Contesting Marginalisation in Edwardian Britain
This volume aims to draw attention to the importance of «ordinary writing» – that is, «writing that is typically unseen or ignored and is primarily defined by its status as discardable» – as a form of rebellion for marginalised Edwardians. Using a multidisciplinary perspective to explore a range of material artefacts, from postcards and diary entries to pamphlets and book inscriptions, it aims to unearth voices that have been silent throughout history, transmitting new narratives on such important issues as suffragism, Irish nationalism, the working-class movement and pauper insanity.
Table Of Contents
- About the author
- About the book
- This eBook can be cited
- List of Figures
- List of Tables
- Introduction: Ordinary Writing and Rebellion (Lauren Alex O’Hagan)
- Part I Ordinary Writing as a Search for Institutional Agency
- 1 Writing and Rebellion Among Pauper Patients in the Garlands Lunatic Asylum (Cara Dobbing)
- 2 Contesting the Workhouse: Life Writing, Children and the Later New Poor Law (Steven King / Carol Beardmore)
- 3 ‘Bold Bad Ones’ in Stitches: WSPU Suffragettes’ Embroidery Sewn in and about Holloway Prison, 1910–1912 (Maureen Daly Goggin)
- Part II Ordinary Writing as a Challenge to the Social Order
- 4 ‘No Vote, No Census. As women are not persons in the eyes of the law, why count cyphers in the census?’: Exploring Rebellion in the 1911 Census (Sarah MacDonald)
- 5 The Stolen Chapter: James Timewell’s Challenge to the Metropolitan Police (Sarah Wise)
- 6 Rethinking the Book Inscription as a Site of Class Struggle (Lauren Alex O’Hagan)
- PART III Ordinary Writing as a Tool of Sociopolitical Discontent
- 7 Mastering Their Own Voice: Female Domestic Servants in Edwardian Britain (Fanny Louvier)
- 8 A Letter to the Editor, a Challenge to the Status Quo? Radical and Transgressive Correspondence in the Anglo-Jewish Press, 1901–1914 (Daniel Renshaw)
- 9 Picture Postcard Politics: The Expression of Dissent via Picture Postcards in Edwardian Ireland (Ann Wilson)
- Part IV Ordinary Writing as a Form of Creative Disobedience
- 10 How the Extraordinary Becomes Ordinary: A. B. C. Merriman-Labor’s African Vision (Danell Jones)
- 11 ‘A fire to fill my heart – whose name I dare not speak’: Surpassing Conventional Heterosexuality in Dollie Radford’s Writing (Hadeel J. Azhar)
- 12 Romani Rebel Writing: George ‘Lazzy’ Smith’s Entrepreneurial Auto-Exoticism (Ken Lee / Jodie Matthews)
- Afterword (Julia Gillen)
- Notes on Contributors
- Series index
Figure 2.1 Child populations in the Great Yarmouth workhouse, 1881–1911. Source: K. Schürer and E. Higgs, Integrated Census Microdata (I-CeM); 1851–1911 [computer file]. Colchester, Essex: UK Data Archive [distributor], April 2014. SN: 7481, <http://dx.doi.org/10.5255/UKDA-SN-7481-1>.
Figure 3.3 Signature Handkerchief, circa 1912. Source: Grateful acknowledgement is made to the Women’s Library, London School of Economics and Political Science for permission to reproduce this image.
Figure 5.1 Midnight at Southwark Police Station, October 16, 1897. Source: Grateful acknowledgement is made to the London School of Economics and Political Science for permission to reproduce this image.←xi | xii→
Figure 5.3 The Royal Commission on the Metropolitan Police: The Truth About the Inquiry. Source: Grateful acknowledgement is made to the London School of Economics and Political Science for permission to reproduce this image.←xii | xiii→
Figure 10.1 Augustus Boyle Chamberlayne Merriman-Labor. Source: Leo Spitzer, The Creoles of Sierra Leone: Responses to Colonialism, 1870–1945 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1974), taken by unknown photographer (possibly J. C. Merriman), circa 1904.
Figure 10.2 The African General Agency Letterhead. Source: Grateful acknowledgement is made to the Honourable Society of Lincoln’s Inn Archives for permission to reproduce this image, taken by Jones (2013).
The seed of the idea to explore the ordinary writing of marginalised groups in Edwardian Britain was planted after taking part in the fourth annual conference of the Edwardian Culture Network held at Lancaster University in September 2017. The conference’s focus on speed and change encouraged many stimulating discussions and interdisciplinary insights on the way that ordinary texts and visual artefacts can shed new light on everyday life in Edwardian Britain. I thank Sam Shaw, Sarah Shaw and Naomi Carle for organising the event, as well as Ann Wilson, Julia Gillen, Robert Demaine, Ryan Edwards, Andrew Glazzard and Harry Wood for presenting such interesting and thought-provoking research.
Following on from the conference, in 2018, I began to converse with a range of academics and professionals to scope general interest in a book like Rebellious Writing. I was overwhelmed with the positive responses that I received, all of which highlighted that a book of this sort was long overdue. Flash forward two years and I am so proud to see what has emerged from our initial discussions. So, here, I give my heartfelt thanks to Cara Dobbing, Steven King, Carol Beardmore, Maureen Daly Goggin, Sarah MacDonald, Sarah Wise, Fanny Louvier, Daniel Renshaw, Ann Wilson, Danell Jones, Hadeel J. Azhar, Jodie Matthews, Ken Lee and Julia Gillen. This book would not have come into fruition without your enthusiasm and energy from the very start. Over the past few years, I have learnt a huge amount from your insightful contributions and am very grateful to have had the opportunity to work with you all.
I would also like to extend my thanks to the anonymous reviewer whose highly perceptive and constructive criticism has helped improve the volume’s overall clarity and purpose. A big thank you also to Megan Yates, Tereza Spilioti and Michael Garvey for their help with proofreading and copyediting. Of course, any errors that remain in the book are my own. Finally, I wish to express my gratitude to Laurel Plapp of Peter Lang for her ←xvii | xviii→diligent support and guidance. You turned what could have been a daunting and stressful task for me into a seamless and highly enjoyable process.
Lauren Alex O’Hagan, May 2020
Cardiff, United Kingdom
Lauren Alex O’Hagan
This book brings together the work of scholars across the world to explore the ordinary writing of marginalised groups in Edwardian Britain (1901–14)1 and how it could be used to carry out acts of creative disobedience that challenged the inequalities and injustices of early twentieth-century society. In recent years, ordinary writing – ubiquitous writing that is part of everyday life, yet is often invisible or transitory in a discardable sense2 – has been explored predominantly within two research traditions: New Literacy Studies (NLS) and ‘New’ History from Below (NHfB). Although these two traditions have overlapping aims and share similarities in terms of their ethnographic and ethnohistorical methodologies, there has been little interconnection between them. This volume aims to open up a dialogue between NLS and NHfB by presenting twelve chapters that are united in their focus on ordinary writing used by disenfranchised Edwardians, yet ground themselves in a range of disciplines, methodologies and theoretical concepts from history, linguistics and literature to politics, cultural studies and art.←1 | 2→
Aligning NLS and NHfB will make evident their common goals of studying ordinary writing as a complex social practice in order to gain a better understanding of how it is used by ordinary people to document their lives, make sense of their own experiences and navigate their sociocultural landscape. However, it will also highlight the rich insights that they can offer one another, whether through semiotic and rhetorical analyses (NLS)3 or archivally grounded enquiries (NHfB),4 thus offering new approaches and tools for researchers across disciplines who are investigating ordinary writing. In doing so, Rebellious Writing hopes to move the study of ordinary writing forward by developing a broader sense of the various ways in which it can be explored across disciplines, in addition to how these methods can work in conjunction to uncover deeper and more textured meanings. Through their chapters, contributors will demonstrate the power of ordinary writing to dislodge master narratives on age, gender, class, race, sexuality, disability and religion that are presented as universal and true and make evident alternative narratives from voices that have been typically silenced throughout history.
The focus of this book is the Edwardian era because it was a time of vast social and political upheaval, which was characterised by the development of the labour movement, the fight for women’s suffrage and Irish Home Rule, as well as growing concerns about immigration and anarchism. Consequently, it constitutes an important period in which to explore how ordinary writing was used by marginalised groups as acts of defiance that challenged or attempted to undermine orthodox views. Furthermore, unlike earlier eras, the detailed 1901 and 1911 censuses (among other historical records) enable most Edwardians, no matter how marginalised ←2 | 3→or forgotten by history, to be identified and assume an active role in the contestation of power structures in ways that it would not be possible to do for earlier periods.
In general, studies of ordinary writing have largely prioritised how writing is used to organise one’s daily life, explore one’s position in the world or participate in social acts, as well as how it can challenge arbitrary lines between high and low, public and private, personal and political, orality and literacy. Although some research has been carried out on the ideological resistance of subordinate groups through writing5 (largely in the fields of social and cultural history), no large-scale study has yet looked at the ways in which this ‘backstage discourse’6 could be rebellious or subversive, particularly within the Edwardian era. Additionally, studies of ordinary writing in the Edwardian age are sparse because researchers have tended to focus on the rich literary culture of the years between 1901 and 1914 or reconstruct accounts of social and political events through historical testimonies from those in positions of power, such as politicians, religious leaders, social investigators and journalists. Studies have also been hindered by the fact that the Edwardian era is often unfairly reduced to the status of a transition period between Victorianism and Modernism, which has downplayed its importance in its own right.
Rebellious Writing revolutionises the way in which both ordinary writing and the Edwardian era are understood by demonstrating how the voices of marginalised individuals can offer new perspectives on life in early twentieth-century Britain and enrich current knowledge that comes from non-ordinary texts, such as literature and political speeches. By drawing attention to examples of ordinary writing that are typically considered ←3 | 4→discardable and unimportant, this volume exposes them as ‘extraordinary’ in the unique attempts of their writers to use the ‘power of the pen’ to challenge and rebel against the inequalities in Edwardian society. It reveals that ordinary writing defies generalisations about the marginalised leading uniform lives or being passive victims7 and indicates that vulnerable groups in King Edward VII’s realm were, in fact, not mere recipients of political, legal and economic orders.
What Is Ordinary Writing?
There is no one clear response to the question ‘what is ordinary writing?’ Generally speaking, ordinary writing is defined as such because it is omnipresent and forms part of our everyday life and routines, yet often remains inconspicuous and transient.8 According to Jennifer Sinor, ordinary writing is ‘typically unseen or ignored and is primarily defined by its status as discardable’.9 This point is furthered by Susan Miller who describes it as ‘writing we choose not to see’.10 David Barton and Uta Papen similarly use the notion of invisibility when describing ordinary writing, arguing that it is frequently ignored or mistakenly taken for irrelevant.11 Ordinary writing is often bound up with notions of mundaneness or banality; Laurie Langbauer, for example, has defined it as ‘the very things we cannot read because they are so commonplace as to be boring, to refuse ←4 | 5→our regard or interpretation’,12 while Sinor claims it is ‘made up of everything that doesn’t stand out’.13 Given the transience and supposed insignificance of ordinary writing, the survival of the examples that will be explored in this volume is remarkable because most should not have stood the test of time.
Another feature of ordinary writing is that it is not aesthetically crafted and does not mark an event or tell a story in itself. Instead, the writing is purposeful and governed by its own rhetorics, which means that it often lacks the embellishments that might be found in literary texts.14 Sinor argues that its typically simple, disjointed, fragmented, improvised, bare and one-dimensional nature means that ordinary writing is much closer in style to a testimony than any other form of the written word.15 Indeed, this leads Martyn Lyons to describe ordinary writing as an ‘amphibious culture’16 that moves between orality and literacy, while Sinor claims that it ‘always rests in the middle of things’, capturing the ‘in-betweenness’ of lived experiences.17 Russell Belk sees ordinary writing as ‘an extension of our self’,18 while Brenda Danet describes it as having its own ‘aura’,19 which tells a history of the hands that have touched it. All of these qualities are apparent in the texts that will be explored in this volume.
The term écritures ordinaires (ordinary writings) was coined by Daniel Fabre in 1993 to categorise the writing of ordinary people.20 Although the English translation ‘ordinary writing’ is commonly used across disciplines, it has not been adopted by all scholars. ‘Vernacular’ or ‘everyday’ ←5 | 6→writing remains favoured in the tradition of NLS,21 while ‘ego-documents’, a term invented by Jacob Presser to describe any form of autobiographical writing, is still widely used by Dutch and German historians.22 As Lyons23 has argued, neither of the above terms completely capture the association of écritures ordinaires with the humble status of authors as ‘ordinary’ and often marginalised. Given Rebellious Writing’s focus on the lives of marginalised Edwardians, ‘ordinary writing’ seems the most appropriate term to use throughout the volume.
While the above definitions can help us build up a general picture of the types of texts associated with ordinary writing – notes, diaries, letters, postcards and lists – a fundamental difficulty lies in the fact that often the text is not enough in itself to be assigned the category of ordinary. Ordinariness is not a quality intrinsic to a text; rather, it is afforded to a text by a range of contextual, sociocultural and historical factors. As Sinor24 notes, Anne Frank’s diary may be ordinary on the surface, given that it was written by a young Jewish girl to record her experiences and make sense of her life. However, it is anything but ordinary in its significance as a material testimony of the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. Equally, the diary of Virginia Woolf betrays the ordinary through its strong authorial presence and its use of bold literary devices that exhibit plot, action and suspense, which are all characteristics associated with literature rather than life writing.25 For this reason, Lyons suggests locating the ordinariness of writing in the social status of the author rather than the text itself.26 This is the way that Rebellious Writing also frames ordinary writing: as everyday texts created by marginalised groups, whether children, women, the poor, the lower classes or the mentally ill.←6 | 7→
Lyons27 also proposes that the term ‘ordinary writing’ should encompass what Fabre calls ‘borrowed writing’,28 that is, such items as printed t-shirts, car stickers, scrapbooks and photograph album labels, each acting as an ‘encyclopaedia of oneself’.29 This volume seeks to build upon Lyon’s point by challenging the traditional boundaries of ordinary writing and suggesting that it does not always have to be writing in its conventional sense of pen and paper, nor does it have to be created by one individual alone. The expansion of these boundaries is particularly important when investigating marginalised groups because many may have lacked the resources, literacy or power to produce texts in a conventional manner.30 As we will see in the presented chapters, texts could be created with a writing implement (Chapters 1, 4, 6 and 9), but they could equally take the form of transcription (Chapters 2 and 7), print (Chapters 5, 8, 10, 11 and 12) or embroidery (Chapter 3). In some cases, they were made collectively (Chapters 1, 2, 4, 7 and 8) or with the aid of an amanuensis (Chapter 12), while others depended on the multi-semioticity of words and images to present their messages effectively (Chapters 3, 5, 6 and 9). This broad variety of methods and techniques highlights the creative ways that vulnerable Edwardians were able to make use of what they had available to them to contest their marginalisation.
In his work on the writing culture of ordinary people, Lyons has outlined five key themes of ordinary writing: fear, absence and desire, magic, God and transgression.31 He has argued that these topics guide the study of ordinary writing in almost any historical period. Lyons bases this notion on the belief that ordinary people have always experienced writing as an ←7 | 8→instrument of power; war, prison or emigration has often led ordinary people to communicate with their loved ones; peasants have traditionally associated writing with supernatural and religious powers; ordinary people have frequently felt the need to write to God; and ordinary people have always been highly conscious of intruding or trespassing onto a cultural form that is not naturally theirs.
The twelve chapters in Rebellious Writing make a case for adding a sixth theme – rebellion – to Lyon’s comprehensive list. Although writing is often associated with conformity because of its function of netting individuals within laws, regulations, grammatical proprieties and inflexible nomenclatures, it also has the potential to be rebellious. Whether through graffiti or the defacing of banknotes, coins and stamps, for centuries, people have relied on the written word to protest, express discontent and challenge authority.32 However, until the mid-nineteenth century, the lower classes were largely excluded from literacy, meaning that most written acts of rebellion were carried out by people in society who felt frustrated at the state or their personal circumstances, but were not necessarily oppressed in the same way as disenfranchised members of society. This started to change in the late Victorian era when a number of Education Acts were passed, which led to the free and compulsory schooling of all children between 5 and 12 years old. By the beginning of King Edward VII’s reign in 1901, Britain contained the highest rates of literacy in the world, with just 5 per cent of the total population unable to read or write.33 The democratisation of literacy sparked an awareness of the inequalities in British society and, soon, writing became a potent way for marginalised individuals to negotiate their identity and resist and contest cultural directives. What had once been an instrument of oppression was now a tool of rebellion. As this ←8 | 9→volume will demonstrate, these non-institutional forms of literacy serve as a powerful site from which to trace how dominant discourses could be subverted by vulnerable Edwardians through highly productive and complex acts of cultural formation, resistance and power.34
Encountering examples of ordinary writing can be challenging for researchers. Historically, the collection policies of formal institutions have been weighted in favour of upper-class, wealthy figures.35 Furthermore, when texts written by ordinary people are present, they are predominantly limited to examples of ‘writing upwards’ (i.e. letters to employers, politicians, etc.) or they are buried in collections with no clear signposting for users. For this reason, Sinor36 claims that the voices of ordinary people largely ‘linger as shadows’ in most archives and libraries. To hear their voices, we must be prepared to dedicate time to searching for them or turn to surviving personal collections that exist outside of institutional archives. This challenge of accessibility is a recurring theme throughout the present volume. We see it in the fact that many examples of ordinary writing were destroyed by figures of authority (Chapter 1) or by formal institutions (Chapters 5 and 10). We also see it in the fact that the examples under scrutiny tend to come from non-institutional collections (Chapters 6 and 9), specialist archives or collections that are concerned with social and political issues (Chapters 3, 5 and 7) or recently digitised resources (Chapters 4, 8 and 12).
Another issue with exploring ordinary writing is the feeling that we have not been invited to read it.37 Personal letters, diaries, notes and ←9 | 10→schoolbooks were all created with particular readers in mind, and our presence in the chain of readership is intrusive. This uncomfortable position reminds us of the expectations we have of texts as being contextual and easy to follow or interpret and how ordinary writing can often leave those expectations unfulfilled. Equally, an obvious irony with the concept of ‘ordinary writing’, and noted by Sinor, is that once a text is marked as ordinary and lifted from the stream of every day, it becomes extraordinary.38 A possible danger in this tenuous position is that the text is made vulnerable to interpretations by readers, potentially altering its meaning to fit their predetermined conceptions. As Rebellious Writing will show, these issues can be addressed by the methods proposed by NLS, which consider the visual, verbal and material elements of a text within their broader sociocultural context, and by NHfB, which ground interpretations in archival research. In doing so, these approaches encourage us to reject the same readerly position that we adopt with literary texts and turn our attention from what the writing does to what the writer is doing, considering his or her position as something dynamic and complex.
In sum, ordinary writing is not an easy concept to pin down, but within the confines of this volume, we can classify it as:
Writing that is typically unseen, ignored or mistakenly considered as boring or irrelevant. Its simple, fragmented and purposeful nature means that it bears a greater resemblance to testimonies than literary texts. For this reason, it is often considered to be discardable or transient. It can take many forms (i.e., hand-written, engraved, embroidered, printed) and comprise many formats (i.e., letters, diaries, postcards, notes.) In all circumstances, however, ordinariness is primarily afforded by factors external to the writing itself, such as the writer’s low social status. When used by marginalised groups, it often has a rebellious nature, drawn upon symbolically to resist and challenge institutional authorities and social hierarchies.
A close examination of ordinary writing has the potential to remove the binary that divides writing into high and low forms by gaining a better understanding of what writers do and how readers respond (i.e. its production and consumption process). It also has the ability to challenge the myth that marginalised groups have been silent throughout history and ←10 | 11→demonstrate that the voices of such individuals and their written traces can be deciphered if we only listen closely enough. By recovering ordinary writers, we give them agency, move them from the mundane into more reflective spaces and gain knowledge of how they used writing to recast cultural scripts and norms. In the context of the Edwardian era, these ordinary writers can offer novel perspectives that question and inform a new understanding of the early twentieth century as a time of class conflict, social upheaval and political discontent. We know plenty about the likes of Arthur Balfour, Robert Baden-Powell and Lord Northcliffe; it is now time to hear the stories of those ordinary Edwardians.
The Study of Ordinary Writing
Although the idea that ordinary writing is a worthy subject of study may seem innocuous, it is, in fact, a historically radical view. This position had to be forged over time against the assumption that only prestigious forms of writing by high-status individuals merited academic study.39 The foundations for this change in mentality were largely laid in the 1960s by two important schools of thought that arose in linguistic anthropology and social history, respectively: Ethnography of Communication and History from Below. While the former emphasised the significance of the everyday oral and literacy practices of communities, the latter focused on documenting historical events from the perspective of groups who have been historically marginalised.40 However, it was not until the emergence of NLS in the 1980s and NHfB in the 2000s that the value of investigating ordinary writing became widely acknowledged.
- XVIII, 440
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- Edwardian ordinary writing passive resistance
- Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2020. XVIII, 440 pp., 2 fig. col., 21 fig. b/w, 2 tables.