‘Life vs Fiction’, Brunel University Library, 5.30pm, 20 March 2019

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).

Further Reading:

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.

Proletarian Autobiografiction of the 1930s

The literature of the 1930s has a quite specific reception history bound up with the period’s status as ‘the hungry decade’, marked by the ideological clash between Fascism and Communism which led to the all-out brutality of the Second World War. The culture and society that arose after 1945 in Britain were markedly different to how they had been before. On the one hand, collective ideals and realist forms of representation were dominant over the individualist and modernist/experimental values of the interwar period. On the other hand, the fictions of political commitment which were so central to the 1930s were anathema to 1950s literary opinion. When the celebration of the ‘Auden generation’ – those young upper/middle-class men, such as Auden, Orwell and Spender, who had ‘gone over’ to the side of the working class – began in the 1970s, there was very little immediate interest in working-class writers themselves. Notoriously, Samuel Hynes simply declared in The Auden Generation (1972) that ‘virtually no writing of literary importance came out of the working class during the decade’ (qtd Hubble 2017: 23). It wasn’t until the end of the 1980s that wider-ranging accounts of the literature of the 1930s began to appear, with Andy Croft’s Red Letter Days: British Fiction in the 1930s (1990) a milestone text in the recovery of the work of both working-class writers in particular and the wider communist and socialist literary circles of the time in general. Over recent years, my The Proletarian Answer to the Modernist Question (2017), henceforth PAMQ, is just one of a number of texts that situates both working-class writing (reconfigured by me as part of a broader category of ‘proletarian literature’) and an expanded ‘long 1930s’ as central (rather than exceptions to) the main lineages of British literatures across the twentieth century.

In To Exercise Our Talents: The Democratization of Writing in Britain (2006), the cultural historian, Christopher Hilliard, argues that it was the support of established publishers and left-wing intellectuals that made the 1930s not only especially important to the long-standing tradition of British working-class writing but also for the democratisation of culture in Britain. While the more traditional approach to this democratisation has been to see it as a process of dissemination in which reforms to the education system and technological developments in printing (e.g. penguin paperbacks) and broadcasting brought the work of cultivated intellectuals, such as Virginia Woolf, to the masses, Hilliard argues that a democratic cultural life can’t be defined by a widely shared corpus of texts and ideas; in this sense there is not one common ‘Culture’ but common cultures of production:

My focus, in contrast, is on people who were at once members of the less ‘cultivated’ populace and intellectuals or producers of cultural goods. I locate the democratization of culture in their acts of production, rather than in the nature of what they produced. (5)

 It is the fact that worker-writers, amateur writers and wartime popular writing are widespread phenomena, which Hilliard traces out in detail in his book, which indicates the real democratisation of Britain and its constituent nations. However, my point is not to privilege working-class writers over their upper-class counterparts, or to oppose the literary canon with an alternative democratic and working-class canon. Rather, the need is to undermine such binary oppositions altogether and construct a new system of cultural and literary value predicated not on restricted access to the cultural means of production but on those democratically-shared common cultures of production. Valuable products of such a new system would still include canonical writers such as Woolf and James Joyce but they would be valued alongside writers such as Harold Heslop, whose novels are principally set in the Durham coalfields. I mention Heslop because I am intending to study his work (amongst others) in some detail over the course of this project (with further blogposts, conference papers, book chapters and articles forthcoming). This is because (i) a copy of the typescript of his autobiography (a shortened version of which was published in 1994 as Out of the Old Earth) is included in the Burnett Archive of Working-Class Autobiographies (another copy is included in the Harold Heslop Papers held at Durham University Archives); (ii) he was one of the key working-class novelists of the interwar years and Britain’s representative at the Second Plenum of the International Union of Revolutionary Writers in 1930 in the Soviet Union; (iii) his work is compared favourably with Joyce’s Ulysses in Alick West’s Crisis and Criticism (1937); (iv) his novels such as The Gate of a Strange Field (1929), Journey Beyond (1930) and Last Cage Down (1935) are clearly ‘autobiografictions’.

‘Autobiografiction’ is an Edwardian term that has been recently revived by Max Saunders. It describes a category of writing which is more than just autobiographical fiction in that it allows writers to transform themselves performatively and not only represent, but also discover, a different understanding of selfhood:

Autobiografiction can include material that writers may prefer not to own in their own person; but rather than suggesting that their fiction gives them away, either consciously or unconsciously, they are claiming that the fictional permits a fuller autobiography. This is partly a matter of its being able to include the shameful as well as the honourable, and thus assemble a more complete, more human, picture. (Saunders 2010: 205)

Saunders’s discussion of Woolf’s Orlando (1928) – and its complex interplay between ‘mock biography’ of Vita Sackville-West, autobiographical expression of Woolf through her biography of another, and the different ‘selves’ readers read into the text – indicates some of the ways in which autobiografiction represents not the unity of the self but its multiplicity and intersubjective nature (i.e. the way in which any person’s subjectivity is dependent on the relationship with other subjectivities). Orlando (or, for that matter, the equally autobiografictional Ulysses) can be read as attempts to answer what I call the ‘modernist question’, as posed by West in Crisis and Criticism: “When I do not know any longer who are the “we” to whom I belong, I do not know any longer who ‘I’ am either” (19). West’s point was that for modernist writers to fully answer this question they would have to take into account the class relations of industrial capitalism; to which we might also add gender and colonial relations. I argue in PAMQ that Naomi Mitchison was one writer who succeeded in doing this. The autobiografiction of We Have Been Warned (1935) allows her to express herself in a way that was not otherwise possible at that time for a woman (albeit at the cost of her literary reputation) and to produce a complex identification with socialism, feminism and Scotland (in opposition to an England which turns fascist) which points forward to a radically-transformed future rather than back to the liberal norms of bourgeois society. Writing the novel enabled Mitchison to free herself from the constraints of her (upper-class) background and move beyond a progressive politics of the dissemination of social and cultural goods towards an understanding of the sheer scale of change a democratisation of the means of cultural production would entail.

Similarly, a working-class writer such as Heslop was able to free himself from the constraints of his background through his autobiografiction and thus understand the extent to which social relations would change outside the sphere of working-class respectability generated by the industrial capitalist process. In Bread, Freedom & Knowledge (discussed in my previous post), David Vincent noted that nineteenth-century working-class autobiographers do not discuss their private and family life. As Nicola Wilson points out in Home in British Working-Class Fiction (2015), ‘This was partly to do with the inherited tradition of autobiography as a public and moral genre’ (33). Certain things are just not assumed to be of public interest. Even though autobiography and biography changed in the opening decades of the twentieth-century to include more private life, there was still the problem that it is difficult to disclose information about yourself without giving it away about others also. By fictionalising his experience, Heslop was able to generate a space in which to reveal the personal and sexual aspects of working-class life that had been hidden in working-class autobiography (I will discuss this in relation to his novel The Gate of a Strange Field in a subsequent post). Part of the impetus for this fictionalisation was the change in the public status of women (which was itself a reflection of a longer process of change in women’s rights, educational and employment opportunities) following their acquisition of the right to vote in 1918 and the subsequent equalisation of the franchise in 1928. Men’s proletarian literature of the 1930s – by writers such as Heslop, Walter Brierley, Walter Greenwood, Lewis Grassic Gibbon and James Barke amongst others – is a prime example of the use of autobiographical narrative to understand and adapt to social change. Although this change took many forms and was happening on many fronts, I would argue that the emancipation of women was probably the most significant element of it; a social shift so profound that it required the replacement of working-class autobiography with proletarian autobiografiction as the primary means of representing working-class experience in the 1930s.

I am using the term ‘proletarian autobiografiction’ rather than ‘working-class autobiografiction’ because, as argued in PAMQ, I see the designation ‘proletarian’ as circumventing the problems attendant in defining who is working class: ‘Proletarian literature was able to represent this classlessness precisely because it did not focus directly on the authentic experience of the worker but on the intersubjective connections between the worker and people of other classes’ (7). What characterises this proletarian literature of the 1930s – which is often autobiografiction – is an imagining of intersubjective social relations prefiguring a post-capitalist future. Such a literature is not restricted to male-authored accounts of male industrial workers but may include the work of writers such as Mitchison and even Woolf (see, for example, her ‘Introductory Letter’ to Life as We Have Known It (1931) and the discussion in PAMQ, 165-74). In The Communist Horizon (2012), Jodi Dean suggests that the term ‘proletariat’ is not useful if tied to an empirical social class (e.g. industrial workers) but ‘proletarianization’ is still a valid term of description for the ‘process of exploitation, dispossession, and immiseration’ (18) that is characteristic of capitalist accumulation. She argues that a twenty-first century equivalent of the historical communist party would need to be conceptualised continually as a complex, adaptive system whose ‘end is proletarian revolution, that is, the destruction of the capitalist system of exploitation and expropriation, of proletarianization, and the creation of a mode of production and distribution where the free development of each is compatible with the free development of all’ (20). This closing idea of the necessary interdependence of the ‘I’ and the ‘We’ (which comes directly from Marx) is central to the future-orientated imagined intersubjective social-relations that characterise proletarian autobiografiction. If, following the arguments of Vincent in Bread, Knowledge & Freedom, we see nineteenth-century working-class autobiography as generating a working-class consciousness, then we can think of proletarian writers as not just the victims of ‘proletarianization’ but also as the vanguard of a new kind of intersubjective subjectivity compatible with a transformed future society. Such proletarian subjects (potentially of any gender or class or ethnicity) are constructed as much by writing (and reading) as by class struggle. Therefore, proletarian autobiografiction may be seen as a means of understanding and adapting to social change, which at the same time generates new cultural forms and social values (analysis of examples to follow in future posts).

Further Reading:

Croft, Andy. Red Letter Days: British Fiction in the 1930s, London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1990.

Dean, Jodi. The Communist Horizon, London: Verso, 2018 [2012].

Hilliard, Christopher. To Exercise Our Talents: The Democratisation of Writing in Britain, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006.

Hubble, Nick. The Proletarian Answer to the Modernist Question, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017.

Saunders, Max. Self-Impression: Life-Writing, Autobiografiction, & the Forms of Modern Literature, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

West, Alick. Crisis and Criticism, London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1937.

Wilson, Nicola. Home in British Working-Class Fiction, Farnham: Ashgate, 2015.

Working-Class Autobiography

According to Wikipedia, the first use of the word ‘autobiography’ was in 1797, but David Vincent, drawing on Cassandra Falke’s Literature by the Working Class: English Autobiographies, 1820-1848 (2013), gives the first use as ‘by a writer from a humble background’, Ann Yearsley ‘the “Bristol Milkwoman and Poetess”’ who ‘attached an “Autobiographical Memoir” to the fourth edition of poems published in 1786’ (Vincent 2016: 165). Given that, as Vincent records, working-class autobiography was an established genre by the end of the first quarter of the nineteenth century, the question arises as to what extent autobiography is a working-class genre that became widely adopted throughout society? Or, whether it is a middle- or upper-class genre that the working class adapted for their own purposes? What is important here, rather than establishing precedence, is a question about the politics of working-class autobiographies: do these texts represent the assimilation of the ‘respectable’ working class to middle-class values or the vanguard of an independent working-class consciousness?

I will be looking at more recent research on working-class autobiography, such as Falke’s book, during the course of this project but I wanted to start with work connected with the Burnett Archive of Working-Class Autobiographies and the three-volume critical annotated bibliography, The Autobiography of the Working Class (1984, 1987, 1989), compiled by John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall. I find it interesting, for example, that in the preface to his 1974 anthology of working-class autobiographies, Useful Toil, Burnett mentions John Goldthorpe’s Affluent Worker studies to make the connection that for both contemporary car workers and nineteenth-century workers, job satisfaction was not a priority and work was a means to an end. Viewed purely historically, we might therefore interpret the attitudes of 1960s car workers as a product of a British working-class consciousness formed in the Victorian period (which would be in keeping with some of the dominant strands of British historiography during the 1960s and 1970s) but, from today’s perspective (when all of these assumptions seem less certain), we might wonder how much Goldthorpe’s influential studies were shaping the way that newly-rediscovered nineteenth-century material was received.

In Destiny Obscure, the 1982 sequel to Useful Toil, Burnett tells us that ‘the happiest memories of child life generally came from large working-class families, which by modern standards, had no luxuries and few comforts, but which stood somewhat above the level of the very poor’ (16). This was, he makes clear, the ‘respectable’ working class who respected education, hard work and self-improvement ‘but not usually at the expense of a close, affectionate family life’. On the one hand, this all sounds a bit too close to George Orwell’s vision of the working-class interior in The Road to Wigan Pier, in which dad reads the racing results while mum knits and the kids play with the dog. On the other hand, this equation of Victorian working-class autobiography with respectability quite possibly does reflect the common conception of the genre in the twentieth century (at least, up to the 1970s) and indicates one of the reasons why the politically-motivated (socialist or communist) working-class writers of the 1930s turned to fictionalising their experiences in order to avoid respectability and its implied acquiescence to bourgeois values (this is a topic I will be returning to in subsequent posts).

More generally, Burnett seems from the prefaces to these two volumes (this is, therefore, a provisional assessment) to be presenting what I would think of as a small c conservative view of working-class autobiography. In Useful Toil, he tells us that ‘their intellectual and cultural horizons are strictly limited’ (18) but suggests that the working classes maintained ‘an inner, secret life which perpetuated traditional values and patterns of behaviour, essentially of rural origin into the new urban industrial society’ (18). It was this ‘secret life’ which allowed the working classes to resist the Victorian cult of work as the centre of human existence. I rather like this latter thought (as I sit typing into my laptop on a Saturday) which recalls both Walter Benjamin’s notion of the ‘tradition of the oppressed’ and suggests something of the way that Lewis Grassic Gibbon injects rural values into the industrial proletariat in Grey Granite (1934), the final volume of A Scots Quair. I’m less enamoured of Burnett’s argument that ‘the chief defect of the use of diaries and autobiographies as a source must be the self-selectivity of the “sample”’ (Useful Toil, 11). Yes, to the extent that one person’s experience of the weaving industry is not sufficient evidence to make generalised claims about that industry; but no, when, as so often happens, the catch-all accusation of non-representativeness is used to dismiss the utility of an entire category of research (for example, the pointlessness of much of the discussion of representativeness that dogs Mass Observation research makes it tedious beyond belief). Burnett goes on to argue that the activity of keeping a diary or writing an autobiography automatically sets that person apart from their fellows, that there is more writing from skilled workers, and that this writing is not necessarily trustful because the material is selected and sometimes ‘improved’ to show the individual in a better light for future family readers. Refreshingly, these potential flaws are addressed directly in David Vincent’s Bread, Freedom & Knowledge (1981), a revised and extended version of his 1975 PhD thesis, ‘The Growth of Working-Class Consciousness in the First Half of the Nineteenth Century: A study of the autobiographies of working men’.

Discussing the reliability of autobiography in the introduction to his book, Vincent states:

In the end, however, the truth of an autobiography is not dependent on a certain relationship, however it is controlled, between the autobiographer’s statements and the reality of the outside world, but rather on the quality of the relationship which he establishes between the various aspects of his personality as he seeks to reconstruct its development. It is not a matter of honesty or deceit, but rather of a capacity to grasp imaginatively the complexity of the life-long interaction between the self and the outside world. (6)

 It’s this capacity for autobiography (in its various forms) to lay bare the relationship between self and the world (which in practice is the world as constructed by the social structures surrounding the self) that is central to my project, ‘Understanding Social Change through Autobiographical Narrative’. Vincent goes on to quote Wilhelm Dilthey to the effect that autobiography is only the literary expression of a process of reflection that is frequently made by everyone, before concluding: ‘The mere fact, therefore, that the action of recollection was translated into a written form and then, in the majority of cases [of the working-class autobiographies Vincent analyses], published, does not in itself isolate the contents of an autobiography from the experiences of those who have remained silent’ (7). Far from being unrepresentative, nineteenth-century working-class autobiographies give us an insight into all the unrecorded memories of the masses who lived through the same rapidly-changing social conditions. In terms of adapting to radical social change, Vincent is surely right when he points out that ‘an autobiography, however doubtful its conclusions, represents a victory over the uncertainties of life’ (68). However, as he also insists, the autobiographies should be treated as literary works rather than ‘primary’ sources to be mined for historical snippets; not least because treating them as literary works draws attention to the relationship between autobiographical self-analysis – that process of reflection open to all – and the formation of class consciousness. This key question also touches on ‘the precise relationship between the pursuit of knowledge and the pursuit of bread and freedom’ (132).

Vincent’s account of the various ways his autobiographers acquired books and intelligent conversation of their contents is particularly compelling. What he reveals, is that the autobiographers came from all parts of the working class and not just the skilled artisans who would go on to form the ‘labour aristocracy’ in the second half of the nineteenth century. Nor did they follow the prescriptions of those middle-class societies set up to spread ‘useful knowledge’ and they certainly didn’t apply this knowledge to the work they did for others (although many did use their learning to eke out an income from book dealing, teaching or writing). Rather than orienting themselves to middle-class patterns of behaviour, the autobiographers responded to the break-up of pre-industrial popular culture ‘by the rapid development of every form of communication’ even as they tried to harness those forces of change: ‘It was in this sense that they may be seen as representative of their class as a whole. As they explored the consequences of the decline of the oral condition and pushed forward the process of secularisation, they were engaging with developments which eventually would permeate every aspect of their culture’ (195). Vincent’s autobiographers were not just a working-class intelligentsia (predating Marx) but the vanguard of a working-class consciousness that embraced the rapid change of the industrial revolution for all its horrors because it realised it was the means of alleviating precarity and establishing the new material conditions which would support an independent working class.

My favourite line in Vincent’s book is when, discussing how his autobiographers’ reading patterns were completely at odds with the paternalistic attempts of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge to restrict and channel them in the interests of moral improvement and reason, he notes, ‘Once they had discovered its existence, they approached the higher class of literature with the indiscriminate enthusiasm of a child let loose in a sweet shop’ (156). This reminds me of myself in my late teens and early twenties before I eventually started my degree in Philosophy and Literature. My parents had left school at 15 and 16 but were both readers. My dad’s favourite books were The Riddle of the Sands and The Swiss Family Robinson, while the favourite authors of my mum (who several times came top of the year for English at her secondary modern school) were Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer. As a teen I read John Wyndham, J.R.R. Tolkien, Alistair MacLean, Gerald Durrell, James Herriot and George MacDonald Fraser until, seduced by Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews in the Granada television adaptation of Brideshead Revisited (1981), I branched into Evelyn Waugh. Thereafter, I plundered libraries and second-hand bookshops with ‘indiscriminate enthusiasm’ to read Lawrence, Flaubert, Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Böll and Grass, but also Mailer, Kesey, Thompson, Irving (and not many women apart from Lisa Alther). Of course, there is no parallel in conditions with Vincent’s autobiographers as I was generally happily ensconced in a centrally-heated bedroom rather than struggling to find time, space and a candle. However, where the connection does lie is in the shared sense of intoxicating freedom that reading opens up beyond otherwise restrictive mental outlooks, whether they are those of the early-nineteenth-century working class or post-war lower-middle-class suburbia. As with the autobiographers, I have also experienced friction from fellow workers for reading in the workplace – something that has disastrous consequences for Arthur Gardner in Walter Brierley’s autobiografictional novel, Sandwichman (1937). In my next post, I will consider proletarian autobiografiction of the 1930s in relation to the longer-established tradition of working-class autobiography discussed above.

Further Reading:

Burnett, John. Destiny Obscure: Autobiographies of Childhood, Education and Family from the 1820s to the 1920s, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984 [1982].

Burnett, John. Useful Toil: Autobiographies of Working People from the 1820s to the 1920s, Harmondsworth: Pelican, 1977 [1974].

Vincent, David. Bread, Knowledge & Freedom: A Study of Nineteenth-Century Working Class Autobiography, London and New York: Methuen, 1982 [1981].

Vincent, David. ‘Working-Class Autobiography in the Nineteenth Century’, in Adam Smyth (ed.), A History of English Autobiography, Oxford: Oxford UP, 2016, pp. 165-178.

Working-Class and Proletarian Writing

As I wrote in my previous post, working-class and proletarian writing are long-term interests of mine; most recently reflected by two publications. Working-Class Writing: Theory and Practice (2018), edited by Ben Clarke and myself, includes my chapter ‘Respectability, Nostalgia and Shame in Contemporary English Working-Class Fiction’ which examines gendered working-class responses ranging from shame to nostalgia for what Eric Hobsbawm called ‘the common proletarian way of life’ in novels by Pat Barker, Gordon Burn and Zadie Smith. I follow Stuart Hall’s suggestion that Thatcherism was a form of nostalgia for the bygone proletarian style of life displayed by those who were moving out of the working class and relate this to Raphael Samuel’s argument that a right-wing version of history from below contested the social changes instituted by 1960s liberalising legislation (on abortion, divorce, homosexuality, anti-racial discrimination) by privileging ‘ordinary people’. I link shame – as theorised by Helen Merrell Lynd in the 1950s and subsequently discussed by literature academics such as Pamela Fox and Rita Felski – to the notion of respectability – as discussed by Lynsey Hanley, Beverley Skeggs, and Carolyn Steedman – in order to suggest the mechanics of a transcultural movement beyond class consciousness (and the limiting concepts of ordinariness and nostalgia). I aim to expand this conceptual framework as part of my approach to analysing the relationship between self-reflexive narrative and class consciousness in the context of social change. In particular, I am interested in the relationship between narrative self-understanding and what is being called ‘National Populism’ and how this relationship has played out in the politics surrounding ‘Brexit’.

I have also recently written a book on working-class and proletarian writing, The Proletarian Answer to the Modernist Question (2017), which, in the words of a recent reviewer, redefines the category of proletarian writing ‘to refer to a particular way of figuring intersubjective relations of class and gender constituted by fantasy and desire, relations that by their nature overrun stable identities and point forward to the future transformation of social relations’. In this respect, proletarian writing has affinities with modernism but rather than limiting itself to individualist responses, incorporates those individualist responses into collective practice as proletarian modernism. The democratisation of self-reflexive literary practice by Mass Observation is a particular incidence of the proletarian-modernist project.

The above two paragraphs summarise my position coming into this project of ‘Understanding Social Change through Autobiographical Narrative’, but having gained the funding for this, I looked back to my first ever academic publication – a co-written (with William De Genaro) entry on ‘Working-Class Writings’ for the Encyclopedia of Life Writing (Ed, Margaretta Jolly, 2001) – and was surprised to see how many of my current concerns were directly anticipated. In discussing the question of what counts as working-class writing, I referred to Burnett, Vincent and Mayall’s introduction to their bibliography, Autobiography of the Working Class (of which a number of the examples of the source material are held in the Burnett Archive at Brunel University) and their claim that the autobiography of self-improvement is the most characteristic work of 19th-century life writing. In other words, class consciousness was channelled towards a conformist self-understanding in which the literate working classes anticipated sharing the status and prosperity of the British nation. However, following the collapse of such dreams with the First World War, self-consciously literary working-class writers eschewed autobiography as too complicit with 19th-century discourses of progress:

Instead, they wrote about their experiences in novels to produce a different kind of working-class life writing, which needs to be considered as such, despite its superficial ineligibility owing to its status as fiction. The obvious British example is D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers (1913), but equally relevant are works such as A Scots Quair (1932-34), the trilogy by James Leslie Mitchell (writing as Lewis Grassic Gibbon), Jack Common’s Kiddar’s Luck (1951), and Walter Greenwood’s Love on the Dole (1933). In Britain today there are novels of working-class existence by such diverse writers from working-class backgrounds as Pat Barker, James Kelman and Jeanette Winterson, to mention only the most well known. This is the nub of the debate concerning what constitutes working-class life writing: if only the spare-time writing of those with dirty hands is accepted, then working-class life can only ever be the alienating experience of labour. The fear of incorporation into the bourgeois discourses of society that lingers from the 19th-century experience cannot be used as an excuse to abandon the finer points of imagination and sensibility: these too are acts of work. (De Genaro and Hubble, p.962)

I went on to discuss how the documentary and imaginative traditions became entwined in the 1930s. Today, following Max Saunders’s work on ‘Autobiografiction’ and how it represented a break from typical Victorian modes of writing, I would characterise work by writers such as Lawrence, Gibbon and Common as ‘proletarian autobiografiction’. In subsequent posts, I will discuss working-class autobiography and proletarian autobiografiction, in order to make this distinction clearer, before proceeding to consider the Burnett Archive in general and, then, some of the particular texts within it.

Understanding Social Change through Autobiographical Narrative

How do the diaries and memoirs of ordinary British people reflect periods of intense social change? What does self-reflexive narrative reveal about how class consciousness affects the way in which they adapt to paradigmatic social change? This interdisciplinary project funded by the British Academy will investigate self-reflexive narrative, from the Mass Observation Archive (Brighton), the Burnett Archive of Working-Class Autobiographies (Brunel University), and selected published sources, in relation to social changes over the century from the end of the First World War (focusing initially on two key periods of change, 1939-43 and 1981-4, before moving on to the present).

During the course of this project, I aim to (A) trace the influence of Mass Observation’s participatory project (which democratised modernism and promoted self-reflexive life writing): (B) explore the relationship between working-class autobiography and proletarian autobiografiction; (C) investigate some of the ways in which autobiographical narratives record social change; (D) analyse the relationship between self-reflexive narrative and class consciousness in the context of social change; (E) chart the interlinked history of the attempts of British Sociology and English Studies to map social value formation through qualitative narrative analysis; (F) analyse qualitatively how narrative self-reflexivity enables individuals to cope with paradigmatic social change; and (G) synthesize a new interdisciplinary approach in order to explore the social values and structures of feeling emerging in the 21st Century.

In designing this project I was drawing from two long-standing interests; working-class and proletarian writing (which I’ll discuss in a subsequent post) and Mass-Observation (MO). In its focus on the everyday lives of ordinary people, the original MO Project (1937-49), exemplified the way in which the British documentary movement laid the groundwork for the 1945 political settlement. However, what particularly distinguished MO’s approach is the manner in which it sought to combine subjectivity with objectivity by encouraging its participants to embrace a democratised modernist self-reflexivity in observing both themselves and others. In this respect its strength lay in its capacity to investigate the relationship between private and the public within the context of the rise of mass society. The fact that MO participants were writing about themselves with the knowledge that their writing would be read by MO staff, might be published, and would certainly be made available to future researchers, gave their work a unique status somewhere between a conventional diary and a published autobiography. This mode of writing proved to be of great value both to intellectuals involved in the project, such as Naomi Mitchison, and to the ordinary women and men who participated. Since 1981, a contemporary MO project has been run from the MO archive established at the University of Sussex and now based at the Keep in Falmer. The contemporary MO project is one of the longest running longitudinal life-writing projects anywhere in the world. Three times a year (or sometimes more), MO participants receive a ‘directive’, which is a set of open questions that invite them to write freely and discursively about their views and experiences. Reading across the directive replies of individuals over the years reveals layered life stories which show attitudinal changes in relation to the contradictions of everyday life.

The timing of the original MO project and its contemporary relaunch coincide with two of the key periods of paradigmatic social change in Britain in the twentieth century. As Ross McKibbin notes in Classes and Cultures: England 1918-1951 (1998), ‘the Second World War threw British history, and even more English history, off course’ by replacing a dominant form of individualised democracy centred on a modernised middle class with a social democracy centred on the organised working class. However, an equally ‘profound change came over Britain in the early 1980s’ described by Andy Beckett in Promised You a Miracle: Why 1980-82 Made Modern Britain (2015) as a ‘revolution in the head’ which on the one hand established Thatcherism as a ‘national story’ but also broke with the traditional deference of the post-war years in more radical ways as exemplified by the Labour GLC’s creation of an enduring legacy of network-based identity politics. The MO project provides a unique window on how ordinary people perceived these two periods of paradigmatic social change and how their perceptions were changed by their experiences at the time.

Further Reading:

Casey, Emma and Nick Hubble, eds (2014). ‘Mass Observation as Method’, special section, Sociological Research Online, 19: 3 (September): http://www.socresonline.org.uk/19/3/

Hinton, James. Nine Wartime Lives: Mass-Observation and the Making of the Modern Self. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Hinton, James. The Mass Observers. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Hubble, Nick. Mass-Observation and Everyday Life. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.

Hubble, Nick. ‘Documenting Lives: Mass Observation, Women’s Diaries, and Everyday Modernity’, in Adam Smyth (ed.), A History of English Autobiography, Oxford: Oxford UP, 2016, pp. 345-358.