“This is no attempt to write an autobiography” (1)
I might agree. Alf’s memoir ‘Reminiscences’ does indeed feel more of a personal rendition of the highs of his life, rather than a gritty, tell-all. ‘Life has been rather eventful’ he writes in his introduction ‘many of these events will be read with some interest, and may, perhaps, In years to come, bring pleasure to have a family record’ (2). This correlates with Gagnier’s belief that working-class ‘autobiographers insisted upon their own histories, however difficult it was to write them, and they unanimously state that their reasons for writing are functional rather than aesthetic’ (342). ‘Reminiscences’ , in fact, is a way to appreciate the successes of his work and family life, rather than to detail every event chronologically, although the descriptions and details he goes in to may make it seem that way.‘There is no wish to make prominent the shadowy elements of the family life’ he states, ‘but simply to recall such events that will be interesting’ (2). And he has succeeded in this purpose, as although he involves the deaths of those closest to him and some of life’s unfavourable incidents, the majority of words only impress a state of contentment and ‘a time of joy’(2) on his and our minds alike.
Writing between 1929 and 1930 at the age of 74, we can assume that Alf is undergoing a pivotal time of memories and recollections of times gone by. Not only would he have noticeably changed as an individual when looking back on his life, but society and the culture around him has certainly changed; from the invention of the telephone in 1876 and and the car ten years later, to the end of the Queen Victoria’s legacy in 1901 and living through the First World War. His words are eloquent and drive amazing images of the world that he knew. Every feeling is passed on to us as if it were our own, and the senses are enthralled wherever ‘the foul atmosphere of tobacco smoke and drink’ (7) took place. Regina Gagnier believes that many working class writers had ‘to justify themselves as writers worthy of the attention of others’ (1987, 338), which can be seen through Alf’s expressive language which is not so dissimilar to what you may expect from someone of a higher class. In this way his beautiful narration gives the impression that he is ‘not entirely representative of (his) class…because (he is) unusually articulate’ (Rose, 1992, 51). Nonetheless this is highly impressive; as a boy he was barely taught the 3R’s and did not set upon a mission to educate himself in reading and writing until he reached adulthood. An auto-didactic individual certainly creates a brilliant memoir!
Out of the blue, a third person narration sneaks into his writing at times, which brings an element of storytelling into what may seem a personal account, again heightening the sense that this is a version of his life that he feels is worthy of admiration. This may also be a bid to rid his memoir of any ‘egotism’ that may appear, in the same way that another working-class autobiographer did so in order to ‘obviate the necessity of calling the great I so repeatedly to my assistance’ (1997, 35).
The narration of Alf however creates a confusing outline of his family life. His wife Eliza and his children Caleb, Alice, Alf and Annie seem to be omitted from much of the text, in which their names are only mentioned three times, and their family life at home is never discussed. It is not apparent whether this is an intentional self-censorship, or whether Alf’s purpose was to outline the aspects of his working life; predominantly his Christian and missionary work and little else. In some way, I believe that this memoir shyly aims to press the movement of temperance and abstinence on those who may read it, as well as the condemnation of the poverty that he witnessed. His journey amongst the Temperance Movement begins on page 82, where ‘up to this time we had always a barrel of beer in the house’. From here on, many occasions bring up the connection between society, poverty and alcohol that he saw with him claiming that ‘poverty is the cause of drunkenness’ (96). Through this, I can only suggest that Alf’s undeniable passion for his temperance and missionary work no doubt influenced some of the stories that he chose to incorporate in ‘Reminiscences’.
His childhood is described in vivid detail, as are his parents and the many characters he met through work and his lodgings during his rambling years. We can only assume that from his frequent travels with the Christian groups he was a part of, a family home experience was a rarity for Alf until later in life, and his wife and children were unlikely to have accompanied him from place to place.
Ireson, Alfred. ‘Reminiscences’, TS, pp.175 (c.35,000 words). Extract in J. Burnett (ed.), Destiny Obscure. Autobiographies of childhood, education andfamily from the 1820s to the 1920s (Allen Lane, London, 1982), pp.82-8. Brunel University Library.
Gagnier, Regenia. ‘Social Atoms: Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender.’ Victorian Studies, 30. 3 (1987), 335-363
Rose, Jonathan, ‘Rereading the English Common Reader: A Preface to a History of Audiences.’ Journal of the History of Ideas. 53. 1 (1992): 47-70
Vincent, David. Testaments of Radicalism. Memoirs of Working-Class Politicians. London: Europa Publications, 1977. 35
Ireson, Alfred. ‘Reminiscences’, TS, pp.175 (c.35,000 words). Extract in J. Burnett (ed.), Destiny Obscure. Autobiographies of childhood, education and family from the 1820s to the 1920s (Allen Lane, London, 1982), pp.82-8. Brunel University Library. PDF.
People’s History Museum, Manchester and the University of Central Lancashire’s (UCLan) Livesey Collections on Temperance. From the exhibition, ‘Demon Drink?’