Guest Blog: Women’s Life Writing of the Nineteenth Century

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.

Cullwick1I 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.

Image: Hannah Cullwick © 1862, Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

Sarah MacDonald is presently completing her doctorate at Kent State University in Ohio. Her research focuses on the life writing of working class women in Britain during the long nineteenth century. She is currently working on an edited collection of essays involving the reevaluation of working class childhood through the medium of life writing.


  1. I am very interested in this type of writing from this period. Thank you for some new reading. Would you consider Flora Thompson in this category? I am not sure if her work is categorized as ‘life-writing’ since she, as author, stayed somewhat invisible; at least her inner life did. I enjoyed Margaret Lane’s bio of her, in which she wrote: ‘[Hers] is a story which happily illustrates the unquenchable vigor of those strange gifts which are sometimes bestowed in the most unlikely places, and which in her case developed without education or encouragement and blossomed into fulfillment in old age.’… I love the idea of ‘unquenchable vigor’! (Apparently there is a new bio out of Flora Thompson which I am looking forward to reading.)

  2. Hi Sarah,
    What a wonderful post. I know your work is centered around the writings of working class women of the 19th century, but I wonder if you have happened across similar writings of Parisian women of the same time period.

  3. Until I read this post I was not aware of the term ‘life writing’ – to say the least I am intrigued. I would further agree with the comments on this article that little has changed for women in the realm of literature, but I feel this is an extension of the role of women in the work place and the Church. For instance, I was teaching at a private Christian college and I do not know how many times I was told ‘women are spaghetti, they cannot disconnect their emotions from their work. But, men are like waffles they can compartmentalize and are capable of doing this.’ So, the idea that female writers are criticized for the same thing is sadly not all that surprising.

  4. Reblogged this on Wallpaper and Waistcoats and commented:
    Having recently finished Hardy’s “Jude the Obscure” the concept of the nineteenth century working woman is fresh on my mind. Here’s a great intro by Sarah MacDdonald to some of the literature written by and for the everyday women of the Victorian Era. Enjoy!

  5. Nice entry. I am studying a whole module on this topic at university.

  6. Reblogueó esto en Trópico de cáncery comentado:
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  7. This was very interesting, a topic I haven’t ever touched upon before but will definitely consider looking into it a lot more.

  8. Fascinating. I will see if I can read some of these texts.

  9. “The objection of sentimentality and subjectivity has haunted most scholarship of women’s writing until recently.”

    I would say that this objection has not changed yet. In interviews, women writers are still asked if the novels they write are autobiographical. Male writers are not asked this question.

  10. Before reading your post, I was not aware of texts written by working-class British women. Thank you for shedding some much needed light on this topic and I look forward to reading some of the texts you suggested.

  11. Reblogged this on 1WriteWay and commented:
    An interesting post on the “life writing of working class women in Britain during the long nineteenth century.”

  12. Well said. Great post!