Guest Blog: Women’s Life Writing of the Nineteenth Century
Posted by interestingliterature
By Sarah Macdonald, Kent State University, Ohio
My work delves into the lives of nineteenth century working women; not for their aesthetic accomplishments, which are few in the traditional sense, but to open the doors of acceptance to how material circumstances color the form and content of life writing. My goal is not to just acknowledge the variations, but to show how scholarship’s attachment to the bourgeois Cartesian understanding of the self has identified these women as lacking in substantial ways. The very thought of authorial intent is denied them. My work challenges the limited scope of successful life writing. The specific focus this challenge takes is in identifying the motivation for sharing their life stories. Asserting personal relationships, attaining fame, promoting their political affiliation, and healing from traumatic experiences are just a few of the areas explored. It is through this analysis of motivation that a clear appreciation the authorial competency is highlighted.
I came to study these texts through the diaries of Hannah Cullwick. Before reading this text, I was not aware of texts written by working-class British women. What caught my attention was the difficulties inherent in reading these texts that were different from most other literature and the life writing that I knew. The question of subjectivity in the texts was a lasting concern throughout the various works I later discovered. What was especially intriguing about Hannah Cullwick’s writing is the obvious issues with autonomy. Since Cullwick wrote at the behest of her middle-class lover, Arthur Munby, and include all the information that she knew enticed him, it is hard to determine where Hannah and Munby separate. The complications with classifying the text as an autobiography opened a new area of interest for me. Once I became interested in the field, I set about finding other texts in this category. This proved more difficult than I expected. For my current focus, I narrowed down the selection to complete texts in order to highlight the variations in utilization of life writing. The full-length texts include Emma Smith’s A Cornish Waif’s Story, Annie Kenney’s Memoirs of a Militant, Hannah Mitchell’s The Hard Way Up and Autobiography, Poems, and Songs by Ellen Johnston. The diary is an edition of Hannah Cullwick’s 17 years of diary keeping, The Diaries of Hannah Cullwick. While the number of working women writers from this time is less than the male writers, the lack of texts available speaks as well to the value they have historically had to the reading public and scholars. Readers discounted the lives and voices of these writers simply because of their status as working women. Since the category of life writing is essential to the present work, it is worth the time to explain fully what it is composed of and why I feel this is an important focus. While the term life writing is, much as other categories, in flux, there are a few common characteristics. Unlike autobiography, the study of life writing is a much more inclusive one in which any writing that involves one’s life in taken into consideration.
Typically, readers consider the idea that these, for the most part, uneducated women, could write anything worth reading and studying unlikely. Even the likes of Virginia Woolf, well known as a woman writer of great distinction, questioned whether she could write an introduction to a collection of works from the Women’s Co-Operative Guild. It was not a lack of interest on Woolf’s part, since she did contribute an introductory letter; what she questioned was whether this piece would be deserving of an introduction. Introductions were reserved for literature. The women writers could not possibly write literature since, to Woolf’s mind, they were unable to distance themselves from their subject. Woolf’s reasoning is common for all women writers, not just working women life writers. The objection of sentimentality and subjectivity has haunted most scholarship of women’s writing until recently. The idea that the women, who were interested in trying to improve their material circumstance, could or should distance themselves denotes the bourgeois Cartesian understanding of the self and literature at the heart of the devaluation of working women’s writing. Women from the Guild were unable to disconnect their minds and writing from their daily lives and troubles. That Woolf could expect women to adhere to this bourgeois standard speaks very well to her lack of understanding of their situation and the circumstances of the production of their work. This lack of consideration for material life is one of the central issues of this work. Marx and Engels express this idea when they suggest: “As individuals express their life, so they are. What they are, therefore, coincides with their production, both with what they produce and with how they produce. The nature of individuals thus depends on material conditions determining their activity” (qtd. in 37). How we have come to see subjectivity, methodology, and how the texts are mediated through others are central questions to tackle.
References: Women’s Co-Operative Guild. Life as We Have Known It. Ed. Margaret Llewelyn Davies. New York: W.W Norton & Company, 1975.