What follows is a brief overview of William Webb’s autobiography, Reminiscences of an Ordinary Life, with a few explanatory notes which will provide a loose platform for future discussions.
Beginning his life in the leafy suburbs of Wiltshire in a small agricultural village called East Kennet, William had the fortune of being born into a small Parish community where he was raised in close proximity to the church. With fond memories of assisting his father the local Parish Clerk, it appears that the church played a central role in William’s early child development and even helped fuel his interest in genealogy; a convenient hobby which has subsequently helped to map out an extensive family tree, spanning several generations. While on the surface it may appear that William was content living a happy and humble life in what was a quintessential rural English village (perhaps not dissimilar to one you would find in the pages of a Blake anthology), he did not remain blissfully unaware, or even ignorant of the decline in agricultural communities around him, which he describes as being ‘miserable in the extreme’ (Webb, p.2). Although this was not experienced first-hand, as the Webbs were able ‘to live in comfort’ (Webb, p.2), William does provide an interesting, yet subtle, insight into the latent socio-political tensions amongst rural communities that began to develop after the Napoleonic War in 1815, the culmination of which was the infamous Swing Riots of 1830.
Death and disease also feature regularly as frequent outbreaks of cholera reduced entire towns and villages to virtually nothing. William experienced personal loss as his four brothers and sisters all died following an epidemic. He recalls how:
She [his mother’s friend] declared that Willie, that is me, should not die if she could help it, so her noble instinct prompted her to take me out of bed and away from the infected village (Webb, p.3).
This event no doubt changed William and perhaps even influenced certain decisions he made later in life, however, there is no indication of his feelings at the time. The process of impersonalisation is present throughout and his autobiography remains strangely devoid of emotion. At times it feels as if William is merely regurgitating the facts of his life without much consideration of the impact that those events had on him. In the absence of self-reflection, which one would expect to find in any autobiography, William’s story remains just that; a tale of events, a diary of sorts, a narrative without purpose. That is not to say that William’s autobiography is useless. On the contrary it becomes the reader’s responsibility, in the absence of self-reflection, to contextualize events and superimpose a new layer of meaning upon the autobiography, thus extracting the hidden narrative which lies dormant. For instance, William announces his decision to move to Australia in 1852 but provides little reason as to why, other than a brief statement in which he declares ‘I had always been anxious to try my luck as a gold digger’ (Webb, p.7). Nevertheless this was no doubt an auxiliary motive and the real reason for his departure was dictated by external factors ranging from the political climate, through to more local issues such as low wages and unemployment. A deconstruction of these events will help piece together a more detailed picture of William’s life. This process will be achieved by: using relevant primary and secondary material; adopting collaborative research methods; consulting online resources; and cross referencing events mentioned in the autobiography to ensure historical accuracy.
William provides a window through which the conditions and experiences of the working class during the mid-nineteenth-century can be observed. As a spectator one can use Webb to peer into the past and begin to understand how major events which happened on a local, national or even global scale affected small groups of people or even individuals. Join me as I explore the adventures of William Webb, fill in the gaps and begin to contextualize his experiences.
Webb, William. (1982). Reminiscences of an Ordinary Life. In: Burnett, J Destiny Obscure. Autobiographies of childhood, education and family from the 1820s to the 1920s. London: Allen Lane. 78-82.
Vincent, David. (1980). Love and Death and the Nineteenth-Century Working Class. Social History. 5 (2), 223-247. Available: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4284976
Gagnier, Regenia. (1987). Social Atoms: Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender. Victorian Studies. 30 (3), 335-363. Available: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3828397
Rose, Jonathan. (1992). Rereading the English Common Reader: A Preface to a History of Audiences. Journal of the History of Ideas. 53 (1), 47-70. Available: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2709910