Livingstone’s “Lives”: a metabiography of a Victorian icon
Livingstone, Justin David
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Dr. David Livingstone, the Victorian “missionary-explorer”, has attracted more written commentary than nearly any other heroic figure of the nineteenth century. In the years following his death, he rapidly became the subject of a major “biographical industry” and indeed he continues to sustain an academic industry as well. Yet, out of the extensive discourse that has installed itself around him, no single unified image of Livingstone emerges. Rather, he has been represented in diverse ways and put to work in a variety of socio-political contexts. This thesis interrogates the heterogeneous nature of Livingstone’s legacy and explores the plurality of identities that he has posthumously acquired. In approaching Livingstone’s “Lives” the methodology employed is that of metabiographical analysis, essentially a biography of biographies. This framework does not aim to uncover the true nature of the “biographee” but is rather concerned with the malleability and ideological embeddedness of biographical representation. The first chapter considers Livingstone’s own self-representation by critically analysing Missionary Travels, his best-selling travelogue. I argue that the text is more ambivalent than has hitherto been acknowledged and that its heterogeneity facilitated the diversity of Livingstone’s posthumous interpretations. The second chapter discusses Livingstone’s Victorian commemoration, exploring a body of hitherto unexamined remembrance literature, a wealth of obituaries and elegiac poetry. Focusing on a brief historical juncture, the year of his national memorial, presents an opportunity to reflect on some of the foundation stones of his legacy. The next chapter concerns itself with Livingstone’s imperialist construction, certainly his most persistent image. It discusses the way in which he was routinely re-presented in order to meet the evolving demands of empire. Yet, Livingstone was never constructed homogenously at any one colonial moment and so I argue that we should speak of his imperial legacies. The penultimate chapter considers the Scottish dimension of Livingstone’s reputation in a range of contexts, from the Celtic Revival to Kailyard. While some ignored his northern heritage, his national identity was of vital importance for others who used him to negotiate a Scottish national consciousness. The final chapter extends the concept of life-writing to include fictional portrayals of Livingstone. The focus here is primarily on postcolonial literature in which, as a cherished icon of empire, he became a focal point for critique and imaginative violence. The thesis contributes to the growing body of scholarship on life-writing and directs further attention to the changing nature and political efficacy of historical lives. Livingstone emerges as a site of competing meanings; the Victorian hero has himself become a colonised space.