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CLASSICS AND CLASS IN LIFE-WRITING
In his 1931 memoirs, Ben Tillett, Trade Unionist and former MP, now over 70 years old, recalled working in the east London docks in the late 19th century (Figure 5.1). He had realised the need to acquire some conventional education when the harshness of life in the East End persuaded him to become an agitator and labour evangelist. But he felt ill-equipped; ‘Before I could enter upon that stage of my career there were arrears of education to make up. I had much to learn, as well as something to forget’.1 A native of Bristol, Tillett was labouring in a brickyard by the age of eight, followed by work as a fisherman, circus acrobat, cobbler and sailor. He moved to London and, in 1887, formed the Tea Operatives and General Labourers Union, later renamed the Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Labourers’ Union, while working at Tilbury docks. He earned fame as a union leader in the London Dock Strike of 1889, and in 1910 co-founded the National Transport Workers’ Federation, later the TGWU. One paragraph of his memoirs starkly evokes the exhaustion induced by his work.
As a docker I had tried to save money, and starved to buy books. I was struggling to learn Latin, and was even trying to study Greek, lending my head and aching body to the task after my day’s work on the dock-side, or in the tea warehouse where I was employed—work which meant carrying tons on my back up and down flights of stairs.2
Despite failing to master Greek and Latin, the attempt at self-education revealed that he was talented as a wordsmith: he could have been a professional writer, he says, if he had been born ‘under a luckier star, with fuller opportunities than I enjoyed in the way of leisure, and a more intensive cultivation of my native
FIGURE 5.1 Ben Tillett (1860—1943), from Tillett (1931), reproduced from copy in Hall’s personal collection.
qualities’.’’ He returns to the theme later: ‘If I have one grouch against the world rather than another, the lack of opportunity for acquiring education in my earlier days is that one big grouch’.4
The image of Tillett struggling against fatigue is haunting. Fortunately, in later life he possessed both leisure and writing skills to preserve his invaluable memories. Almost all the book is devoted to his political career and has nothing to do with antiquity. But the frustrating encounter with Classics as a young activist represents a psychological turning-point in the text. He sees through to the heart of the problem facing the labour movement—that people who have always had to sell their labour simply do not have the time and leisure to acquire the education that will allow them to be emancipated in class terms. At the same time, he identifies his own skill with language, which he was subsequently to use effectively both as an orator and as a writer in the cause of the working class. But the classical encounter occurs simultaneously with his recognition of his life’s purpose as a socialist proselytiser. It is a transformative episode that marks the turning-point in his life.
One mode of reading autobiography is as a source of historical evidence. Despite A.J.P. Taylor’s claim that ‘written memoirs are a form of oral history set down to mislead historians’, and ‘useless except for atmosphere’,’ even the most crafted literary autobiography can be mined for certain kinds of historical information, in that the process of writing it often prompts otherwise buried memories,6 or it offers an intelligible account of experience.7 Some working-class writers offer lists of books they claim to have read in their earnest autodidactic endeavours which seem too extensive to be persuasive. Yet even where there are grounds for scepticism, autobiographers’ claims about their reading provide titles that are informative about the kind of literature which authors, and the readership they anticipated, would find it plausible that it had been available and appealing. Certain works—Pope’s Homer, Gibbon, Rollin, Cassell’s Popular Educator, James Harris’s Hermes: or a Philosophical Enquiry Concerning Universal Grammar (1751), the Penny Magazine and later The Harmsworth Self-Educator (1905-1907), recur in workers’ accounts of the first serious books they encountered and have supplied some of the evidence we have cited in other chapters.1*
But the primary purpose of studying autobiographies may not be to uncover factual truth. The realisation of the wishful fantasies informing much of what Heinrich Schliemann wrote about himself illuminates his psychological makeup, his aspirations, and the contents of his imagination.9 Analysing the overall narrative arc has been customary since Georges Gusdorf’s seminal Conditions et limites de lautobiographie (1956) proposed that people narrating their lives to themselves, or to others, reconstruct series of events, which may have unfolded randomly, in a way that attempts to impose a unified structure upon them.10 Among the more self-conscious working-class life writings from the late 18th century to the early 20th, a development can be traced from spiritual or confessional biography to a narrative with a clear rite-of-passage consisting of an educational opportunity or encounter with a mentor, leading to personal selfimprovement; alternatively the initiatory moment may be a recognition that the individual has been excluded, with significant consequences, from education. By the 1880s, the dominant structure has become a public-facing story of how a disadvantaged individual developed into a career politician, academic or a servant of the labour movement, often tracing an arc which consists of continuous social ascent against odds. An outstanding example of the last category is the bestselling autobiography ofjack Lawson (1881-1965), A Man’s Life (1932), which he dedicated to his fellow miners. It is discussed in detail below on pp. 469-70.
Other tools for the analysis of autobiographies can aid the recovery of working-class intellectual history. James Olney precipitated the poststructuralist obsession with fictions of the self by emphasising the metaphors which memoirists use in describing their remembered experience." Rockwell Gray examined how the unity of an autobiographical narrative unravels under the pressure of its author’s ambivalence and shifting sensibilities over time; more illuminating than imposed unity is the conflict between the subject’s rival aims, principles, qualities and talents.12 Others study the gap between the ‘reality’ of the individual as suggested in other sources and the crafted ‘mask’ or ‘persona’ created by their historical self-fashioning.13
A useful concept for analysing the intersection of Classics and class in such materials is transformation, which Carolyn Barros, in her study of five eminent Victorians’ autobiographies, argues is central to life-writing.14 The shape imposed on the narrative in autobiographies (and those of the working class are not exceptions) usually entails progress and change; the ‘How I was once’ and ‘What I became’ of the author. ‘It is the internal transformation of the individual—and the exemplary character of this transformation—that furnishes a subject for a narrative discourse in which “I” is both subject and object’.15 In Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (1666), Bunyan traces his passage from sinner to exemplar of Christian virtue.16 Rousseau’s Confessions (1782-1789) relate the author’s path from innocent but inquisitive and risk-addicted youth to the (misunderstood) Romantic social reformer he regarded himself to be in maturity;17 this book fundamentally informed the entire tradition of radical autobiography, being studied by, for example, the docker Ben Tillett.18 Even where the overall narrative arc may trace gradual teleological evolution or sustained execution of the individual’s life project, there is usually a pivotal or transformative moment.
For Kettering textile worker John Leatherland, it was moving at the age of 21 from employment as a ribbon weaver, which required total attention, to a complex loom and then a velvet-factory. There he had just sufficient freedom from the machinery to organise a Mutual Instruction Society and read enough to become a part-time poet and lecturer on literature. His favourite books included Plutarch’s Lines and Gibbon’s Decline and Fall. He began publishing after he won first prize, financed by ‘some gentlemen of Kettering’, for an essay entitled ‘Best Means of Improving the Condition of the Working Classes’.19
Prominent Methodist Joseph Barker, born into abject poverty into a family of spinners near Leeds in 1806, embarked on a programme of self-education, which included studying Greek, in order to read the New Testament in the original, as well as Latin. This enabled him to identify his life project as a preacher because he could now see religious subjects
in a clearer and more satisfactory light. Mysteries that had hung around religion from the beginning, began, in part at least, to fade away. The light began to pour itself in something like its purity upon my mind.20
Although Cardinal Newman was born into a prosperous banking family, the turning-point in his autobiography, underlined by the doubleness of its occurrence, illuminates those in working-class equivalents. In 1864, he describes how his conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1845 was adumbrated by rediscovering his first school Latin verse-book, inscribed just before his tenth birthday: he had drawn a cross and a rosary on its first page.21 Two pivotal incidents—the sketching child and the adult wavering before he took that momentous decision—are in this passage fused through the symbolism of the Latin text-book. An equivalent encounter to those narrated by Tillett, Lawson and Newman, specifically with classical authors, is not infrequent in the many working-class memoirs fromthe late 18th to the early 20th centuries. This chapter looks at the literary context from which these emerged, before teasing out the similarities and differences between a selection of eight of these pivotal encounters, and concluding with a few remarks on the reflection of literary expressions of such real-life experiences in the canonical 19th-century novel.