokov’s “lost” childhood in pre-Revolution Russia, and the early years of his post-Revolution peregrinations in Europe – is literary memoir at its finest. Nabokov weaves the stuff of memory into a luminous work of art, definitively upping the ante for memoir writers to come. While working on the anthology, I sought out his notes for a sequel to Speak, Memory (in the New York Public Library), which he began in the late 1960s but never finished or published. A single, immaculately fashioned paragraph from these notes is included in the anthology.
9. The Perfect Stranger PJ Kavanagh (1966)
The English poet PJ Kavanagh called his 1966 memoir, “the story of a recognition and a rescue.” It’s a book that charts how one person can change another’s life completely. Kavanagh begins with his childhood, growing up in wartime Bristol, and follows the course of his youth through boarding school and the army, until he winds up at Oxford, a rather lost and disgruntled 20-something. Here he meets a fellow student, Sally Phillips, the “perfect stranger” of the title, and they fall in love. What follows is a magical depiction of Sally, their short-lived happiness together, and the transformative effect she has on his existence.
10. Borrowed Finery by Paula Fox (2001)
My favourite memoir of recent times. Sadly, I didn’t manage to include an excerpt in the anthology (I couldn’t find a single section that would work when divorced from the rest of Fox’s book) so it’s very pleasing to recommend it here. Fox – the American novelist and children’s book author – wrote this story of her childhood in her late 70s and she’s a very good advertisement for waiting until old age to write about the past. Borrowed Finery is a model of exactitude and restraint, in which Fox manages to evoke her abandonment by her parents and a childhood spent in the care of a succession of strangers and relatives without a shred of self-pity. A second memoir, The Coldest Winter has just come out in the States and forms a kind of sequel. It’s just as good as its predecessor.