The working class memoir defies the stereotypical purpose often associated with autobiography. Often it defies the ego-driven contemplation of the self and rather, exposes the ordinary sameness that is working-class existence1. For the working-classes the memoir was not a indulgence, but merely a record, a note to say that they, like many others, where simply alive and living.
The question of why people are driven to write a memoir has many answers. Often these are complicated, walking the line between self-discovery and representation. Other times it can be as simple as: to respond.
‘In the February number of the National Review Lady Violet Greville narrates the result of her observations upon certain characteristics of the English man-servant… [however] she seeks to apply the remedy before she has ascertained the nature and extent of the wound.’ (2)Robinson, J. (1892) ‘A Butler’s View of Man-Service’ in The Nineteenth Century: A Monthly Review. Vol, xxxi. January-June.
In 1892, Lady Violet Greville, an upper-class woman of some renown, wrote an article in the National Review entitled ‘Men-Servants in England.’ Throughout the article, her ladyship oxymoronically ridicules the ‘slovenly and lazy… man-servant’ while decrying his ‘considerable favour’ within the Victorian household.
It could be considered speculation to say that our butler, spurred on by disgust at Lady Greville’s opinions, decided to produce his own rebuttal in the form of his memoir. It could be, if Robinson hadn’t confirmed it. Barely two sentences into the memoir, Robinson calls out ‘Lady Violet’ by name, alongside ‘Lady Aberdeen’ of, you guessed it, Aberdeen. Whereas, these women appear to be pre-occupied with the ‘ignorance and meanness’ (3) of the domestic servant, Robinson turns his attention to the ‘conditions [of the servants] and their effects’ (3), which he intends to make ‘the object of [the] paper.’ (3). You can’t get anymore straight forward than that, can you?
Robinson’s main concern appears to be ‘the repressive attitude of haughty distain’ (2) that he describes as the ‘society… of nineteenth century civilisation!’ (3). From this we can assume that his memoir is not only supposed to act as a response to the former articles discussing the subject of domestic service, but also to act as first-hand analysis of the industry and it’s shortcomings in an effort to inform and encourage the higher-classes to remedy them.
Here, it is important to note Robinson’s publication of choice. The periodical The Nineteenth Century: A Monthly Review, founded in 1877 by James Knowles, was largely regarded as an impartial publication for various leading intellectuals2. A periodical of this nature would naturally be more lenient in publishing the views of a lowly butler, intent on biting the hand that feeds him by exposing the ‘low, mean and degraded’ (2) attitude of the higher class. Just how Robinson managed to be published in such a highly-respected journal will be discussed more in-depth: here. However, for now, we must acknowledge that this ‘centrist’ periodical would come along with its own audience3.
Those picking up a copy of The Nineteenth Century: A Monthly Review every month would differ greatly from those choosing to spend their afternoons with a copy of The National Review, the periodical of choice of Lady Violet. It is for this reason that Robinson may have found his views ignored by those they were originally intended for4. Although, it certainly wouldn’t have fallen on deaf ears. Read by thousands across Britain, The Nineteenth Century: A Monthly Review would have provided a wide and varied readership for Robinson, allowing him to speak to a mass of people who would have otherwise remained ignorant to goings on ‘under-stairs’ (5).
Robinson, J. (1892). ‘A Butler’s View of Man-Service’ in The Nineteenth Century, Vol. 31. Extract in J. Burnett (ed.), Useful Toil: Autobiographies of Working People from the 1820s to the 1920s. p203-9.
1. Gagnier, R. (1987). ‘Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender.’ in Victorian Studies. Vol, 30. Iss,3 (1987): 335-363.
2. Metcalf, P. (1980). James Knowles: Victorian Editor and Architect. London: Oxford University Press. p275.
3. Brake, L. Demoor, M. (2009). Dictionary of Nineteenth Century Journalism in Great Britain and Ireland. London: Academia Press. p456.
4. Rose, J. (1992). ‘Rereading the English Common Reader: A Preface to a History of Audiences.’ in Journal of the History of Ideas. Vol, 53. Iss, 1. pp47-70.