E.Robinson (b.1894): Life Writing, Class & Identity

By looking at Regenia Gagnier’s ideas on the different types of working class autobiographies, E.Robinson’s work can be categorised. Robinson’s life writing is most suited to being a self-examination narrative, with Gagnier describing this as being fitting for “men and women who were not permitted bourgeois lives” [1]. Through his memoirs, Robinson highlights his working life and scarcely mentions any form of social behaviour, amplifying his working class attitude and views.

Although Robinson is introduced to a more middle class style of living further through his adult life, he mainly discusses the years where he was still in a working class background. Gagnier believes the self-examination form of narrative suggests the writer has lived a life of “unmitigated misery and hardship” (Gagnier, 357), which can be seen in relation to Robinson. He was forced into work at the age of 14 after a very deprived childhood and worked his way through the ranks within the post office, not to mention a period of service in the Army, so Robinson’s life depicts one of much hardship, as it is seen he was constantly working for 46 years.

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However, it is an over-exaggeration to say Robinson life was full of “unmitigated misery”. There is no denying that there were life events which took their toll on him emotionally, such as the death of his first wife and eldest daughter, but Robinson never dwells of the sadness these brought him. Although he had a deprived childhood, Robinson never speaks of it being miserable as he still states his enjoyment of playing games in the street with other children. His life in his later years becomes much more enjoyable however, when he moves out of the city and undertakes a more middle class lifestyle, yet this is no particularly focused on within his memoirs.

Robinson’s work could also be categorised into the political narrative form, which Gagnier outlines as being those with a more industrial working background and strong political views (Gagnier 351). In my post regarding ‘Politics, Protest and Class’, I stated how Robinson was a firm supporter of the Labour Party, and that he was brought to the party’s attention by his father’s political views. Gagnier believes this form of narrative would be usually seen in the works of Northern writers, yet Robinson is very much from the south of England.

It can be seen through Robinson’s  writing that he is very critical of the Conservative Party, whose beliefs are more associated with the bourgeois population, which can be seen in agreement to Gagnier’s idea of this form of narrative being “politically radical” (Gagnier, 351).

Robinson is well aware of the class system throughout his memoir, with his earliest indication of his parent’s situation when he was almost at his teenage years. He writes “I suppose I was about 12 years of age when I became aware of the social stigma of my parents poverty” (pg. 9) in reference to his mother’s cooking of a Sunday roast. He knew that if his father made no money from his work during the week, then the family would not be having a roast dinner. He states that a piece of roast beef of mutton was the easiest way to establish the families in poverty to the others, evident when his family were forced into sharing a house with other families as they were so poor.

The encounters Robinson faced with poverty within his childhood have shaped his character for the rest of the memoirs. Even when he is earning a good steady wage at the Post Office, he still maintains a very strong working class attitude and does not take anything for granted, which someone who is from a more affluent background may have done. So it can be said that Robinson’s early screening to the working class has strongly influenced his identity.

The majority of Robinson’s life story is reflective of his own life, rather than writing on behalf of the working class, after all the title of his memoir is ‘I Remember’. Although many of the working class were in a similar situation to Robinson’s father, struggling for work due to the mass unemployment at the turn of the 20th Century, and also Robinson himself for having to start work at an early age. However there is no inclination that he is attempting to portray the generic working class background seen in the early 20th Century; he just wants to tell his own life story.

Robinson’s autobiography takes a very formal and informative tone, which is reflective onto the jobs he undertook at the Post Office and in the Army. His attention to detail is impeccable when describing the tasks he had to do whilst working. However, the opening to the memoir gives a sense of nostalgia, as he is very reminiscent of his days spent playing as a child. His description seems much more relaxed when discussing his youth, in comparison to his uptight formal reflection of his working life. Robinson’s writing regarding his years of employment highlights his working class heritage, as is not taking his job prospects for granted or being lackadaisical, as he knows what it was like to live in conditions of poverty.

 

Gagnier, Regenia. ‘ Social Atoms: Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender.’ Victorian Studies, 30.3 (1987), 335-363

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