“Why has this woman writ her own life?” asked Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, in her autobiography of 1656, which is generally taken to be the first secular autobiography in English by a woman. Why would anyone tell the story of his or her own life? Perhaps in an attempt to avoid oblivion by setting down their person and leaving it to the world. The idea of being an account of a life for posterity is shared by biography and autobiography alike. A good biographer will attempt to answer questions about the subject’s nature, about what the lasting importance of a life may be. There is some objectivity here: a biographer will look at a life as a whole and from an outside standpoint in an attempt to glean what truths they are to be had from the vagaries and vicissitudesof a life. But for the author of an autobiography no objective point of view is available. While both biographer and autobiographer may both suppress elements of a their subject’s life for whatever reasons perhaps for not fitting with an consistent picture or literary plan traits of a character may remain hidden to an autobiographical subject. Of course, there are things of a person’s life no biographer may ever know, but these are generally things that could be known in principle. Biography concerns itself with the limning of another person, its subject matter is the observable life of an individual, or at least that which is in principle observable, that which should yield to intensive and intrusive scholarship. Autobiography, however, faces the notorious problem of self-knowledge. We expect from an autobiography not only accurate recollections of the events of a life, but an honest insight into a mind: the thoughts and sensations the consciousness that accompany these events. We also often find in autobiography a search by the subject for whatmade them what they find themselves to be. But even where an author’s goal appears to be that of truthfulness, how much faith can we have in their ability to achieve it? Perhaps the process of life writing of writing one’s own life is flawed. Let us briefly consider some general characteristics of the genre. Biography has been around as long as there have been people to tell about. One might even speculate that accounts of the actions of real people necessarily predate fiction. But we should note that accounts of great actions are especially prone to exaggeration, and so the line here between fiction and fact is not clear. Indeed, some of the earliest surviving stories those of the Old Testament, the epic of Gilgamesh, or Beowulf for example purport to some extent to be accounts of actual people, with consideration given to the genealogy of the hero. Autobiography, on the other hand, in the sense we take it today, can effectively be traced back to the fifth century and Augustine. Herodotus gives us some autobiographical sketches in his Histories, but Augustine’s Confessions is the first proper work where the subject is its author, a story of a life. However, what we really find in the Confessions is the presentation of a model servant of God, rather than Augustine “himself” (ignoring for the moment what “himself” might mean). There are accounts of events apparently from the author’s life but these are so deliberately crafted for the purpose of expounding issues of Christian theology that it is likely that much of what we are told is not actually an account of the life of any real person. Therefore, perhaps the defining point in the history of autobiography is the work of Michel de Montaigne. In his Essays of 1595, we find for the first time a focus on the “individual”. Part of Montaigne’s purpose in his essays on so many aspects of the mundane was to approach the world in which he found himself through himself: he felt that “nothing certain can be established about one thing by another, both the judging and the judged being in continual change and motion”. Montaigne’s project was to examine himself as an individual in order to better understand the world. Augustine’s examination of the self was universal: his work was to prescribe the model Christian. The didactic impetus of the Confessions is common to much autobiography andwhere there is such a plan to a work of autobiography it makes less sense to talk of the truthfulness of the life’s account since the agenda of the author is to instruct, and truthfulness is subordinate to this intention. But what we must note is that the central rhetorical conceit of any non-truthful autobiography of this form is exactly that it is an autobiography, that it is the story of a real life.The mode of autobiography has a psychological or philosophical dimension that requires an author to balance the deeds of an active public self with the thoughts of a contemplative private one. It also demands that the author have an awareness of an audience. This point importantly distinguishes autobiography from diary or journal writing, and we should remind ourselves that we have been talking of life “stories”. Autobiography is anaccount of a life that is framed for an audience, whether or not this is an audience the author is clear about at the time of writing. The fact alone that an author is custom essay term paper writing for an audience forces us to recognise an agency behind the writing: with autobiography we can legitimately talk of anauthor’s purpose in a way that would not make sense if we were reading a private journal. (This may be an oversimplification. We may imagine a private journal in which a writer wrote for an imaginary audience although the journal was never intended to be read by anybody other than its author. The imagined audience here would make questions of agency relevant.) It is with an audience in mind that the idea of an instructiveautobiography must be taken. The audience is encouraged to learn from the author’s life, perhaps to take up a new moral cause, or be pushed towards a spiritual development. Montaigne’s work might also be seen to be instructive, but not in the sense that it could be read as a sermon. The instruction here is the example of a subject examining himself for the sake of understanding the world. In this case it is important that thesubject be seen to be an individual, in contrast to the universal “self” of the Confessions. Reflecting much of this, the critic William Spengemann has argued that autobiography has shown a unique capacity for registering changing cultural conceptions of the self. He suggests that we view the history of autobiography in three sections, each period exhibiting a different form ofthe genre: the historical, the philosophical, and the poetic. So called historical autobiography is typified by accounts of the development of theauthor, the autobiography is essentially the telling of the process of a life’s events. Again, these events may not be strictly factual, but they are presented as if they were. We are invited to accompany the author on a journey as they develop spiritually or in some way towards “wholeness”. Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress” is a classic example of this. The second form, the philosophical, places emphasis for the first time on the mental processes of the individual, and is concerned with the epistemological issue of how we know our “self”, indeed, of what the “self” could meaningfully be taken to be. Wordsworth, for instance, structured his “Preludes” according to periods of selfhood different periods in time occupied by the same individual drawing attention to the continual identity of the self through time. Thirdly, the poetic stage is characterised by the recourse of autobiographical authors to poetic self-expression. The tendency is to subordinate truth in favour of poetic self-invention. Consider works such as James Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” and Virginia Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse”. Both are strongly autobiographical but pretend to be fictional narratives. The typical form of the early period has been inverted: rather than a fiction that is claimed to be autobiographical, we have what is in effect an autobiography that is written as a novel. Indeed, in the modern period in general, the line between novel and autobiography is no longer always clear.