Stephen Forsdick (b. 1835): Home & Family

I will say now, that the repentance never came and neither of us ever regretted our hasty marriage on the plains.

Stephen Forsdick grew up on a large estate in Cassiobury in Watford that was inhabited by the Earl of Essex and his employees, one of them being John Forsdick, his father. The estate was a huge part of Stephen’s childhood until he left for America: ‘My entire life until I was seventeen years old, was spent on this estate, so that my earliest recollection are of the woods and dells of old England.’(p, 2) Although Stephen does not go into much detail about his family’s house or areas concerning domesticity within the home, he focuses more on his relationship with the female members of his family and this theme remains prominent throughout his memoirs and into adulthood as his relationship with his daughter develops and becomes one of the strongest, after losing both his beloved wives.

Stephen Forsdick, c. 1920s

In terms of the importance of the home itself, Stephen returns to his childhood home when he returns to England and explains, ‘I was once more at home, in my father’s house… My parents were living in the same place and their daily life was exactly the same as when I left.’ (p, 55) As Stephen reminisces on the past, it seems important to him that his parent’s life was exactly the same, which he might have appreciated after being away for over twelve years.

When Stephen eventually settles down on a Nebraskan farm with his first wife in 1870, his surroundings become entirely different to his childhood: ‘I moved across the river into Nebraska territory and rented a farm. I planted a crop of corn and had fine prospects…’(p, 59). Stephen experienced a lot of difficulty in this area, between weather damaging crops and widespread fires that caused economic catastrophe for his family and his neighbours: ‘Any one who has never seen a prairie fire can not imagine what it is like.’(p, 61) However, despite the circumstances, Stephen continued to provide the best for his family, while suffering his second bout of Malaria and having a new born baby.

It is clear that Stephen inherited his hard-working ethic and determination from his father, after he witnessed very closely his commitment to labour for the Earl of Essex. Julie–Marie Strange explains how working–class male autobiographers often show signs of their father’s hard working attitude when they have grown up close to them: ‘For male autobiographers especially, adult participation in paid labour could stimulate assessments of work as an emotive mechanism in relation to being fathered.’(Strange, p37) These characteristics are clearly identified throughout Stephen’s life. As David Cannadine states, ‘class takes place as much inside the head as outside.’ (Cannadine, Preface) which identifies with Stephen and his farther John’s work ethic throughout their lives in comparison to how Stephen views those of the middle–class.

Stephen speaks fondly of his close relationships with girls and women in his family throughout his entire life, his first being his older sister. In the beginning of his memoirs, he touches briefly on an incident involving gun powder in which his older brothers laughed at him, however his older sister who was living away at this time pressed their mother with urgency to nurture and look after him: ‘I had always been the favourite of my older sister and when she heard of it, she wrote to the folks and told them to have a good doctor take care of me…’(p, 2)  In his adult life he became close to his daughter who spent his remaining days with him and who urged him to document his enticing memories as explained in my previous post.

Stephen’s daughter, Georgia May Forsdick Freytag’s grave in Nebraska.

Stephen talks of these memories and relationships in a humorous way, which Strange describes as ‘One of the most imaginative forms of talking about affective alliances was seemingly through unsophisticated comedy and laughter.’ (Strange, p213) By reading his memoirs and the light comedic sense that surrounds this topic, we can see the fondness he has for the women who have nurtured him throughout his life. It is not surprising that the women in his life took on the domestic and caring role as this was typical in most 19th century working–class families, but it is enjoyable to read such appreciation and gratitude throughout.

Stephen’s first wife, Lucinda Malisa Davenport Forsdick

As much as Stephen’s memoirs possess some comedy, he also expresses briefly the tragedy he experienced in his life. Stephen took ill with Malaria twice while in America in a 10 year period, but he also tragically lost a child in this time too, along with discovering his brother had died when returning to England. As I have previously mentioned, he lost both his wives by the time he began to write his memoirs: ‘Our three oldest children were married and with the death of Charley, there were now only four children at home.’(p, 62) Stephen does not express his grief in many words, which Strange explains is quite typical for working–class autobiographies: ‘over–whelming feelings for loss were, simply, inexpressible. Short and/or fractured sentences reflect the bewilderment, sorrow and heartache of grief.’(Strange, p148) From my understanding of Stephen, after the pain he has felt in his life, I can see how he chooses to express his emotions throughout his memoirs, but I also feel as if Stephen’s intentions with his memoirs were to expose the realities of the Mormon community, class disputes in Victorian England and the harsh conditions of travelling overseas, which is perhaps why he chooses to briefly tell us about loss in his memoirs.

Often, in working–class autobiographies, the author does not spend too much time illustrating the pain they have felt, which could be down to personality, or perhaps a publishing issue, or as I have stated not the original intention for writing. Strange writes that ‘Marriages resembled economic contracts; emotional ties with young children were tentative; and concepts of love (and life) were governed by an overriding sense of fatalism.’(Strange, p143) This was a different era than the one we have grown to know, and the structure of identities were significantly different in the 19th century to ours, conveying typical Victorian attitudes, so again this is perhaps why certain details could be excluded from Stephen’s memoirs.

Overall, Stephen’s home and family life is one that shifts quite often throughout his life, but conveys typical working–class values of women nurturing their family and men being the bread winners for the family. It is particularly interesting to read about his ever-growing family and how they have gotten each other through difficult times in their life.

Bibliography: 
  • Forsdick, Stephen. ‘Untitled’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 1.242a http://bura.brunel.ac.uk/handle/2438/10884
  • Cannadine, David. Class in Britain. Harmondworth: Penguin, 1990
  • Strange, Julie-Marie. Fatherhood and the British Working Class, 1865–1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015)
  • Strange, Julie – Marie. ‘She Cried a Very Little’: Death, Grief and Mourning in Working – Class Culture, c. 1880 – 1914. Social History, Vol. 27, No. 2 (May, 2002), pp. 143 – 161
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