Significant Lives: biography, autobiography, and women's history in South Asia, by Supriya Chaudhuri

For Indian biographers, Edmund Clerihew Bentley’s observation that ‘Geography is about maps / But biography is about chaps’ is literally true: biography is (mainly) about chaps.

When I chose a title for this talk, I must have been recalling – though I didn’t realize this at the time -- a justly-celebrated essay by Carolyn Steedman, published in 1992 in the journal History and Theory, and titled ‘La Théorie que n’en est pas une: or, Why Clio doesn’t Care.’ In that essay, partly reworked from her own recently published biography of the socialist educator Margaret McMillan (Steedman 1990), Steedman suggested that the practice of biography made for a new understanding of women’s history,

which might be described as an altered sense of the historical meaning and importance of female insignificance. The absence of women from conventional historical accounts, discussion of this absence (and discussion of the real archival difficulties that lie in the way of presenting their lives in a historical context) are at the same time a massive assertion of the littleness of what lies hidden. A sense of that which is lost, never to be recovered completely, is one of the most powerful organizing devices of modern women's history (Steedman 1992: 43). Steedman sees herself, then, as extending what Elizabeth Fox-Genovese had said more cryptically ten years earlier: that ‘women’s history challenges mainstream history, not to substitute the chronicle of the female subject for that of the male, but rather to restore conflict, ambiguity and tragedy to the historical process’ (Fox-Genovese 1982: 29).

The ‘sadness’ of this effect, Steedman said, was present in working class history too, but the lack of detail about working lives had a greater prefigurative force: ‘oppression and repression have a meaning within the narrative structure of people's history and labor history in a way that is not the case in women's history’ (Steedman 1992: 43). For Steedman, then, female insignificance was precisely that: women’s absence from conventional historical accounts was ‘meaningless’ in a strong sense. Having said this, Steedman proceeds, in this dense and fascinating essay, to note how meaning is made, quite differently, in the literary text, where the feminist aesthetic can go to work, as she puts it, ‘writing polyvalency and fragmentation as resistance and critique of an existing patriarchal order’ (Steedman 1992: 34). Biography and autobiography, literary forms that nevertheless lay a claim to the historical archive, certainly posit meaningfulness as a prime objective of their narrative projects. In their different forms, spiritual, hagiographical, documentary, exemplary, confessional, official, tutelary, sensational, psychobiographical – and allowing for the necessary contrasts between the genres of biography and autobiography, and the textures of public and private spheres -- they offer up the model of a significant life, even though, in the historical context, that life-story may ‘explain only itself’ (Steedman 1992: 43). For Steedman, writing the ‘historical biography’ of a woman, Margaret McMillan, who led a public life (and also wrote a biography of her sister that can be read as covert autobiography), the problem of placing her subject’s life within social and political history meant that the narrative closures of biography and autobiography – ending in the figure of a person – were in conflict with the open-endedness of history, and that formal, generic, and disciplinary concerns would be inextricably entangled.

Looking at women’s lives in South Asia it is impossible to break free of these entanglements, to separate the strands of narrative self-justification from the cobwebs of historical obscurity and neglect: though one way of understanding the problem would be to ask again what we mean by history. For the moment, however, I will bracket that question, and turn rather to actual biographies and autobiographies of South Asian women, paying attention to a perceived disproportion, or lack of balance, between the two genres. I will argue that while women’s autobiographies have been of quite extraordinary importance to feminist scholarship in India, and have been in many ways the single most important resource in constituting an archive of women’s experience that might feed activism and theory, biographies of women are relatively scarce and – with some notable exceptions – unremarkable. For Indian biographers, Edmund Clerihew Bentley’s observation that ‘Geography is about maps/ But biography is about chaps’ is literally true: biography is (mainly) about chaps. By contrast, the first prose autobiography in the Bengali language, perhaps the first to be printed in any Indian language, was composed by a woman. From the second half of the nineteenth century to the beginning of the twenty-first, we have a substantial number of personal narratives – written accounts, journals, dictated reminiscences – that have allowed us to recover ‘in their own words’, the hidden lives of women, and made space for them in a social imaginary that has important literary and aesthetic dimensions, and exceptional ethical and cultural force. Most of these lives have precisely the kind of historical insignificance of which Steedman speaks: yet through the act of narration itself, they gain resonance in textual space.


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Supriya Chaudhuri is Professor Emerita in the Department of English, Jadavpur University, India. She has held visiting appointments at the University of Cambridge and the University of Paris-Sorbonne, and lectured at many universities in India and abroad. Her areas of scholarly interest are Renaissance studies, philosophy and critical theory, Indian cultural history, urban studies, sport, travel, translation and modernism. Recent publications include Commodities and Culture in the Colonial World (2018); Reconsidering English Studies in Indian Higher Education (2015); Sport, Literature, Society: Cultural Historical Studies (2013); and chapters in A Companion to Virginia Woolf (2016), Celebrating Shakespeare: Commemoration and Cultural Memory (2015), and A History of the English Novel in India (2015). She has led on many internationally funded research projects, continues to advise on research and higher education policy, and is active in debates on the humanities, gender and intellectual liberty in India.