John Castle (1888 – 1819): Life Writing, Class & Identity

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Regenia Gagnier’s work ‘Social Atoms: Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender’[i] discusses the idea of six different narrative forms for working class writers. I believe that the memoir of John Castle fits strongly into the political narratives category, as I have discussed in my previous entry Politics, Protest & Class. John Castle co-founded the Colchester Co-operative society to introduce ideas of fair trade and mutual association into the local community. ‘He very soon saw that our motives were good intentioned and capable of raising our fellow-creatures, however low their position in life’. The second narrative category I would associate with John Castle is that of the commemorative storyteller these accounts are generally disjointed and timeless narratives of unrelated anecdotes and events. They generally have little or no structure and pay little attention to the chronology of storytelling. The story of the time he and a friend saved a man’s life exemplifies this. ‘What did we find? A dog? No. Our cat? No, an old man 60 years of age hanging by the grass, with his head above the water’ (3). The memoir fits into this category in some respects however generally there are recurring themes that mean it is more than just whimsical reflection.

Something that Gagnier does not mention is what I will call the educational narrative; this is what I have identified in earlier entries as a certain intention of John Castle. A narrative form based upon the ideas of instructing future generations through one’s own life experience. The theme of self-improvement is consistent throughout John Castle’s writing and it exemplifies his understanding of class. Castle uses his memoir as a means to portray the hardship and struggles of working class life. ‘I said, “We do not have food enough, Sir, to do this hard work”. He said to me, “do you know who I am? I am a magistrate and will send you to gaol for insolence” (7). So class becomes identity for John Castle from these beginning to later life where he finds resistance in his position at the Co-operative society from local tradesman because he represents self-improvement and mobility, something that other working class people resent. ‘The success that we had accomplished did not fail to produce enemies as well as friends; about every three months I received an anonymous letter calling me all the foul names they possibly could’ (36). This shows that this memoir is inexplicably liked with the two ideas of class and education.

When discussing the ideas of narrative form I believe it is important to understand a work it terms of its social and historical context, grasping the relevance it has to any wider change in society. Having said this though I also believe it is important to understand that any memoir writer has their own private motives for writing. John Castle wrote to tell the story of his working life and inform future generations of important moral lessons, for example the value of honesty and hard work. John Castle also wrote with a great sense of pride in his achievements and, dare I say it, perhaps he wanted to show them off?


[i] Gargnier, Regenia. ‘Social Atoms: Working – Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender.’ Victorian Studies, 30.3 (1987), 335-363

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