Doris Hunt (1900): Life Writing and Class Identity

In ‘Social Atoms: Working Class Autobiography, Subjectivity and Gender’, Regenia Gagnier distinguishes working class autobiographies into six different categories. I believe that my author, Doris Hunt, does not strictly fit into any of categories outlined by Gagnier. However aspects within her writing relate to what Gagnier pronounces to be classic realist, non-progressive autobiography. Throughout Doris’s writing, class is a dominant theme although it is never addressed directly. It is evident to readers that Doris is from a working class background from aspects such as her family often moving around in pursuit of her father’s work, her mother entering the world of employment after her father’s passing and also Doris’s education competing with family economy.

Working Class Family - 1912
Working Class Family – 1912

Doris’s writing relates to what Gagnier refers to as the ‘classic realist, non-progressive (that is, unself-conscious of its epistemology and production)’ (Gagnier, 1987, 343). Gagnier states that these type of autobiographies include aspects such as ‘remembered details of childhood, a confrontation with parents, a reassessment of the subject’s education, a crisis, and a recovery or a discovery of a new self’ (Gagnier, 1987, 344). Gagnier states that the ‘convergence of most of these elements identifies the spiritual autobiography’ however, except for those with religious intent ‘most workers autobiographies do not fit the narrative pattern of the spiritual autobiography for fairly obvious reasons’ (Gagnier, 1987, 344).

These elements relate to many of the themes within Doris’s writing. The majority of her autobiography focuses on the ‘remembered details of childhood’ such as family memories, education and hardships (Gaginer, 1987, 344). However, her childhood is cut short as she enters employment at the age of just twelve and her education is compromised as a result.

‘Reassessment of the subject’s education’ occurs when Doris was unable to progress into elementary school after her father’s passing. Her mother was not able to afford the cost and also could not guarantee that Doris could attend full time school until the age of fourteen. This is a strong example of a child’s education competing with the family economy as Doris worked half time at the mills and attended half days at school at the age of just twelve before progressing onto full time work at the age of thirteen.

The crises experienced by Doris within her childhood would evidently be the deaths of both her youngest sister and father. As a result of her father’s death there was a vast change to the family dynamic as she and her mother had to provide for the household. The death of Doris’s father impacted her future aspirations as she claimed that ‘had my father lived I was going to be a teacher’ (p10).  This added greatly to her shame as her ambitions and aspirations exceeded the reality of working as a mill girl. The recovery from this crisis happened ‘Later in life [when] I acquired more sense and I hope a truer sense of values, for a kinder, cheerier, more helpful and comradely set of people just could not exist anywhere than those real ‘Lancashire Lassies’ of 60 years ago’ (p10). It seems that maturity enabled Doris to see past her prior perception of the mills.  The aspect of ‘recovery or a discovery of a new self’ could link to the prospect of Doris attending night school after a full day’s work and furthering her education in adulthood in order to better herself (Gagnier, 1987, 344).  Consequently this enabled her to occupy better jobs, more suited to her aspirations.

Doris’s childhood was cut short due to a domino effect of events after her father’s death. Her mother entered the world of employment in a bid to be the breadwinner of the family. This then left responsibilities such as caring for her younger sisters to Doris. Her responsibilities grew further when at the age of 12 she occupied a part time job as a mill girl and attended half time school half time work. This then turned into a full time position at the age of 13 resulting in her having to leave school altogether. This supports Gagnier statement that ‘the period of childhood is problematic’ ‘since the subjects formal education competed with the family economy’ (Gagnier, 1987, 344).

The idea of childhood for some working class children was ‘problematic’ as due to the commitments such as contributing to the family’s income, their childhood was often cut short by responsibility. This is reinforced by Doris several times in her autobiography when discussing work and leaving school as she states ‘at 12 years of age my childhood really did finish’ (p9). Gagnier claims that for these children ‘Both formal education and its reassessment often continue throughout the book’, this is illustrated by Doris who attends night school after her full time work hours and even continues to pursue adult education. She even joined an English student association at her leisure. She had a great love for education and reading throughout life and it could be argued to suggest that this is a consequence of a full time education being taken away from her.

The first paragraph of Doris’s autobiography enters into an account of her earliest memories. This seems like a common practise within classic-realist, non-progressive working class autobiographies. As Gagnier states, ‘the remembered details often truncated to the more common ‘first memory’ (Gagnier, 1987, 344). The ‘first memory is often traumatic; its seminal positioning within the first paragraph of the text operates and resonates differently from the evolutionary narrative of childhood familiar to readers of spiritual autobiography’ (Gagnier, 1987, 344). This links directly with Doris’s autobiography. The first memory she recalls happens to be coming across a bear without the presence of a trainer in the empty street. It is evident that this was a traumatic experience as Doris tells us she ‘ran back home in fear’ as the size of the bear alone  ‘was enough to frighten a three year old child’ (p1).

Woman at a writing desk -1900
Woman at a writing desk -1900

Within ‘Social Atoms: Working Class Autobiography, Subjectivity and Gender’, Regenia Gagnier is discussing autobiographies from the 19th century. One explanation why Doris Hunt’s writing doesn’t fit into any one of the categories described by Gagnier is simply that her autobiography originates from the 20th century and therefore differs from the conventions of 19th century writing.


References 

428 HUNT, Doris, Untitled, TS, pp.14 (c.5,000 words). Brunel University Library.

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

Image

Working Class Family – 1912: http://www.moma.org/collection/works/193787?locale=en

Woman at writing desk- 1900 : http://historyinphotos.blogspot.co.uk/2013/09/rudolf-duhrkoop.html

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