William Webb (1830-1919) – Purpose & Audience

This blog looks at the purpose of William’s autobiography, as well as observing the audience he targets.


In order to fully appreciate just who William Webb was writing for when composing his autobiography, attention must be turned not to the main body of text but to the preface. It is here where William outlines his manifesto, providing clear indication of his target audience. It appears that his intentions are twofold as he expresses the hope that his memoir will ‘be of value to my own family in the future,’ as well as being ‘of some little interest to those who come after me, enabling them to compare the past with the present’ (Webb, p.1).

William’s ambitions notably lend themselves to the idea that working-class autobiographers’ ‘reasons for writing are functional rather than aesthetic’ (Gagnier, p.342). This is because his endeavours are selfless as he emphasizes the “value” of his work and how it could benefit others. Further, he acknowledges that his autobiography lacks meaning at the time of its production and will only gain value when viewed retrospectively. What is evident then is that William is under no illusion that his autobiography will become an accomplished piece of literature. However, what does come out of the text is his awareness of the fact that by documenting his life he is leaving an impression on history; one which he hopes will prove pedagogically and anthropologically useful for subsequent generations by helping them to reflect on the past (as I am doing), or contextualize historical events by viewing them from a socio-cultural perspective.

The reduction of the 1712 Stamp Act in 1836, followed by its total repeal in 1855, meant than newspapers, magazines and periodicals were disseminated with greater ease. This caused a revolution of knowledge which trickled down to the working-classes. Serialized work, such as those produced by Dickens, gave inspiration to a whole wave of working-class autobiographers
The reduction of the 1712 Stamp Act in 1836, followed by its total repeal in 1855, meant that newspapers, magazines and periodicals were disseminated with greater ease. This caused a revolution of knowledge which trickled down to the working-classes. Serialized work, such as those produced by Dickens, gave inspiration to a whole wave of working-class autobiographers

By doing this William has unwittingly bought into another common characteristic displayed by so many other working-class writers, that being the ‘desire to produce respectable and […] improving literature’ (Vincent, p.228). This was perhaps unavoidable. As working-class writers attempted to form their own memoirs they would draw on literary conventions created by bourgeois writers. As a consequence working-class writers were producing pastiches, emulating the morals and values embodied by middle-class writers. This is not necessarily a negative, however, but caution must be taken when interpreting such autobiographies and prepare for the author to:

forget, misremember, remember selectively, embellish, invent and rearrange events in the interest of creating an engaging story (Rose, p.52).

The framework underpinning mid-nineteenth century family life was the concept of "separate spheres". Women lacked self-determination (or rather they were deprived of the opportunity to express independence due to inequality) while men were autonomous
The framework underpinning mid-nineteenth century family life was the concept of “separate spheres“. Women lacked self-determination (or rather they were deprived of the opportunity to express independence due to inequality) while men were autonomous

While William is innocent of most of these, he is guilty of a few silences and omissions, especially where fatherhood and marriage are concerned. Nowhere do we find any mentions of his wife or children. Instead his entire memoir could be considered an account of his early life as he neglects the years when he settles down and starts a family. Perhaps he did not think this portion of his life would engage an audience and therefore decided to only document those events which would be of interest to the reader. Whatever the case may be, the result of his selectiveness is that only a partial narrative is provided. However, with the aid of primary source material such as probates, wills and transport lists I hope to fill in some of the gaps and retrieve the hidden narrative.

The aptly titled autobiography by George Acorn, One of the Multitude, reinforces the notion that working-class autobiographers over emphasized their ordinariness
The aptly titled autobiography by George Acorn, One of the Multitude, reinforces the notion that working-class autobiographers over emphasized their ordinariness

What is most striking about William’s autobiography is the lack of confidence he displays, something which prevents him from distinguishing himself apart from other working-class men. While he is not shy about adopting the first person, using “I” throughout quite comfortably (unlike many working-class autobiographers), he still lacks any conscious sense of his own identity, separate to that of the multitude. Instead he embraces his ordinariness and accepts that he is a ‘social atom’ (Gagnier, p.338), confessing that:

my individual share in the progress of the colony has [not] been important; not more so than thousands of other working men (Webb, p.1)

William undermines himself and his own ability here by repositioning himself back amongst the masses, accepting that he is part of a homogenous group. While this is detrimental to William’s individuality it does well for social and cultural historians wanting to understand the working class, in so far that it is accepted that William is representative of a typical working class male. What William does do, then, is provide a unique window of opportunity through which the past can be observed.

Bibliography

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

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