‘I want to know whether the events and circumstances of the life of an ordinary individual have any significant meaning. Do they add up? Are they a haphazard conjunction of this and that, or pieces of a jig-saw which are meant to be fitted together to form a complete picture?’ (1)
The ninety-six-page, type-written manuscript of Alfred Gordon James’ autobiography was written sometime after his wife Nance ‘Nancy’ James’ death in 1956. Alfred writes particularly (although not wholly) about his life as a minister for the Methodist Church. The manuscript is articulately written and shows that his religious education encompassed more than ministerial training and that seminaries and similar institutions were used for the poor to get an education. I recognised this given his opinions on the autobiography in the opening line; ‘I have often thought that of all forms of verbal expression, autobiography is the least to be commended’ (1).
Alfred was born in Fulham, 1885, to a ‘largely self-educated’ father who owned a tailor shop and a mother whose family had moved to Australia (4). As his father had died when he was nine, Alfred couldn’t remember much of him, detailing only the things he found out about him much later into his life. Whilst I expected to find most of the autobiography to be concerned with Alfred’s religious development, I found that his religious grounding was firmly rooted in his socio-political beliefs. He describes his father as a ‘deeply religious man’ and on the same page, states that ‘if he were living today, he would probably be a left-wing socialist’ (5). Alfred went to a grammar school and won a scholarship to study at the Wandsworth Technical Institute.
Alfred’s life is characterised mainly by travelling and moving into new parishes all around Britain, starting his ministerial work in Chertsey then Harrow, West London, Edinburgh, Lytham St Annes, North Lancashire and then settling back in London for his retirement.
What interested me about Alfred’s work was that his role as a Methodist minister put him in a position where he could meet people from every social status. His social work and contributions to the communities in which he preached were just as prevalent in his manuscript as the recalling of his spiritual life and the vocational aspects he heavily delves into. His cultural insight as a result of this appears frequently, as when he characterises his mother’s father as a prime example of ‘Victorian despotism’, displaying a breach of enmity in connection between the Victorian generations and the ones who grew up after them, shrugging off the often-suspicious family values that created familial conflict in his neighbourhood as ‘spinsterhood’ (4). This cultural insight shows how people who were educated and working class during this period thought of the various cultural strata they partook in.
The manuscript is a draft of a book that Alfred would have wanted to get published, this is because of the frequent annotations and corrections he has made to this particular copy. He had also published a book before named ‘Jesus and the Other World’ which he felt was a failure due to the war breaking most of the country’s literary circulation. It is interesting to note what kind of information Alfred wanted to remove for the final draft as much as the information that he chooses to leave in. For instance, in a flashback scene describing the kind of men he studied with while at Richmond Theological College in 1907, he admits that ‘one fell in love with one of the college maids, at that time almost a crime’, which had been later crossed out with a pen (26).
Religion is, of course, the central theme of the manuscript. He writes of the place of the Methodist church as an amicable force in religious politics, bringing religious figures like Father Vincent McNabb together with Protestant ministers to engage in theological debate without vitriol.
While the aforementioned quote as to the purpose of his writing the autobiography is to determine whether an ‘ordinary individual’ such as he, could have any significance in his life, the ‘conclusion’ chapter appears to denote an underlying emotional and spiritual motivation. He reflects in the final sentences that it brought ‘comfort’ to think of his friends and the time he spent with his wife and attributes the work to a conjuring of her ‘unseen presence’ which gave him peace after her passing away (95).
James, A. G. ‘A Soul Remembering, by A. Gordon James. An Intimate Autobiography’, TS, with MS amendments, pp.93 (c.23,000 words). Brunel University Library.
Photo of Methodist congregation opening a Primitive Methodist chapel, 1914. Found at: http://mickleovermethodist.org.uk/about-us/history/
Illustration of Richmond Theological College. Found at: https://manchestervictorianarchitects.org.uk/buildings/wesleyan-theological-college-richmond