The Brunel Centre for Contemporary Writing (BCCW) presents a session on the relationship between fiction and autobiography inspired by the Burnett Archive of Working-Class Autobiographies held in the Special Collections of Brunel University Library. Philip Tew will discuss writing about his relationship with his working-class father in his new novel, Afterlives, and I will draw on ideas from my The Proletarian Answer to the Modernist Question (which came out in paperback this February) to talk about the relationship between working-class autobiography and proletarian autobiografiction revealed by this British Academy-funded research on the Burnett Archive. This event will feature students from Brunel’s MA Creative Writing and MA Creative Writing: The Novel courses, who will open the evening with readings from new works inspired by the Burnett Archive. There will be complimentary refreshments and free admission. Register for entry here.
I have discussed working-class autobiography and proletarian autobiografiction in the last two posts on this blog. As I explain in the latter of those posts, one individual writer that I am particularly interested in is the Durham miner Harold Heslop. While his novels are principally set in the Durham coalfields, the contrast with London (where Heslop lived from 1924-5 while attending the Central Labour College and then from 1928 onwards when no longer able to find work in the mines) forms a direct or indirect element of The Gate of a Strange Field (1929), The Journey Beyond (1930) and Last Cage Down (1935) and his autobiographical typescript in the Burnett Archive, a shortened version of which was published as Out of the Old Earth (1994). On one level, this contrast is framed in terms of neighbourhood and community:
In the parochial wilderness of the North men and women had small minds. In London it was different. There nobody knew anybody else, and so morals did not count. Morals were changing. To blazes with morals. (The Gate of a Strange Field, 180)
In practice, however, Heslop’s texts display a complex mix of fascination, horror, desire and shame towards a female sexuality that is located within the capital in contrast to the ‘respectable’ values of the coalfields. Reading his novels, it is possible to see how taking an autobiografictional approach to his experiences allowed him to discuss (and analyse) parts of his own life in a way that would have been difficult to include in an autobiography at the time. However, the autobiography he did finally write in the early 1970s helps us see how those complex autobiografictional negotiations of intertwined class and gender politics reconciled regional and metropolitan values and pointed the way towards the transformed culture of postwar Britain, with its social and sexual (or emotional) revolutions. Not only did writing those novels allow Heslop to produce a fuller autobiography of himself but they also helped him to adapt to, and shape his own role in, the rapid social change of the 1930s and beyond.
Philip Tew’s debut novel Afterlives, which was published in February 2019, is the autobiografictional account of university lecturer, Jim Dent, who nearing retirement, is inspired by the death of a friend known in the 1970s, writer Sue Townsend, to review various premature deaths over the past fifty years of others once close to him, and recollect their lives. They include a school-friend, his working-class father, and other talented chums all denied their creative potential. Among scenes featured are his work with Sue on a local arts magazine on her stories of Nigel (later, Adrian) Mole, and a trip with an oddball scholar of the Beats to interview poet, Basil Bunting. Afterlives is not an old man’s lament, rather a poignant and yet comic narrative of eccentric, talented people whose lives are celebrated. However, it raises implicit questions concerning the contemporary advantages of autobiografiction over autobiography in an age when there are no apparent limits to confessional self-revelation. I am hoping to press my esteemed colleague on why he didn’t write a traditional memoir and what this choice tells us about how we understand, variously, ourselves, others and the complicated and fractured nature of the zeitgeist we all inhabit.
As Alison Light points out, the contemporary (post-1970) popularity of biography and autobiography can be interpreted as either the ideological product of ‘an increasingly aggressive individualism in Europe and the West where politics, history and social life are now seen through the optic of the personal’ or ‘an attempt at compensation, a way of creating ad hoc communities in the absence of sustaining ones, of making those temporary affiliations and identifications which are one of the marks of “postmodern” living’ (753). Postmodernism is a problematic and (now) somewhat derided term but it regains meaning in Light’s highlighting of the political dimension to literary choices and the need ‘to remain sceptical but not traumatised as the moderns were by this new sense of the contingency and indeterminacy of our identities’ (767). I would argue that the proletarian autobiografiction of the 1930s and, more generally, the democratisation of self-reflexive narrative through initiatives such as Mass-Observation led the way in this respect towards a world in which we all view ourselves as the heroes (or, sometimes, anti-heroes) of our own stories. However, the reality of 2019 is that many of those stories have turned out to be apocalyptic dystopias. Psychoanalysts sometimes say that their job is to help out individuals whose stories have gone wrong, but who helps us when our collective stories go wrong? Not everyone pins their faith in politicians today and maybe it would be better if even more followed suit given the apparent propensity of the twenty-first century to produce false prophets and charlatans. Once upon a time, in the postwar golden years, literature and the criticism of it played a key role in maintaining a stable positive sense of our selves but do we even fully trust writers let alone critics today? One answer would be for all of us to study the working-class autobiographies and proletarian autobiografiction of the 1930s to see how a generation wrote a future in the middle of the chaos and confusion of one of the darkest periods of history. I think we would find lessons to learn and examples to follow even as the world around us is turned on its head. Who knows what the future holds? After all, as Light concludes, ‘The lives we write and read in the twenty-first century make new subjects of us all’ (767).
Light, Alison. ‘Writing Lives’, in Laura Marcus and Peter Nicholls, eds, The Cambridge History of Twentieth-Century English, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004, 751-67.