This month I came across Writing Lives for the first time. Many people may already have discovered this, but it’s a fantastic resource for anyone interested in life writing, or working class histories. The site includes blog posts that introduce the autobiographies held in the Burnett Archive of Working-class Autobiographies, held at Brunel University, and is being developed alongside the project to digitize these and other memoirs into an online archive of working-class writing.
The site is also interesting in terms of pedagogy. The blogs introducing the autobiographies are written by third-year undergraduates. Each autobiography is written about with regard to a number of specific themes – for example, ‘Home and Family’, ‘Life and Labour’, ‘War and Memory’, or ‘Education and Schooling’.
That there aren’t more readily-available (read non-manuscript) sources written by working-class individuals seems to be a perennial problem when writing history. I recently encountered this issue when trying to write about women and their subjective experience of education and religion in the nineteenth century. A couple of scholars, such as June Purvis in her A History of Women’s Education in England, and Meg Gomersall, in Working Class Girls in Nineteenth Century England: Life Work and Schooling, provided tantalizing glimpses of the working-class life writing they had accessed in order to write their histories, but as I wasn’t able to access these, I couldn’t ask any further questions of the material or draw any relevant conclusions for my project.
Jean Fernandez’s study, Victorian Servants: Class and the Politics of Literacy further problematized the form for me, pointing out that the autobiography could only be written after literacy had been achieved, and thus no longer authentically reflected the subjectivity of an illiterate working class life. In her particular example, Janet Bathgate, who wrote Aunt Janet’s Legacy to her Nieces: Recollections of Humble Life in Yarrow (1872 and 1894), Fernandez argues that Janet’s narrative became self-consciously about her acquisition of literacy, written in a form that mimicked middle-class autobiographies. However, I think we can fetishize authenticity, and also – in a rather patronising way – the idea of a particularly illiterate, working-class subjectivity. There can be a tendency to want to find the Otherness of an independent, inviolable working class and a corresponding dismissal of working-class subjects who cultivated ‘respectable’ or aspirant subjectivities as being victims of ’embourgeoisement’.
So for me, Writing Lives is a great resource and I’m already combing through to see how many of the women autobiographers wrote about their schooling, and if they linked it with religion. Maybe in the future I’ll be able to follow up by accessing these memoirs myself.