Harry West dedicates the beginning of his autobiography to describing his childhood in Stanton Drew, Somerset. Although his neighbourhood was “industrial, smoky, dusty and slummy”(8), West tells us that his parents were “certainly happy there, and so were we, the children.”(8) This may have been due in no small part to the fact that the family had been given their Mill House rent free, and with all its conveniences laid on. With financial strain lifted, the family were free to worry less and enjoy life more, and West seems to have appreciated the time he was able to spend learning and playing with his father.
“Naturally kind and compassionate”(6), and with a “mischievous strain”(6), West’s father gave a lot of his time to his children. West recalls how “nearly all of his evenings were given either to helping us with our lessons, or amusing us in several ways.”(8) The children’s lives were enriched by their father’s love of literature, and he presented his children with the books and pamphlets which would help instil Harry West with a lifelong love of learning.
Although West goes into detail about his childhood, his family life as an adult receives very little attention. In fact, he only makes one reference to his immediate family, when he tells us that during the war ‘My wife and daughter Esme removed to a furnished house at Sydenham.’(36) If West had any other children then there is no reference to them in his work.
In his review of Ying Lee’s Masculinity and the English Working Class: Studies in Victorian Autobiography and Fiction, Richard Higgins notes Lee’s suggestion that “what is central [in working class autobiography] often exists in the margins” and therefore requires “a different way of reading and thinking”. For instance, although West speaks very little of his family he does tell us of the ways he helps around their home, by doing “the necessary repairs”(40) to furniture and weaving “scarves, travelling rugs and pile carpet rugs.”(40) His efforts around the home suggest that although home life is only peripheral in his autobiography, it did occupy his time and attention.
West’s references to his family may be sparse, however he does talk about the close friends that helped shape his life. He speaks especially fondly of colleague Peroy Mayer, nicknaming him “Mary” – “there was nothing feminine about him, but it seemed apt.” ‘Mary’ helps West by recommending various pieces of literature which West believes “taught me to think.”(32) After Mary dies of a tropical disease in Africa West has this to say:
“My impulsive friend “Mary” has done more for me than he had ever guessed. I wish I could tell him of the consequences which ensued from his advice, but he is dead. Perhaps, however, he knows.”(32)
Ultimately the main topic of West’s autobiography is his intellectual advancement, so it is understandable that he affords most time to the friends who help stimulate his mind. He may not talk at length about his home life, however his affection for his childhood suggest that family still held a great importance to him.
Higgins, Richard. ‘Masculinity and the English Working Class: Studies in Victorian Autobiography and Fiction, by Ying S. Lee, New Men in Trollope’s Novels: Rewriting the Victorian Male, by Margaret Markwick’. Victorian Studies. 51:4 (2009) pp 723-726
West, Harry Alfred, ‘Autobiography of Alfred West. Facts and Comments’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 1:745