‘I never was and never should be a scholar and when I think of the books and myself I seem to have played the butterfly rather than the bee and yet somehow or other I have gathered and stored some of the sweets of satisfaction’ (114).
At the age of seven Jack was introduced to Turner’s Free School where he inherited his elder brothers ‘two nicknames of “knowledge box” and “frying-pan brain” ‘(31). Jack, with typical modesty, remembers this being in regard to his having a large head. However, the two nicknames do give the impression of Jack as being a bright young boy who enjoyed learning.
The governor of Jack’s school, Nathaniel Powell (descendent of Robert Baden-Powell) [i] used to organise an annual outing for the pupils to his home at Buckhurst Hill in Essex, where on one memorable occasion, Jack was asked to recite The Ant and the Cricket for Powell and his dinner-guests. ‘The rationales for verse recitation were many… to foster a lifelong love of literature… to boost self-confidence through a mastery of elocution…[and] to help purge the idioms and accents of lower-class speech’ [ii].Jack was rewarded with a shilling, which left him ‘thrilled beyond words’ (34). This event provided the impetus for Jack to enter into recital competitions; earning for him not just money, but his first lesson as to the value of cultural capital:
This event bears a slight resemblance to a school outing enjoyed by his mother when she was a girl when she and her classmates were invited to tea at Miss Mary Russell Mitford’s home. Jack obviously included this because of the reference that ‘my mother actually took tea with one who knew Jane Austen personally’ (6). As an adult, Jack would have realised the cultural worth of a Jane Austen related story, just as much as his younger self realised the worth of learning would take him ‘beyond words.’
Shortly after leaving school, Jack worked in a bakery as a warehouseman. He appeared to dislike this work, so in order to give himself a better chance of finding better-paid employment; he learnt shorthand and brushed up on his arithmetic and handwriting skills. About the same time his reading habits comprised of schoolboy comics such as The Boys of England – ‘A Young Gentleman’s Journal of Sport, Sensation, Fun and Instruction’ [iii] and Young Folks – famous for serialising Treasure Island and Kidnapped. Comics of this genre expressed the value and importance of empire and patriotism to their readers. One day, he bought a copy of Sir Walter Scott’s Redgauntlet for 3d because he liked the sound of the title – his liking for comics ‘collapsed completely’ (64). This is not to say that Jack did not value comics – he would not have mentioned them at all had he not enjoyed reading them, but Jack was by this time of an age where he was actively looking for something better. However, of Jack’s choice of Redgauntlet, it has to be noted that Scott’s novel carries a suitably exciting title that would appeal to an ex-comic book reader.
Jack still appears to be buying his reading matter on a pocket money basis – he notes that ‘new copies of the Camelot Classics and the Canterbury Poets [were] 9d per volume…I doubt if I could have gathered the little library that was beginning to accumulate…[plus] The classics have always appealed to me for two reasons at least. First they have been well tested by others and yet survive and secondly that reprints are cheap’ (114-115). With his comment about the durability and ‘survival’ of classic literature, Jack appears to acknowledge the power that literary criticism wields over the success or failure of literature in order for it to be recognised as a classic. However, he also acknowledges the social power of reading and language when mentioning his appreciation of Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus, which Jack found ‘very illuminating’ (158). In Sartor Resartus, Carlyle ‘endows the trope of language… [as being] the garment of thought…[therefore] the pliability of language opens the subversive possibility of social cross-dressing, so to speak [iv]. The autodidacticism of education within the working classes subverted the idea of them being merely ‘brainless automatons’ [v] and offered social empowerment for the likes of Jack, despite being born into poverty.
For Jack, social empowerment is embodied in his own writing. He was obviously influenced and encouraged to write and publish his own work through the confidence he gained from reading widely. Jack acknowledged this fact in his autobiography when he states ‘I owe most of them a debt of thanks I may one day – if things turn out that way – be privileged to pay personally’ (115). One example of this gratitude is the complimentary letter he sent to Coventry Patmore after reading The Angel in the House). Jack was delighted to receive ‘not only an encouraging letter from [Patmore’s] Hastings home but from his publisher sent at [Patmore’s] request the complete edition of his poems in two green volumes’ (117). The Angel in the House seemed to mirror his own love and respect for his wife, Jane, who he acknowledges as being his inspiration to write freely as ‘it was only after meeting her that I began to find any freedom in verse or prose’ (183). Indeed, we probably have Jane to thank for all of Jack’s published works: Crumbs of Verse, The Ballad of lake Laloo and Nip and Flip.
However, the greatest literary influence on Jack was undoubtedly Tolstoy ‘whom I feel I have gained more than from any other writer…so much I became a member of the Socialist club (159-160). Here, Jack was to meet and become friends with the likes of J. C. Kenworthy and F. R. Henderson who regarded themselves to be Tolstoyan anarchists. Kenworthy was the pastor of the Tolstoyan-inspired community The Croydon Brotherhood. The community believed in living from their own labours, vegetarianism, fruitarianism, rejection of all violence and government rule of any kind. Jack found their way of life attractive, but along with F. R. Henderson, opted to adhere to some aspects of their lifestyle such as vegetarianism and the rejection of violence, without opting out of society completely. This decision appears to fit in more with Jack ‘playing the butterfly rather than the bee’ – he seemed to enjoy new ideas – but rather than adhere to their ideologies to the letter, he took aspects of their teachings and applied them to his own life; creating his own credo in the process.
274 Goring, Jack, Autobiographical notes, MS, pp.332 (c. 27,000 words). Brunel University Library
[v] Edith Hall, Canary Girls and Stockpots (Luton, 1977), 39-40, cited by Rose, p. 62.