March’s favourite blogs

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’.

Writing lives

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.



C0-editing a special issue

Words cannot quite express how excited I am that the special issue that I worked on over the past couple of years is now published ( – and that a print copy of the entire issue arrived just the other day!

Words also cannot express how very grateful I was for this opportunity. What happened in this case was that June Purvis, the editor of Women’s History Review heard about a symposium on Constance Maynard that we were putting on at Queen Mary (University of London), and, because she thought it might make a good special issue, got in touch. It was also thanks to Thomas Dixon and Nadia Valman at QMUL that I was involved in the symposium at all. And it was thanks to the patience and assistance of Sue Morgan (the deputy editor at WHR, and a speaker at our symposium) that we got through the editing process!

In many ways this was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Writing my article and responding to peer review might have been the easiest part. Harder was choosing people to invite to contribute; ensuring the article topics worked together; working out what to do when people dropped out; finding and managing peer reviewers; and being diplomatic if contributors got harsh peer reviews, or missed their deadlines and didn’t get back to us…

The most enjoyable challenge was co-writing the introduction. Having just finished the solitary experience that can be a PhD, it was great to get together with other people to plan a piece of writing. I was lucky in my co-editors and we had a truly collaborative experience. I only thought afterwards about how awful it might have been had we not all agreed on our vision for the special issue, and appreciated the different perspectives and approaches that we each brought to the project.

Here are some of the things I learnt about editing a special issue:

Reasons editing a special issue is an amazing experience:

  • You get to commission articles on things that really interest you.
  • You get to read the latest research as it is developing, before anyone else.
  • You get to work with some really great editors of journals, contributors, and peer reviewers.
  • You learn about yourself as a scholar – what sort of work you respect/enjoy/want to emulate, and what direction you want to take your subject in.
  • You develop the confidence to disagree with other editors, or peer reviewers, and to stand up for your contributors and your vision.

Things that I would do differently next time:

  • Be clearer about the word count from the start – and make people stick to it. I sincerely apologize to all my contributors for making them cut their wonderful essays at the last minute.
  • Think about alternative contributors earlier in the process – not wait for two contributors to drop out before searching for a replacement.

Other advice:

  • Three co-editors is probably the perfect number. We could split out the work evenly, each keeping up with our own pet contributors and their peer review process – we re-distributed if people dropped out or if our personal work loads had changed – but we didn’t have too many competing ideas.
  • Work with people you enjoy. Despite the stresses of putting together a special issue, we had fun, especially when we had to continue our editorial meetings via Skype when I moved away. There’s nothing quite like a cat-on-the-laptop interruption for lightening the mood.

So, all in all, I highly recommend this process to others. If you would like to access the result of our hard work, it’s available at:

(Most of the articles are only accessible from a library that subscribes to the journal, although if you scroll down you will find that Lesley Hall’s article on same-sex relationships in inter-war Britain is available to download for free.)

You can download a free copy of our introduction here (limited number of copies):

And a free copy of my article here (limited number of copies):