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Contexts and evidence
Working-class memoirs include not only published books, but unpublished reminiscences, letters, diaries and personal journals. Annotated details about the majority of these were compiled in the pioneering three-volume The Autobiography of the Working Class, published by John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall in the 1980s. This collection has made it far easier to study them,22 and we have learned much from three pre-existing specialist studies of their characteristics by Vincent, Nan Hackett and Regenia Gagnier.23 Given the prominence of classical education in the definition of class since the late 17th century, the presence—or absence—of references to classical material in them is necessarily revealing. Many workers counted themselves fortunate to have had acquired basic literacy at Sunday School and one form of evidence is the deafening silence in many memoirs on any historical, cultural or philosophical topic at all, let alone on ancient civilisations; instead, many relentlessly describe the hunger and privation suffered by people who had worked as children in mills, mines and quarries. ‘A vast amount of wheeling, dragging, hoisting, carrying, lifting, digging, tunneling, draining, trenching, hedging, embanking, blasting, breaking, scouring, sawing, felling, reaping, mowing, picking, sifting and threshing was done by sheer muscular effort, day in, day out’.24 One might add labour in the domestic realm: minding infants, peeling vegetables, scrubbing floors, laundering and mending textiles, bed-making, carpet-beating and emptying chamber-pots; discussions of reading materials in the autobiographies by working-class women have proven especially difficult to locate.25
Thomas Jordan, a County Durham miner born in 1892, says that his schooling stopped abruptly in 1900 when he was eight. He could not learn ‘higher mathematics, beyond simple arithmetic’, and ‘so I was doomed for the pits’.2<’An Airedale factory girl recalls how her natural aptitude for language and thirst for reading had been repeatedly frustrated by the need to earn money, from the time when she was first put to work in a brickyard just after her eighth birthday.27 Pioneering Workers’ Educationalist and Trade Unionist Edith Hall (no relation), in her memoir Canary Girls and Stock Pots, eloquently expresses her frustration at the limits of her education. Her eyes had been opened to the possibilities of using books for personal development only when she read Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles and could relate to the heroine who was, for once, labouring-class.28 Hardy had himself been writing from personal experience. As the son of a stonemason, and apprenticed to an architect’s firm, he had been denied a public school and university education; like the hero of another novel, Jude Fawley of Jude the
Obscure, he had struggled to learn enough Greek to read the Iliad as a teenager.29 But unlike Jude, Tess or Edith Hall, Hardy rose through the social ranks to become a prosperous pillar of the literary establishment.
Gustav Klaus’ collection of a variety of short stories of the 1920s, supposedly based on real narratives and set in mining, factory and vagrant communities, for example, contains no mention of education whatsoever, with a single exception so conspicuous that it proves the rule. In K.M. Fox’s Casuals of the City, Jack Smith, an interesting tramp, is described as
a hoarse little cockney ... He had a talent for public exhortation, varying from railings in Hyde Park to pill-selling and tie-selling in different market-places ... His friends [i.e. other tramps] called him the Westminster Demosthenes.30
Yet some encounter with classical material does feature in a noticeable proportion of working-class life writing, often in an episode similar to Tillett’s frustration when attempting a Docklands self-education, where the subject comes to a realisation about either their limited opportunities or their desire for self-improvement.
Although well-educated individuals had written accounts of their lives much earlier,31 both the working-class prose memoir and the actual term autobiography seem first to have appeared in the 1790s.32 In 1796, an article discussing Edward Gibbon’s Miscellaneous Works approves of the emergence of individuals’ secular accounts of their lives rather than the religious or spiritual spoken confession; the ‘modern practice of self-examination, autobiography, and written instead of auricular confession, may be considered as an improvement in the republic of letters’.33 Yet, by 1809, a disgruntled Isaac Disraeli prophesies
an epidemical rage for auto-biography to break out, more wide in its influence and more pernicious in its tendency than the strange madness of the Abderites, so accurately described by Lucian ... Symptoms of this dreadful malady (although somewhat less violent) have appeared amongst us before. London, like Abdera, will be peopled solely by “men of genius”.34
The classical reference is deliberately arcane, pointing to chapter 1 of Lucian’s Hou> to Write History (Quomodo Historia Conscribenda Sit), in which the entire population of Abdera imagined they were nonpareil actors after witnessing the international star tragedian Archelaus perform in their city.3’
By the 1820s, when modes for the literary expression of a self-consciousness about working-class identity was beginning to be developed in journalism produced by and for the working class,36 memoirs of the non-famous had become a recognised genre.37 They were also already criticised for offering mediocre non-entities the opportunity for self-publicity.31* The phenomenon of the working-class memoir was noted, with disapproval, by James Lockhart, who in 1827
derides what he calls the new ‘belief that England expects every driveller to do his Memorabilia’:
Our weakest mob-orators think it a hard case if they cannot spout to posterity. Cabin-boys and drummers are busy with their commentaries de bello Gallico; the John Gilpins of “the nineteenth century” are the historians of their own anabaseis, and thanks to “the march of the intellect”, we are already rich in the autobiography of pickpockets.39
He snidely shows off his classical training by citing examples of ancient lifewriting by Julius Caesar and Xenophon (the authors of On the Gallic War and the Anabasis, respectively), while juxtaposing them with cabin-boys, drummers and John Gilpin, the demotic hero of a comic ballad by William Cowper which he published under the pseudonym ‘John Gilpin, Citizen of London’.4" Lockhart blames these new working-class memoirs on ‘the march of intellect’, the slogan describing the rapid advances in workers’ education and technological progress associated with the campaigns of Henry Brougham, especially the foundation of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (on which see below, pp. 244-5) and the educational initiatives of Robert Owen at his mill in New Lanark.
In the 1820s, the slogan had produced a wave of satirical cartoons depicting proletarians engaged, ludicrously, in intellectual pursuits.41 In a comic attack on plebeian education by W.T. Moncrieff, a mother bewildered by the newfangled omnibus asks her son Billy to speak to the guard, since she is scarcely literate, but Billy has learned ‘Latin, French and Greek’.42 Moncrieff shows off his awful puns while complaining that even domestic servants now know their Classics:
So much does intellect increase
In manner systematic,—
Our kitchens smell of classic Greece,
Our garrets are all attic1.43
The growing agitation for reform is explicitly blamed on the ‘March of Intellect’ and the working class’s demand that its voices be heard is lamented.
But not all middle-class readers agreed. In June of 1822, the Scots Magazine published an essay ‘On Auto-Biography’, announcing that ‘if the humblest individual were to relate his own life, the narrative could not fail to be interesting’.44 The requisites of this sub-genre of memoir were an impression of sincerity and an accumulation of minute and plausible detail.4’ Middle-class readers may have found this allowed them to satisfy their curiosity about their supposed social inferiors while simultaneously defusing the threat they posed. Working-class autobiographies are sometimes thought to ‘tame’ the authors, packaging them in a way designed to appeal to a voyeuristic bourgeois audience. On the other hand, it is easy to be patronising about the urge of people in traditionally silenced groups to narrate their own subjective experiences. The simple act of conscious recollection and narration can be political in itself, as analysts of more recent autobiographical texts have argued. Julia Swindells writes that autobiography has the potential to be the text of the oppressed and the culturally displaced, forging a right to speak both for and beyond the individual;46 Linda Anderson sees the potential of autobiography as ‘a way of testifying to oppression and empowering the subject through their cultural inscription and recognition’.47
The craze for working people’s memoirs did not spring from a vacuum. Scholars have identified several popular 18th-century publishing genres which prepared the stage for the entrance of the proletarian ‘authors of their own anaba-seis’. An important contributing genre was the 18th-century novel, often artfully presented as a disguised true story, featuring an ‘ordinary’ protagonist—Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Richardson’s Clarissa Harlotve. By their moral strength and endurance, despite their flaws, such figures exemplified a non-elite version of the Christian hero.48 Equally significant were bestselling translations of French and Spanish picaresque novels with roguish antiheroes such as LeSage’s Gil Blas and Cervantes’ Don Quixote, both of which enjoyed multiple reprints in the mid-18th century.49 In Tom Jones (1749), Fielding produced a hero resembling both the Continental picaresque antihero and the British non-elite Christian lead who triumphs over serial adversity.
Fictive biographies of individuals who had sensational lives abroad or amidst criminal underclasses, much influenced by the picaresque idiom, were prevalent in the mid-18th century; Robert Goadby’s An Apology for the Life of Mr Bampfylde-Moore Carew Commonly called the King of the Beggars (1768) includes what Carew, on his title page, calls a comparison, inspired by Plutarch, of the parallel lives of his subject and Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones. A crucial plot device is Carew’s knowledge of Greek and Latin, acquired at Tiverton School, to which his father, a respectable parson, had sent him. After he has been admitted to a gypsy community at the age of fifteen, this knowledge several times saves him from arrest, because it leads people to assume that he is a gentleman.’0 (Figure 5.2.) There is even one such picaresque autobiography, which must contain much fictional elaboration, by Thomas Pellow (1740). He was sent to Latin school in western Cornwall, where Latin had been associated with rebellion during the Reformation and a sense of its importance had survived in local communities. But his emphasis on his youthful struggles with Latin helps to explain how he survived after his uncle’s ship, on which he was travelling at the age of 11, was taken by Barbary pirates and its entire crew sold into slavery. Pellow used his linguistic ability to learn Arabic, which enabled him to enter domestic service in an Ottoman palace rather than hard labour, live as a Muslim and work as a translator in the multilingual society of Morocco, where Latin-based languages (Spanish, French, Portuguese and Italian) were spoken alongside Dutch, English and several African tongues.51
By the late 18th century, accounts of celebrities’ and dignitaries’ lives had also become widespread, demonstrated by the huge collection of British biographies amassed by Sir William Musgrave and bestowed on the British Museum.’2
FIGURE 5.2 King of the Beggars’, Bampfylde Moore Carew (1693—1759), from Caulfield (1819) v.3, reproduced by courtesy ofThe British Library.
Meanwhile, William Godwin was experimenting with romantic semi-fictional historical biography.’3 In an early example of déclassé memoir, Robert Scott, a middleclass man from Falkland in Fife, published a verse autobiography in 1801 explaining why he had abandoned ambitions to become a lawyer in favour of carpentry. He had been taught at his local school by a Catholic master, John Coldstream,
... to rehearse
In English prose and Latin verse;
Yea sometimes he would well define
How I should scan a Latin line.54
Scott claims that it was a fear of the pressgangs marauding the streets of Edinburgh during the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) that had plunged him down the rungs of the class ladder and made him flee that city.
The likelihood of working-class people writing about their own lives increased proportionately with the amount of access they enjoyed to workers’ libraries and other institutional support. The first workers’ libraries were in Scotland in the
1750s at Leadhills and Wanlockhead (see below pp. 467-8); such institutions were raised to a fine art in South Wales in the later 19th century. Their catalogues show that ancient authors who wrote about their own lives, especially Xenophon, Caesar and Augustine, usually in translation, were often included, along with the Stoics whose writing might be classed as spiritual autobiography—Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. In addition to these, Bunyan’s works were universally available, as was Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1788); the publication in 1796 of Gibbon’s own autobiographical fragments, edited by Lord Sheffield, was an important publishing event which inspired many to follow Gibbon’s example.55 His was the first ‘extended autobiography of a celebrated Englishman, intimate but not bearing on religious experience’, and ‘printed and widely disseminated within a few years of his death’.56 An intention seems to have been ‘to vindicate his decision to devote almost all his adult intellectual energies to a single written work’,’7 a motive with which single-minded autodidacts and political activists could identify. By 1826, one publisher embarked on an ambitious multi-volume series of autobiographies penned by French and British literary and social celebrities of the 18th century.’8 As the 19th century developed, a few working-class memoirs, such as Hugh Miller’s (see below), achieved canonical status and were frequently reprinted. They were found in workers’ libraries and often referred to by other working-class life-writers.