Virginia Woolf, (auto)biography, and the public figure

Virginia Woolf said that the biography as a genre was only established itself in second half of the 18th century. We know very little about Shakespeare or other pre-18th-century artists because the facts of their lives were not considered to be of public interest. Their lives were not open for public viewing. The concept of the public figure was invented in the 18th century. As Luhmann put it,

For “public” means nothing other than giving access to anyone, relinquishing control of access, with consequent structural uncertainty of spatial integration. (Theory of Society, vol. 1, 188)

Writing in the 1928, Woolf called her time the age of biography. The autobiography and confession took off in the 18th century. This is when artists, politicians, etc., became public figures. Here is a Google Books ngram for the term “public figure” from 1800-2008.


There is hardly any mention of public figure before 1906. The newspaper industry took and radio become more accessible. Then the silent motion picture came along. The development of the mass media system is certainly evident here.

Woolf writes in A Room of One’s Own,

Nothing indeed was ever said by the artist himself about his state of mind until the eighteenth century perhaps. Rousseau perhaps began it. At any rate, by the nineteenth century self-consciousness had developed so far that it was the habit for men of letters to describe their minds in confessions and autobiographies. Their lives also were written, and their letters were printed after their deaths. Thus, though we do not know what Shakespeare went through when he wrote LEAR, we do know what Carlyle went through when he wrote the FRENCH REVOLUTION; what Flaubert went through when he wrote MADAME BOVARY; what Keats was going through when he tried to write poetry against the coming death and the indifference of the world.

One of the greatest English-language biographies ever written, Boswell’s Life of Johnson, was published in 1791, and Boswell also published in his lifetime selections from his journals (e.g., The Journal of the Tour of the Hebrides, 1785), and much more has been published posthumously.

Here is a Google ngram for the words biography, autobiography, and memoir from 1750-2008.


Memoir occurs more frequently than autobiography until 1917.

Just as Luhmann is always talking about the second half of the eighteenth century as the age when everything changed, we find Woolf writing the following:

Money dignifies what is frivolous if unpaid for. It might still be well to sneer at ‘blue stockings with an itch for scribbling’, but it could not be denied that they could put money in their purses. Thus, towards the end of the eighteenth century a change came about which, if I were rewriting history, I should describe more fully and think of greater importance than the Crusades or the Wars of the Roses. The middle-class woman began to write.

The modernization of the economy as a social system changed the lives of women such as Jane Austen, the Brontës, etc. The individual, as distinct from the family, emerged in the late 18th century, and fact that individuals gain the power earn and spend their own money was crucial. This is why Woolf said that if a woman is to become a writer, she needs 500 pounds a year and a room of her own. A woman can have the right to vote, attend a university, etc., but without her own money and her own room she won’t be able to become a serious writer.


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