‘The story of a life so quiet as mine would be of little importance except to personal friends, unless it is so written as to illustrate the social changes which I have witnessed, and in which I have to some extent been compelled to play my part in. In the narrative which follows it will be my constant aim to write with that end in view.’
The beginning of Thomas Raymont’s memoir may at first seem a little odd. The opening words of any form of literature often serve to grab the reader’s attention, ensuring they continue on to the end. However Thomas’ opening words serve as a warning that his story is of ‘little importance’ to anyone except his close friends. Thomas’ story is that of a working-class boy who drags himself up through hard work and a focus on his goals to become a successful teacher and published author on the subject of education. There are many published novels on underdog stories or rags to riches which are far less interesting than Thomas’ autobiographical account!
So why would Thomas be so modest about a written record of his achievements in life? Regenia Gagnier gives us an insight into this telling us that ‘Most working-class autobiographies begin not with a family lineage or a birthdate but rather with an apology for their authors’ ordinariness’ (Gagnier, 1987, pp.338) Even though Thomas has been elevated in terms of his social status there is still a working-class modesty about the memoir, and at times it can even be self-deprecating. Thomas does come across as proud of his achievements noting that his book ‘The Principles of Education’ was described as a ‘standard text book’ and that it was only supposed to be a staple in schools for twenty years but actually lasted for forty-three. (pp.15) However following this Thomas goes on to list a number of his unsuccessful works and it almost seems as though Thomas is conscious of telling the reader of his achievements coming across as boastful and often likes to drag this back with a humorous anecdote, a time that he didn’t succeed as he’d have liked, or simply moving the subject on entirely.
From our viewpoint here in the 21st century, it can be odd to view these working-class memoirs, as the idea of an autobiography today seems to mean revealing all of the most personal and intricate details of your life in order to interest the reader. From the working-class autobiographies I have read, and particularly in Thomas’ case, the focus is not on the personal aspects of the writer’s life and when it is spoken about it is kept to a minimum. Nan Hackett tells us that ‘even in this very personal, subjective, and supposedly egocentric genre, the “I” is minimized and even depersonalized.’ (pp.210) We could consider that these writers being from working-class backgrounds don’t feel their stories are particularly of much interest to anyone else. Gagnier can offer us some insight on this suggesting that for the working-class authors ‘it was difficult enough for them to contemplate themselves, but they had also to justify themselves as writers worthy of the attention of others.’ (pp.338) This might seem unnecessary for Thomas to worry about, given that he is already a published author in his own right, but throughout his memoir we see this working-class modesty and can perhaps attribute it to his early experiences in life.
Raymont, Thomas. ‘Memories of an Octogenarian 1864-1949’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 1:571, available at: http://www.brunel.ac.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0003/139278/BurnettArchive.pdf
Gagnier, R. (1987) ‘Social Atoms: Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender.’ Victorian Studies. V.30 (3),
Hackett, Nan. ‘A Different Form of “Self”: Narrative Style in British Nineteenth-Century Working-class Autobiography’. 12.3 (1989): 208-226, 210
‘Thomas Raymont by Harold Speed (1872-1957)’, in
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