A. Gordon James (b.1885): Home & Family

Photograph of a Victorian working class cottage and family.

As was mentioned in our introductory post, Alfred had a great resentment towards the brutality of Victorian familial traditions, writing of the ‘domestic despotism’ that his own mother was subject to (3). He describes his maternal grandfather as a tyrant, who ‘lived his own life in his own way, demanded exact obedience from his wife and children and took his meals in solitary grandeur…’ (3). Given that these two statements follow each other, it could be that Alfred thought of his grandfather as the worst kind of Victorian man in relation to the way he treated his family. As Megan Doolittle states, this kind of behaviour of parents in the Victorian period was always spun in the guise of protection: ‘…obedience to adults in general and parents in particular was constantly evoked as a requirement of the protected child’ (Megan Doolittle, 2007, p 32). This shines light on Alfred’s account of his grandfather, in that his brutality may have been motivated by a Victorian concept of strictness as a necessity for protection.

19th century illustration of a ‘music hall.’

Alfred implies that it was considered embarrassing for a woman to remain unmarried in late 19th Century working-class culture. He says that ‘anything was better than spinsterhood’ in light of his mother’s marriage to his father and that ‘old maids’ were made fun of as ‘musical hall jokes’ (4). He indirectly implies a rift between the attitudes of his grandfather and his parents: ‘Both my father and my uncle were men of integrity…and family opposition gradually abated’ (4). He goes on further to write that both his uncle’s and father’s marriages ‘proved to be most successful’ (4).

Alfred suggests that this success was a result of his mother getting to choose who she wanted to marry, rather than the older Victorian practise of finding suitors or as Alfred calls it, ‘the marriage market’ (4). He believes in the importance of valuing the independence of others and believes that this is important to a successful marriage as he goes on to talk about his own later in the manuscript: ‘A possessive spirit is bad enough in a parent; it is far worse in a husband or wife’ (41).

Postcard with a photograph of Munster Park Church, where James and Nance got married.

Alfred presents some of his views on marriage based on his own experiences of marriage with Annie ‘Nance’ James and his experiences as a minister. Alfred writes that for the entire duration of their seven-year engagement, ‘…apart from holidays, we were separated’ (39). After being wed at ‘Munster Park Church’ in 1913, they moved to Chertsey, where ‘for a considerable time, my mother and sister shared our home’ (40). Alfred does not go into detail on the day-to-day relationships between his family during this time, only to say that ‘Nance was a wonderful housekeeper and kept our domestic finances on even keel’ (40). While Nance was a housekeeper, she did go back to work as a schoolteacher during the outbreak of the First World War and Alfred considered her his greatest ‘critic and comforter’ (40). Alfred may have been progressive in terms of his views for a successful marriage, writing that ‘temperamental affinity’, that is, a matching of personalities is ‘illusory’ to him and that ‘confidence’ takes place above all else. (40). Unlike the Victorian ‘despotism’ he describes earlier, he put his family in the hands of trust and respect instead.

Photograph of Rebecca Allum, Alfred’s mother.

Alfred also writes with great fondness for his mother, Rebecca Allum, who raised him after his father died at the age of nine. It was his mother who had allowed Alfred to go into the ministry, despite her need for care due to ‘rheumatoid arthritis’ and the family’s nearing poverty (22). He was too ashamed, at first, to broach the subject with her because in Alfred’s mind, ‘all worldly prudence, not to mention my duty to my mother and sister, pointed to the advisability of remaining a bank clerk…and prospects of advancement were good’ (14). It is clear that Alfred felt as though he had an obligation to provide for his family, and that his joining the Methodist ministry would make them poorer than they already were. As we have previously discussed, Rebecca was religious herself and when Alfred asked her if he could join the ministry, she saw it ‘as a clear indication of His will…’ (14). Alfred admired his mother for her strength, as she remained ‘undefeated by suffering’ (14). For James, religion and family are in harmony with each other.

Works Cited:

James, A. G. ‘A Soul Remembering: An Intimate Autobiography’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection.

Secondary Source:

Doolittle, M. (2007) Fatherhood, Religious Belief and the Protection of Children in Nineteenth-Century English Families. In: Broughton, T. and Rogers, H. (eds.) Gender and Fatherhood in the Nineteenth Century. Basingstoke: Palgrave pp.31-43.

Images Used:

Victorian working class cottage found at: https://community.dur.ac.uk/4schools.resources/victoriandurham/homeimages.html

Illustration of music hall found at: https://www.vam.ac.uk/articles/music-hall-and-variety-theatre#slideshow=15664669&slide=0

Munster Park Church postcard found at: https://www.xangisan.com/index.php?main_page=product_info&products_id=562906

Photo of Rebecca Allum found at: https://www.ancestry.co.uk/family-tree/person/tree/76724497/person/44348949326/facts

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