Mrs N. Jones’ two autobiographical letters belong to the Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies in the Special Collections Library at Brunel University London, her writing contributes to the “several hundred first-person memoirs gathered by the historian [Burnett] while writing a series of anthologies on working-class reminiscences of work and recreation, childhood and schooling, and family life” (Rogers and Cuming, 2019, p.182), allowing us to explore the widely overlooked culture of working-class lives throughout history. Mrs Jones’ writing perfectly adheres to this criterion, as she carefully details memories of her working life as a child and adult, her education, and her family. When viewing Mrs N. Jones’s account, alongside other narratives by working-class authors alike herself, it is crucial to consider the purpose of her writing and the reliability of her narrative.
Mrs Jones’s autobiographical writing is divided into two segments, the first segment beginning, “Thanks a lot for your letter. Please excuse me if I should repeat myself” (1). This conversational introduction establishes a dialogue between the author, Mrs Jones, and the recipient of her letter, the historian John Burnett, and is suggestive of previous correspondence as she apologises for repetition. Further investigations into Mrs Jones’s writing reveals a second letter. In this instance, the letter is not addressed to Burnett. Instead, it begins without pleasantries, stating, “I was born in 1900” (12). Due to the concise and abrupt nature of this letter, I would decipher that the second letter form Mrs Jones in the Burnett Archive is her initial correspondence with Burnett. This initial letter, like that of another correspondent, Mary Laura Triggle, is possibly a response to “Radio 4’s ‘Woman’s Hour’” (Rogers and Cuming, 2019, p.182) where working-class women “heard the historian John Burnett asking for listeners to write to him about their memories of the ‘early life of the working class’.” (Rogers and Cuming, 2019, p.182). These responses to the ‘Women’s Hour’ advertisement on Radio 4 are essential in constructing a voice for working-class women, an already limited narrative as “the only obvious underrepresentation [in Burnett’s Archive of Working Class Autobiographies] is, predictably, by gender, only one-tenth of the autobiographies having been written by women” (Gagnier, 1987, 335). Further evidence that this life story was written to John Burnett in response to his plea in ‘Women’s Hour’ plea for working-class histories is shown by the way Mrs Jones ended the letter: “I hope these few lines will be of help to you” (15).
When considering the reliability of Mrs Jones’ life writing, it is important to note that, “An autobiographer (like any other “nonfiction” writer) is liable to forget, misremember, remember selectively, embellish, invent, and rearrange events in the interest of creating an engaging story” (Rose, 1992, p.52). Though entirely conceivable that Mrs Jones may have wished to embellish or misremembered her life story for the purpose of entertaining or appealing to an audience, I would argue that the factual and unflorid tone of her writing increases the credibility of her autobiography, as she continuously refers to locations, distances and monetary value throughout her narrative, allowing us to quantify and verify the information that she has provided.
One particularly intriguing aspect of Mrs Jones’ autobiography, which may bring into question Mrs Jones as an unreliable narrator, is the confidentiality of her writing. Aside from locational references, Mrs Jones’s autobiography contains no traceable names, addressing all other characters through their relationship status to herself such as ‘my father’, ‘my mother’, ‘my husband’. This notion of concealment, coupled with Mrs Jones’ avoidance of revealing her own first name, as well as the popularity of the surname ‘Jones’, may lead researchers to ponder the existence of Mrs Jones as an authentic author. After exhaustively searching for a Mrs N. Jones within ancestral data for Marston and Northwich, Cheshire, I am afraid her existence remains a mystery. Her identity cannot be isolated to just one person and therefore her letters remain a representation of the voice of working-class women.
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
Gagnier, Regenia. ‘Social Atoms: Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender’. Victorian Studies 30:3 (Spring 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.
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. An exert from the introduction of Mrs Jones’ letter to Burnett.
Figure 2. Families listening to the household radio. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/topic/radio/The-Golden-Age-around-the-world