|Text in Context: Life Narrative and Class Relations in Imperial Britain (1879-1918)|
|This paper shows how an intensive contextual and textual reading of a single life-narrative can produce a rich picture of class relations in England c.1900, and their impact on individual working-class subjectivity; and how a hypertext framing can open pedagogic pathways to relevant historical, textual (including aural and visual) and historiographical resources.
Stratford-upon-Avon c.1900 was a local market town, and growing tourist centre (with the emergence of the Shakespeare industry), situated in an agricultural region suffering from depression. With little industry, it was still strongly paternalist. Mostly Conservative in national elections, locally it saw occasional, populist/Conservative, riots. George Hewins (1879-1977), born into the lower working class, worked as a labourer, bringing up a large family. His memories were recorded in his mid 90s.
Contextually, his life-narrative is structured around themes of:
work (Hewins left school at 11; after a broken apprenticeship, he mixed periods of skilled brick-laying with low-paid, mostly casual, labouring jobs which kept him at the bottom of the class hierarchy. His narrative evaluates the local middle / lower-middle business class primarily as good or bad employers. Central to the class situation of his lower-working-class family, neighbours and friends were the basic needs for housing and food, and hence money to secure them).
the geography of Stratford (focussed through the symbolic contrast of two of the largest buildings within the Stratford townscape – the Workhouse and the Playhouse [Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, opened 1879, the year of Hewins's birth]; & the relation of the town to the surrounding countryside)
class relations (Stratford's relatively small elite and the local professional upper-middle class, who were bound together by a common educational history [all attended elite private schools and the Universities of Oxford or Cambridge], support for the part-time Army Volunteers, and membership of the Freemasons;, had a direct and personal impact on Hewins's life)
imperialism (the elite were keen supporters of the British Empire, whose practical involvement in its military dimension was supplemented ideologically by the work of the Theatre which they supported; Hewins joined a Volunteer battalion in the 1890s, and was severely wounded in the First World War).
Textually, the paper will explore how Hewins's narration of memory:
draws on a range of discourses, circulating in early 20th-century society, linked to his community roles as storyteller and singer. Hewins, himself literate, inhabited what was still a predominantly oral culture. Of the discourses apparent in the narration, traditional (rural) folk tales and songs form a minor element; while the (urban, commercial) mode of music-hall comedy and song is dominant.
reveals how his individual identity is structured by identifications with and attachments to (a repertoire selected from) available social roles, enacted and expressed (albeit implicitly rather than explicitly) through available discourses. These roles included those of: "orphan", worker, father, singer, soldier. Close reading uncovers one dimension of his life-narative in which he was a "victim" – of economic circumstances, psychological drives and state power; and another by which he sought to (re)gain some control over aspects of his life.|