“I was an atom in the world of life”: James Dawson Burn’s . Th e Autobiography of a Beggar Boy
Ilaria Natali, Università di Firenze
James Dawson Burn’s Th e Autobiography of a Beggar Boy (fi rst published anonymously in 1855) relates the often-amusing life’s adventures of a man coping with various forms of social marginalization, as a vagrant, an illegitimate child, and an Irish immigrant in England. A story of personal reform and social reintegration, A Beggar Boy seemingly relies on Victorian cultural and literary conventions and sustains the values which Burn saw as governing middle-class life. However, subtle transgressions of traditional formal and generic paradigms reveal a tension between the individual’s unique perception of the self and the demands of Victorian middle-class discourse. An immediate and considerable success amongst the Victorians, today A Beggar Boy can help expand the parameters of discussion related to Irish autobiography and its perceived features.
When Isaac D’Israeli published his review of the Memoirs of Percival Stockdale in 1809, he emphasized that he believed the English poet to be too obscure a figure to attract the readers’ attention with his life story. With some concern, D’Israeli added that he expected “to see an epidemical rage for auto-biography break out, more wide in its influence and more pernicious in its tendency than the strange madness of the Abderites” (1809, 339). His fears were soon justified, as the following decades saw an unprecedented proliferation of autobiographical writing in the British Isles and other parts of Europe. It was, indeed, in the first half of the nineteenth century that autobiography gained legitimacy, established itself as a distinct genre and started claiming an aesthetic standing.
It seems a striking fact that in such an outpouring of life stories Irish experiences have often gone unnoticed, or that their specificity has scarcely been considered. Various factors could have contributed to this partial neglect. For one thing, autobiography has long been a “Cinderella genre” of Irish literature (Harte 2007, 1) which has not yet undergone the same systematic analysis as other forms of writing. Given that scholarly efforts have especially focused on contemporary authors and texts, the range of observable distinctive features of Irish autobiography is still rather limited: authors are said to privilege a tragicomic mode and show a recurring interest in exile (see Grubgeld 2004, 128, 16), they often filter their life events through the lenses of “nation and society” (Harte 2007, 3), and their accounts of childhood experience are rich in standardized elements (see Lynch 2009, 82–83) — or, to borrow Frank McCourt’s words, they illustrate how “[w]orse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood” (1996, 11). These “Irish” constituents or conventions seem quite provisional in the face of the historical diversity that characterizes autobiographical writing. A “desire to relate a range of previously unspoken (or only whispered) stories from the margins” (Smyth 2001, 134) has emerged somewhat constantly throughout Irish history, finding expression in texts such as Richard Boyle’s Remembrances (1623), Christian Davies’ Life (1740), or Dorothea Herbert’s Retrospections (1806, published 1929). Clearly, the specificity of Irish autobiographical writing needs further definition against the backdrop of its centuries-long tradition.