William Belcher’s memoir describes his life from childhood to adulthood, through his own chronological accounts, and is able to present a vast picture of his life to the reader. The purpose and motives behind his writing is unclear, but what is clear is that Belcher has a need to describe his life events. Regenia Garnier’s study ‘Working-class Autobiography, Subjectivity and Gender’ explores the purpose behind working-class autobiographies. She suggests that many working class people wrote autobiographies to ‘understand themselves’ (Garnier, 342) and I believe this is a clear motive behind William Belcher’s memoir, whether he was conscious of this or not.
Belcher systematically goes through his life and so the memoirs are ones of self-reflection and self understanding, treading through his memories and remembering himself. Belcher’s style seems to adhere to the notion that working class autobiography does ‘not exhibit flair and “personality”‘ (Garnier, 335). Although his memoirs are written in a very systematic and somewhat impersonal tone, he occasionally steps out of this tone and makes reflective comments.
‘I do my work, have my moments of fear, happiness, depression but through all a sense of freedom’ (72)
Confidence is a characteristic that is needed when writing autobiography. It is this confidence, ‘what Jerome Buckley calls the significant selfhood’ (Garnier, 335), that becomes clear in Belcher’s memoirs. The ‘significant selfhood’ that Belcher displays comes from his self assured tone, stating:
‘I start the new year a young fellow of 25 years with the fullest vigour, a good education, inclined to the spiritual things’
He is proud of his educational background and proud of the self that he has become. I believe Belcher uses the memoirs not just to understand his own life, but to celebrate what he had achieved. Having served in the Navy for more than five years and obtained a significant educational background, he had accomplished great things. However, Belcher was most confident and proud of his spiritual integrity. He proudly states how ‘1916 ends on a note of triumph for myself in spiritual things, leading a life of hard work, enjoying the confidence’ (71). He is able to present his achievements as a triumph, and the spirituality of his faith is what drives this.
Garnier states that ‘working class autobiographies, often by people whom little is known but the one work, have been declared lacking in.. self-revelation’ (336). Towards the end of the memoir, in his self-reflection of his time spent in the navy, Belcher comes to this ‘self revelation’ as he states it ‘comes to me a deep conviction that war is wrong’ (72). It is only after he has recounted and reflected on his life, that he can make these comments, giving us a rare glimpse into William Belcher’s own moral being.
Belcher’s memoirs offer an account of a life lived to its fullest potential. Although, I believe, he had written them to understand and make sense of his life, they act as a working-class triumph and inspiration for others in both his work ethics and spiritual integrity.
Belcher, William Untitled Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography. University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 1.53
Gagnier, R (1987) Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender Victorian Studies, Vol. 30, No. 3 (Spring, 1987), pp. 335-363
Rose, Jonathan ‘Rereading the English Common Reader: A Preface to a History of Audiences’ Journal of the History of Ideas (University of Pennsylvania Press:Jan, 1992) pp. 47-70