In its modern form, may be taken as writing that purposefully and self‐consciously provides an account of the author's life and incorporates feeling and introspection as well as empirical detail. In this sense, autobiographies are infrequent in English much before 1800. Although there are examples of autobiography in a quasi‐modern sense earlier than this (e.g. Bunyan's conversion narrative, Grace Abounding, 1666, and Margaret Cavendish', duchess of Newcastle's ‘A True Relation’, 1655–6) it is not until the early 19th cent. that the genre becomes established in English writing: Gibbon's Memoirs (1796) are a notable exception.
From 1800 onwards the introspective Protestantism of an earlier period and the Romantic Movement's displeasure with the fact/feeling distinction of the Enlightenment provided for personal narratives of a largely new kind. They were characterized by a self‐scrutiny and vivid sentiment that produced what is now referred to, following Robert Southey (1809), as autobiography. Early in the 19th cent. Wordsworth gives in The Prelude (1805) a sustained reflection upon the circumstances of he himself being the subject of his own work; and in the second half of the century Newman in his Apologia pro Vita Sua (1864) publicly and originally reveals a personal spiritual journey. This latter, with its public disclosure of the private domain, had a dramatic and far‐reaching influence upon the intelligentsia of late Victorian society.
In the 20th cent. autobiography became increasingly valued not so much as an empirical record of historical events but as providing an epitome of personal sensibility among the intricate vicissitudes of cultural change. Vera Brittain achieved a seriousness of observation and affect to provide in Testament of Youth (1933) a major work on the conduct of the First World War. In the area of more domestic but no less social concerns J. R. Ackerley in his My Father and Myself (1968) constructed an autobiography of painful frankness in a disquisition upon his unusual family relations, his affection for his dog, and the tribulations of his homosexuality. More recently Tim Lott in The Scent of Dead Roses (1996) discussed the suicide of his mother and amalgamated autobiography, family history, and social analysis in a virtuoso performance of control and pathos. The truthfulness or not of autobiography is essentially a matter that must be left to biographers and philosophers. The plausibility of an autobiography, however, must find its authentication by the degree to which it can correspond to some approximation of its context.