Under Physical Siege: Early Victorian Autobiographies of Working-Class Women

By Boos, Florence | Philological Quarterly, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

Under Physical Siege: Early Victorian Autobiographies of Working-Class Women


Boos, Florence, Philological Quarterly


After poetry, autobiography was the principal mode of nineteenth-century working-class literary expression, and there is a deeper sense in which it may have been crucial to the preservation of a working-class sense of identity. As David Vincent has observed in his pioneering work Bread, Knowledge, and Freedom, "The working class had few history books other than these autobiographies, no historians other than those who remembered and the few who wrote." (1) But Vincent also commented on a "major silence": there were many more autobiographies of Victorian working-class men, and it is not difficult to guess why.

How many poor Victorian women in a male-dominated social order could hope to interest a publisher? In Vincents view, the principal causes of this dearth were subordination of working-class women in the family, their de facto exclusion from working-class organizations, and a closely related "absence among women of the self-confidence required to undertake the unusual act of writing an autobiography." (2)

I will argue in this essay that more systematic barriers underlay this "absence ... of self-confidence." In The Rise of Mass Literacy: Reading and Writing in Modern Europe, Vincent followed rates of "literacy"--defined as recorded on census forms or manifested in the ability to sign a marriage register--and found that about forty percent of women and sixty percent of men were "literate" at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and by midcentury the rates had risen only modestly to sixty-five percent of men and slightly more than half of women. (3) According to the Newcastle Commission Report of 1862, moreover, six-sevenths of the population could not be expected to pay for their childrens education in private schools. (4) Most "education" available to working-class girls took place in "voluntary" or "adventure" schools, and consisted of little more than training in sewing, catechism, and orderly behavior. Finally, among women who were able to read and write, few would have had access to the leisure, knowledge, and physical means necessary to gather their thoughts, much less the ink and paper and lighting to record them. And the strait gate of publication for the few women who made it through these baffles lay through male editors and publishers who had every reason to favor and respect working-class men who had already achieved a measure of public recognition.

As I prepared Working-Class Women Poets of Victorian Britain: An Anthology, it became clear that publication of poems in newspapers or periodicals offered the best path through those strait gates, with the help of a few editors eager to promote working-class literature, (5) but publication of memoirs was harder to come by for women whose proudest achievements were unheralded struggles for personal and family survival. Their narratives were usually less "heroic," less "exemplary," and more focused, in Valerie Sanders's words, on "the unpredictable sequence of events which mirrored the randomness of their own real lives." (6)

In what follows I will consider two memoirs of working-class women who made it through these barriers in the period prior to the Voting Rights Act of 1867 and the Education Acts of 1870, examine the injustices that drove these women to write (or in the case of Mary Prince, dictate) their accounts, and the contingencies and circumstances which helped them achieve publication. (7)

Vincent concluded his study of workingmen's autobiographies with a moving analysis of the value they held for those who wrote them: "The final, and perhaps most convincing reason why the autobiographers believed that some progress had been made by the labouring poor during their lifetime was the simple fact that they had been able to write an autobiography.... The autobiographies were sustained by and in turn transmit a deep sense of pride in the way of life they describe." (8) On the evidence offered in An Anthology of Working-Class Women Poets, most working-class women poets felt such a sense of fulfillment, but the few working-class women autobiographers who published their memoirs before 1860 felt something more akin to catharsis and grim satisfaction. …

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