Mrs N. Jones, in her handwritten autobiographical letters to Burnett, offers an authentic account of her arduous life, detailing the economic difficulties endured by her growing working-class family throughout the early twentieth century. The “few lines” (6) provided by Mrs Jones reveals her diligence and tenacity, as she recollects the physical exhaustion and exploitation she suffered during her employment as a domestic servant as a young girl. In documenting these tender memories, Mrs Jones affords testimony for the “hardship and the crucial lived experience of working women” (Rogers and Cuming, 2019, p.5), as her writing is in many ways representative of the shared sufferings of women of working-class status. The autobiography of Mrs N. Jones is an exemplary illustration of pragmatism and resilience, written in disjointed, fragmented memories and recollections of the past.
Born in Marston, Cheshire in 1900, Mrs N. Jones was the daughter of a salt rock miner during a period of severe unemployment and financial volatility. Her father’s work plays an incremental role in Mrs Jones’ life and identity, evidenced as she begins to “pen her paternal ancestry” (Rogers and Cuming, 2019, p.2) in the commencement of her letters through the repetition of the declarative, “my father was a salt miner…” (1 and 12). Her father’s occupation marks the beginning of her autobiographical writing and, in turn, symbolises the foundation of her own identity, as his traditional working-class occupation becomes the dictator of her own social class. Her mother, a former teacher, dedicated her time to caring for Mrs Jones and her four other siblings. Understandably, this was “a full-time job” (6) for her mother, as the five children were born with only “two or three years between” (6), thus required continuous nurturing and attention.
Housing, clothing and feeding a family of seven was a great difficulty for the parents and, during times of economic strain, fractures in the family began to emerge. During a particularly difficult period of unemployment, her father offered her 10/- (10 shillings) one day to “clear out” (4). This proposition was not accepted by Mrs Jones and she continued to stay with her parents as she, regrettably, did not have “somewhere else to go” (4). A considerable amount of Mrs Jones’ autobiography is made up of details of her parent’s life, a common characteristic of working-class life writing as narratives become “as much the story of a parent or a family, as of the author’s life (Rogers and Cuming, 2019, p.5). Therefore, while exploring the early 1900s through memories of childhood and teenage years, we are able to grasp the hardships encountered by working-class adults through the secondary narration of the experiences of Mrs Jones’ parents.
Marrying and having children at 21 years of age in 1921, Mrs Jones started to encounter her own parental misfortunes, as her life began to echo that of her mother’s, as she struggled to feed and clothe her daughter during her husband’s bouts of unemployment. These distressing moments of financial instability are littered throughout Mrs Jones’ life writing, as almost every memory, experience or feeling that she documents is measured in earnings or expense. For Mrs Jones, and many others in northern, working-class Britain, a reliable income, or lack of, dictated the course of her life from childhood to adulthood, yet these monetary restraints did not impede her positive attitude.
What is most compelling about the autobiography of Mrs Jones is her unembellished narration of difficulty and poverty, as she remains magnanimous in the retelling of her troubled life. Writing reflectively as a 77-year-old woman, she upholds a sense of mystique around the specifics of her identity, never unveiling her full name or the names of her family. In doing so, Mrs Jones becomes a figure of the many voices of working-class women in the twentieth century, allowing us to investigate and speculate about the culture that she lived in.
Jones, N. ‘Two Autobiographical Letters’. The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography, 1790-1945 (3 volumes). John Burnett, David Vincent, David Mayall (eds.). Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989. 2:0444. Available at: http://www.writinglives.org/uncategorized/mrs-n-jones-b-1900-biographical-entry
Rogers, Helen and Cuming, Emily. ‘Revealing Fragments: Close and Distant Reading of Working-Class Autobiography’. Family & Community History 21:3 (February 2019), 180-201.
Figure 1. Lump-men making top quality fine salt. Available at: https://edu.rsc.org/feature/the-lion-the-wich-and-the-waller/2000125.article
Figure 2. Photograph of a working class family group, 1901. Available at: https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/resources/victorian-lives/working-class-family/