I have made a brief and rough sketch of my childhood and life to show some of the hardships and trials that I went through in my early days and also to give some idea of the condition of things generally 80 years back” (Shinn, p.1).
The question ‘why do working class authors write their autobiographies’ initially sprung to mind when choosing my author, John Shinn. However, it became clear within the first page Shinn’s aim and intentions. Shinn suggests in the opening page of his autobiography that his purpose was just simply to give an insight into the ‘hardships’ of the 19th century. It is highly likely that John was hoping to teach others about the general working conditions and the struggle to live so that readers like us in the 21st century can get a feel for Shinn’s childhood.
The readers may think that my statements are overdramatic” (Shinn, p.1).
He acknowledges his readers when writing; he has a preconceived idea of what people reading may think of working class life in the 19th century. He believes that we may feel as though the conditions he discusses are ‘overdramatic’ because they were so brutal. Written in 1923, aged 86, it is amazing how John is able to recall these fine details and significant years of his life. His ability to remember the working class conditions at this age, highlights the impact it must have had on him, a life-lasting one.
Regenia Gagnier suggests that many working-class autobiographies were written ‘to warn others; to teach others…to understand themselves’ (Gagnier, p.342). In relation to John, it seems his purpose was to ultimately teach us. Gagnier further states that autobiographies were ‘functional rather than ‘aesthetic’ (Gagnier, p.342). This is applicable to Shinn’s writing as his specific dates mentioned throughout his memoir are presented in a functional manner.
John’s style therefore suggests that his memoir was also written for his own pleasure and to reflect on his life and achievements. This is highlighted through his basic, informative writing with various subheadings featured throughout. Just one example of this is when he ‘first touched a piano’ (1847), a significant moment for John. Shinn’s ‘index’ page at the end of his autobiography allowed him to organise his life into years. This strongly supports the idea that his writing was to generally inform readers. The index allows us to shortcut to specific moments as though this was a novel.
In terms of aesthetics, Shinn definitely did not seem to take into account the reader when writing. As you can see from the image above, reading Shinn’s handwriting appeared a challenge for me due to his sketchy handwriting style.This rough and scribbled writing rejects the aesthetically pleasing category that Gagnier mentions.
While Shinn constantly emphasises the importance of education, he uses his own knowledge and journey to educate us. The struggle for education is not easily discerned in his writing as he has the ability to write and spell. His achievement in winning a place at the University of Cambridge demonstrates to readers how hard work and perseverance pays off. This teaches us to strive for what may seem the impossible. Perhaps John was also writing to challenge the negative and stigmatised stereotype of the working class. Boundaries are broken by Shinn.
Although his intentions are stated as simply providing some background into his ‘hardships and trials’ (Shinn, p.1), I believe Shinn wrote to encourage others that success is possible regardless of your social background. In one aspect, he writes this memoir as a journey of self-discovery and it gives him the space to reflect on how far he has come and sum up his life with his ‘concluding remarks’ chapter. Perhaps he hoped his autobiography would inspire readers to reach for their goals.
Gagnier, Regenia. ‘Social Atoms: Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender.’ Victorian Studies, 30. 3 (1987), 335-363.
Shinn, John. ‘A Sketch of my Life and Times’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 1:622.
622 SHINN, John, ‘A Sketch of My Life and Times’, MS, pp.46 (c.7,500 words). Brunel University Library. Extract in J. Burnett (ed.), Destiny Obscure. Autobiographies of childhood. Education and family from the 1820s to the 1920s (Allen Lane, London, 1982), p.187-92