H J Harris (b.1903): Purpose and Audience – Writing Lives

H J Harris (b.1903): Purpose and Audience

‘I have often tried to write about my experiences, but my hands are very shaky, that my writing becomes illegible’ (Harris, 18/04/1978)

HJ wrote his ‘memoirs’ as letters to Burnett over a period of six years after hearing a plea on Radio 4.

18th April 1978
Reading through HJ’s letters it became clear to me that growing up he never had a voice, and the few times he did it was misunderstood. By writing to Burnett about his experiences, HJ finally had an outlet for his voice and an audience.

‘I feel my story ought to be recorded for posterity(Harris 18/04/78)

This idea is reinforced by the critical thinker Regina Gagnier when she writes about auto-biographers who ‘insisted on their own histories to record lost experiences for future generations; to warn others; to teach others’ (342).

In a lot of his letters he beseeches Burnett to include him in his book,

‘Sir I really do hope you will be able to include my memoirs in your proposed book. I shall only be too willing to explain anything or expand on any detail, so please let me know’. (Harris 20/03/79)

When Burnett has replied that he will give some thought to including HJ’s ‘story’, HJ goes on to say,

‘But, Sir, you have not had my Full [full] account of the subject I understand your good self to be interested in! (Harris 18/06/78)

HJ believes that his story is worth telling and the thought that it would not be included upsets him deeply.  Nan Hackett said the purpose of a working-class autobiography ‘was to document a way of life’ and this is how HJ felt.

HJ’s father died when he was 3 years old, and since being placed in The New Orphan Houses in Ashley Down orphanage he has had no or little contact with his family since. He writes ’I hope you will use my story, I have my own reason/s for this desire. Since my retirement I have been trying to find out something of my origins’ (letter 18/06/78). So one of the reasons for HJ to write his memoirs was in the hope that ‘someone would be able to trace where and when my father was born’. (Letter 18/06/78).

The difference between HJ’s memoirs and the memoirs of the other authors, is that HJ knew who his audience was. His audience are students who are studying Social History and he has a remit of what they are looking for.

2nd June 1978

He is writing his letters, as a recollection of memories, which can present some problems, ‘as concentration is difficult when one is 80 years old.’ ( Harris 17/10/83)

HJ’s indignant tone throughout his memoirs suggests that he is embittered about how he was treated in the orphanage, and by writing the letters he is able to tell an interested audience that his words should be

recorded as a textbook on psychiatry illustrating “How NOT to bring up a child”(HArris 18/04/78).

However, he is quick to point out that his memories only represent his experiences.(Harris 04/05/78)

I have become fond of HJ after reading his letters, but I have to remain objective in order to give an accurate and honest depiction of his experiences. I am not comfortable with his writing as he displays inconsistencies, for example several times in his letters he reiterates that all he is writing is true,

‘I wish to make it clear that I have not exaggerated nor embellished my story in any way whatever. Everything is factual’ (Harris 04/05/78)

He feels compelled to remind us that what he is telling us is the truth but I wonder why he would feel the need to. I initially viewed this with suspicion however, he writes

‘I agree that you may consider my story too depressing as to be unbelievable, but I assure that it is absolutely true in every detail, and I purposely put in quite a lot of reference points so that it can be checked by anyone wishing to prove otherwise’ (Harris 20/03/79)

This reads to me that Burnett was sceptical and questioned the credibility of HJ’s story and HJ has defended the credibility by including in his letters, real places and people to be clarified.

Another reason for my apprehension is when I discovered that his surname ‘Harris’ is not his actual family name. If he wants to share his version of life back then, I wonder why he does not include his family name so we can delve deeper in our research.

This is not the only omission in his memoirs, ‘There are many incidents I have purposely omitted’. (Harris 04/05/78). His reasons for doing so however, is because he thinks, ‘they would add nothingto [nothing to] your searches and needn’t have been if I had not have been I’ (Harris 04/05/78).

His self-belief perhaps is limited because of the way he has been misunderstood in the past,

‘Everywhere I went I was a laughing-stock, speaking correctly and grammatically, but knowing none of idiomatic forms of speech’ (Harris 18/04/78)

HJ apologises for his writing and also the content fearing that it may be too melancholic for the reader.  But I agree with George Acorn (who wrote his own auto-biography One of the Multitudes) when he said ‘the public will recognize that experiences LIVED and written down however poorly are of more real value and interest than imaginary fictions beautifully disguised.’

I have huge empathy for Mr Harris, because he desperately wants to be a part of this project and that desperation shows in his memoirs. He gives ownership of his memoirs to Burnett,

You have my agreement to publish anything I say or write in my communications with you. [They are] your property from the time you receive the letters.’ (Harris 18/06/78)

But his behaviour changes from desperation to self-righteous which can have a negative effect on winning people’s respect and empathy.

Francis Russell Hart noted that ‘Memoir is the auto-biography of survival’ and if you continue to read Mr Harris’s sad yet wittily written memoirs, hopefully you will agree that despite his numerous misfortunes, he has most certainly survived.

Burnett, J. Mayall. D. Vincent, D eds. The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated Critical Biography 3 vols. Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989.

Gagnier, Regenia Social Atoms: Working-Class Autobiography. Subjectivity, and Gender’, Victorian Studies, Vol 30, No. 3 (Spring, 1987), pp.335-363

Hackett, Nan. ‘A Different Form of “Self”: Narrative Style in British Nineteenth-Century Working-Class Autobiography’. 12.3 (1989): 208-226, p.209.

Harris, H.J. Autobiographical letters, 1978-1984, TS, pp.13 (c5,000 words). Brunel University Library


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