The biggest thank-you is due to Norma Clarke, Professor of English Literature and Creative Writing at Kingston University, who supervised this PhD. I never had cause to doubt my initial instincts as Norma proved to be the best mentor I could ever have wished for.
I would also like to acknowledge the generous studentship that I was fortunate to be awarded by Kingston University, without which postgraduate study of this nature would have remained firmly beyond reach - as it is - and becomes even more so - for countless others who would relish this hard, yet rewarding journey of growth.
Thanks are due to my brothers and sisters, particularly my older brother, Sean.
Behind this PhD candidate was a fellowship of brilliant friends, whose kind and wise words, often amounting to no more than 'keep going' encouraged me in the low moments. And, of course, to the spirit of Mary Burns (1822-1863) - no mere mistress.
No endeavour is the work of an individual.
Revolution, Romance, and Revelation
In 2003, I rediscovered the works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Over previous years I had read their works, but the inclination to engage in any sustained study eluded me. However, this time I took to it with vigorous interest. I progressed onto secondary reading and was drawn to Engels as a single character, or as a ‘shadow prophet’, which was the title of Grace Carlton’s 1965 biography of him. It was in this work that Engels's long-term partner, Mary Burns, a working-class woman of Irish descent, became a source of intrigue to me. I continued my reading yet found only a few additional references to Burns. I identified with her, being of working-class Manchester-Irish descent myself, and I resented this. I was, I noted, therefore somewhat morbidly heartened to see that Burns's death, on 7th January 1863, caused the one major fall-out between Marx and Engels, when Marx appeared to brush over Burns's premature demise as insignificant (Marx, Engels, Raddatz, 1981). As I pieced together these few scraps I decided I could ‘rescue’ Burns from the shadows of history by writing her biography, but this turned out to be far from straightforward. I was forced to confront both the limitations of the form – biography – and my co-dependent wish to ride in and rescue. Out of this struggle has emerged a work that attempts to use historical research and autobiographical enquiry – ‘autobiografiction’ – to tell a story about Mary Burns.
Section one outlines all the information currently available on the historical Mary Burns, primarily in biographies of Friedrich Engels and in studies by local historians and Marxist historians. I argue that the representation of Burns by Engels's biographers has pushed her further into the background, denying her a voice. I move on to explain the representation of her in my work, Mary Burns, which departs radically from some of that information. One of these departures consists in my positioning Burns as working as a prostitute at the time of meeting Engels, which has been alluded to in recent biographies of him. This was a decision that caused me some anxiety, forcing me to consider whether I was making unwarrantable assumptions and, in doing so, helping to marginalise Burns further.
Section two remains with the issue of the neglected working-class woman by uncovering some of the life and work of Ethel Carnie (1886-1960). I came across Carnie during my research into working-class women in literature. A politically engaged working-class writer and journalist, Ethel Carnie worked in the factories as a young girl and woman. Carnie exemplifies the neglect of working-class women who achieved much, but who have still been unduly overlooked. In this section I question her use(s) of the romance form and make the claim that, in borrowing aspects of both Chartist and New Woman fiction, Carnie adopted a dialectical approach to her writing.
Section three begins with an outline of my own process of setting out to ‘rescue’ Mary Burns. This process was dialectical in nature, progressing from one version (thesis) to a second (antithesis) until reaching a third and final version (synthesis) that was drawn from the tensions and narratological conflicts of the previous two. A dialectical process is congruent with the subject matter of Mary Burns, given that the dialectic is central to Marxist thought. As I show, it can be seen in Ethel Carnie’s work in her grappling for an appropriate form and medium through which to write of issues pertaining to the working-class woman. Frederic Jameson went some way in defining the Marxist dialectic when he stated that ‘the self-consciousness aimed at is the awareness of the thinker’s position in society and in history itself, and of the limits imposed on this awareness by his class position...’(1972, p. 340). Had I settled with my first conception of Mary Burns I would have failed adequately to demonstrate my own position in society – the context in which I, as author, operate. It is also clear that, thinking about the work in this way, each version came to overthrow itself. Jameson also found that: ‘Such thought (in this case of how the book was to be presented) is... essentially process: it never attains some ultimate place of systematic truth in which it can henceforth rest, because it is as if it were dialectically linked to untruth... against which it is perpetually forced to reclaim a fitful apprehension of reality’ (pp. 372-3 ibid).
The process of working on Mary Burns revealed many of my own personal, political and professional needs. I decided to include an alter-ego, Ula Tully, whose story frames, and is framed by, that of Mary Burns. Each of the revelations of process came from regular intensive questioning of what I was doing – an inquiry of writing. In this regard I agree with Sidonie Smith, who states that: ‘When a person from what is sometimes called the metropolitan center (sic) seeks out and interviews people from marginalised and oppressed cultures in order to hear their story, we need to be especially attentive to their purposes and their strategies' (1993, p. 401). Appropriately, I have sought to make clear my own purposes and strategies in my treatment of Mary Burns. By introducing the alter-ego I changed what was initially a novelised biography into a work that can best be described by the term ‘autobiografiction’, coined by Stephen Reynolds in 1906 in a paper of the same name. He went on to write A Poor Man’s House (1908), a book concerned with working-class life that became popular with labour historians. Reynolds’s use of the term is posited within a sense of class-consciousness, suggesting that he felt the need to find a form(s), a frame that was not only different from the novel’s standard bourgeois form, but which also challenged it. I decided upon the use of this term because it most closely describes the mixture of genres that comprise Mary Burns. I conclude this section, and this paper, with the claim that autobiografiction can provide an appropriate form for the working-class author concerned with working-class issues.
Mary Burns (1822-1863) spent over twenty years as the common-law wife of Friedrich Engels, the co-founder of Marxism. Biographies of Engels, the most notable of which are Friedrich Engels, A Biography by Gustav Mayer (1936), Grace Carlton’s Friedrich Engels – The Shadow Prophet (1965), W.O. Henderson’s The Life of Friedrich Engels (1976), David McLellan’s Engels (1977), Terrell Carver’s Engels (1989), and most recently, John Green’s Engels – A Revolutionary Life (2008), and Tristram Hunt’s The Frock Coated Communist – The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels (2009), offer glimpses of Mary Burns that are drawn according to stereotypes of her class and Irish nationality. Local and Marxist historians paint Burns more as an individual, such as Roy Whitfield in Friedrich Engels – The Search for a Shadow (1988), and Edmund and Ruth Frow in Frederick Engels in Manchester and The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 (1995). Yet these too, whilst admirable in their efforts, prove frustratingly meagre.
Irish playwright Frank McGuinness attempted to bring Mary Burns and her only sister, Lizzie, to a wider audience with his 1989 play, Mary and Lizzie, which is the only other real attempt to provide them with a story. His interest in the sisters was sparked by reading To the Finland Station, Edmund Wilson’s 1940 study of socialism, in which Wilson described Engels as living with two Irish sisters. In Mary and Lizzie McGuinness sought to restore to history voices that had too often been relegated to the level of the insignificant, to provide a voice to the otherwise historically mute sisters. Unfortunately, McGuinness succeeds only in creating confusion. Helen Lojek agrees, claiming the confusion was due in large part to McGuinness’s deliberate refusal to provide a linear plot, which made the play a challenge, particularly for anyone expecting naturalism (2003, p. 31).
It could be argued that McGuinness’s attempt was bound to fail from the outset, not least because, as Lojek herself pointed out, the play was never likely to attract or engage a wider audience because it was too hard to follow. But even in its aim of restoring the voices of the Burns sisters, Mary and Lizzie is problematic, not least because he makes no effort to differentiate the sisters. In addition, his characterisation of Mary and Lizzie, especially in comparison with Jenny Marx, as in the eighth scene ‘Dinner with Karl and Jenny’, is crude and inaccurate. McGuinness depicts them as engaged in mutual antagonism with Jenny Marx. He may have wanted to present the sisters as ‘earthy’ and ‘natural’, untainted and in possession of their sensuality, unlike Jenny Marx the bourgeois wife, whose calling cards read Baronness von Westphalen. However, this runs counter to the fact that Jenny Marx got on well with the Burns sisters. Their amicable relationship is evidenced in a letter written by Eleanor Marx to Louise Kautsky, to whom she tells of her parents’ fondness for the Burns sisters. McGuinness seems reluctant to acknowledge or consider the possibility of a socialist sisterhood alongside that ever-present brotherhood between Marx and Engels. It is also significant that McGuinness represents the sisters as not just illiterate, but willfully so:
MARY: We can’t read.
LIZZIE: We don’t want to. (p. 28)
In Mary Burns I have attempted – partly by using a split-narrative – to construct characters that more realistically represent the overlooked, politically active working-class women of the nineteenth century. In this way I hope to ‘...consolidate the past in the present’ in order to ‘alter our conception of the present by changing our version of the past of our literature' (Davies cited by Hawthorn, 1984, pp. 125-138). I also hope to have challenged the myth of progression. For instance, it is clear that Burns resided in a political space that fostered class and gender solidarities, in stark contrast to Ula Tully in the twenty-first century. Although there are those such as Elaine Showalter (1979), and Sheila Rowbotham (1997), who summarise the problem of the history of working-class women there remains a deficiency of texts that either include (fewer still that have been produced by) openly self-identifying working-class women.
Mary Burns was born in 1822. She was the oldest surviving child of textile dyer and factory operative, Michael Burns, and Mary Conroy. Irish immigrants from Tipperary, Mary’s parents had married at St. Patrick’s, one of few Catholic churches in Manchester at that time. Manchester was still dealing with the aftermath of the cataclysm that came to be known as the Peterloo Massacre. Organised by the Manchester Patriotic Union, 60-80,000 of the working-classes and radicals congregated on the site of St. Peter’s Fields on 16th August 1819 to peacefully protest for parliamentary reform. By the end of the day fifteen had been killed and several hundred injured. The Massacre, sardonically named to allude to the battle of Waterloo, occurred when magistrates, alarmed at the size of the ‘mob’, had called in the nearby cavalry from Ardwick Barracks. Armed with swords, they charged into the crowd to arrest the writer Leigh Hunt and other key speakers. The consequences of the military action resulted in mass condemnation and stirred many public figures to speak out. It moved the poet Shelley so much that he wrote The Mask of Anarchy, a ninety-one stanza poem.
Mary Burns had just one surviving younger sister, Lydia, known as Lizzie, five years her junior (1827-1878). There were two other sisters born between Mary and Lizzie but they did not survive infancy.
It is likely that Mary Burns began working in a factory at the age of nine. Whilst this is impossible to substantiate, it was certainly a ‘normal’ age for poor children to commence work. Engels noted that: ‘These operatives are condemned from the ninth year to their death to live under the sword, physically and mentally’ (1969, p. 160). Burns would have begun her working life as a scavenger, a physically strenuous role that involved running underneath the machinery in order to keep it clear of detritus.
Burns's mother died sometime after the birth of Lizzie in 1827, and certainly by 1835 (Whitfield, 1988, p. 69). Aged, at most, thirteen years old when her Mother died, the young Burns’s income would have been vital to the household, which, like many homes in poor and slum districts, was little more than a damp and pestilent cellar.
Burns is fortunate that her youth ran parallel to the growth of the Chartist movement, which was established in 1837. Most biographers of Engels have failed to mention that a Mary Burns is listed as a contributor to the 1839/40 legal defence fund of John Frost and other Chartists who were involved in the Newport Rising (Chartists, 2010).
Burns does not appear in records again until the 1841 census, by which time she and her sister were in domestic service. Mary Burns worked for a family called the Chadfields, the head of which, George Chadfield, was listed as a Master Painter (Whitfield, 1988, p. 22). At a time when society offered scant social provision in times of unemployment domestic service would have been more dependable than the periods of casual factory work, although for those who had previously worked in factories, service meant sacrificing a greater degree of independence. The Burns sisters’ entry into service may also have been a means of escape from a new stepmother.
If Mary Conroy died in 1835, then Michael Burns waited less than a year to wed Mary Tuomey, a widow who brought with her a son. Michael Burns and his new wife had several children together within a relatively short period of time, although only one of these, Thomas, survived infancy (ibid. p. 69).
From the end of 1842 Mary Burns’s whereabouts and activity are more easily imagined, because this marked the time of Engels’s arrival in Manchester. It was not long before he and Burns met. Keen to prise him away from his revolutionary activities and subversive journalism in Barmen, Engels Senior had sent his son to work at the family factory, Ermens & Engels, in which Engels Senior had recently become a partner. The factory ‘employed around 800 workers in the specialist process of manufacturing sewing thread’ (McLellan, 1977, p. 20). The factory was situated in Weaste, Salford, but the office where Engels and the Ermens brothers spent most of their time was at 7 Southgate, off Deansgate. The southern part of Deansgate was notorious for its wretched living conditions. It is here where Mary Burns and her family lived, at least some of the time. The northern part consisted of commercial businesses – offices and fine shops, such as Kendal’s, the main department store, which still exists.
There is much doubt amongst biographers as to where Engels and Burns met. It is claimed, most notably by Edmund Wilson and the socialist Max Beer, that Burns was working at the Weaste factory. This has been rebutted by several biographers because of Engels’s own impressions of the women working at his father’s mill as being ‘...short, dumpy and badly formed, decidedly ugly in the whole development of the figure’ (1969, p. 191). Deformation was certainly an occupational hazard: many operatives were so malnourished and overworked they became deformed and were often below average height. Whilst Whitfield cites Edmund Wilson’s assertion that Engels was having a love affair with an Irish girl named Mary Burns who worked in the Ermens & Engels factory, he warns the reader to exercise caution because Wilson did not provide sources for his information (Whitfield, 1988, p. x)
A recent biographer, John Green, is one of those who refuted this meeting, but instead states that Burns met Engels whilst she was in service, something that Engels’s latest biographer, Tristram Hunt, has repeated. Edmund and Ruth Frow’s conjecture that Burns was not working in service at this time. Nor do they seem convinced of the possibility that, at the time of meeting Engels, she was an Ermens & Engels employee. They suggest that, whilst ‘there is no positive knowledge as to where Friedrich Engels and Mary Burns first met, it is quite possible that it was in the Hall of Science’ and that it was here where she apparently sold oranges, an occupation which could serve as a euphemism for prostitution (1995, p. 9).
Soon after publication of The Frock-Coated Communist, Hunt speculated that Engels’s:
Lifetime partners were two illiterate sisters – first Mary, then Lizzie Burns – of “genuine Irish proletarian blood”, who he might have picked up from his father’s mill. Engels had once condemned the tendency of mill owners to take advantage of female hands; here, he did just that (Hunt, The Guardian, 2009).
The sexual obligations that many female factory operatives were burdened with are made clear by Hunt. It is a point that reinforces the prostitution claim; that the sexual economy was taken for granted. One reviewer has stated that Hunt is ‘tempted to sneer, suggesting hypocrisy on Engels’s part’ (Birchall, 2009). Hunt’s treatment of Burns is in stark contrast to the independent and proud figure offered by Wilson. What all of this demonstrates is just how casually a voiceless person like Mary Burns has been treated and how such treatment has served to keep her sidelined.
Despite the uncertainty as to where the couple met, one thing that many biographers can agree upon is that Burns was responsible for guiding Engels around the slums that provided the material for The Condition of the Working-Classes in England in 1844. This is not just emphasised in the play by McGuinness, but also by Green, who goes so far as to say that ‘the first hand investigation he carries out of the lives of working people in Manchester could never have been done without the help and collaboration of Mary Burns’ (2008, p. 69).
Burns became intimate with Engels during his first eighteen month stay, but she was hidden from those with whom he associated during his official social and business life. However, this was not the case in terms of his political and personal life. Karl Marx was fast becoming Engels’s closest friend. Others who also knew of Engels and Burns’s relationship include the Chartist figures Julian Harney and James Leach, the latter being ‘the author of Stubborn Facts from the Factories, whom Engels regarded as a good friend’ (Henderson, 1976, p. 22). Another close friend was the German poet Georg Weerth.
Weerth, working and living in Bradford, often visited Manchester on his day off and joined Burns and Engels on their walks around the town. Pounding the streets of Manchester:
at all hours of the day and night, on weekends and holidays for example, on Whitsunday, 1844, Georg Weerth a young German workingman and aspiring poet, who was employed in Bradford and whom Engels had befriended…came over to Manchester and spent the day with him, and the daylight hours were consumed by their wandering all about the city… (Marcus, 1978, p. 94).
Engels managed to maintain this dual life by keeping his own separate lodgings at Great Ducie Street. He also rented 24 Daniel Street, a cottage in Hulme, an area favoured by the Irish well into the twentieth century. Close to the centre of the city, Hulme also bore the brunt of the rapid urbanisation and mechanisation, which turned this once rural area into a slum blighted by mass sewage, railway steam and factory smoke, which often blotted out the sun and caused acid rain. Homes were built quickly and carelessly; sanitary conditions were so bad that the area had one of the highest mortality rates. Despite the wretched conditions of most in the area, it was here that Friedrich and Mary were able to live as a couple. Hunt describes them as being ‘in each other’s arms over 1843-4’ (2009, p. 100). This was brought to an end when Engels was called home by his father. Engels ‘appears to have (had) no plans to return to Manchester, so it has to be assumed that he considered his affair with Mary Burns to be over’ (Green, 2009, p. 95). Whilst he threw himself into action Engels could not escape increasingly difficult family relations. Despite his father’s wishes he refused to return to what he called ‘damned commerce’.
In the spring of 1845 Engels left Barmen for Brussels. He was following Marx, who had been deported from Paris at the insistence of the Prussian Government.
Accompanied by Marx, Friedrich returned to Manchester in August 1845 for a six-week stay, and it was during this period that he and Burns were reunited.
This relatively short period of time that Engels and Marx spent in Manchester is focussed on by all biographers, not least because it was Marx’s first visit to the seat of the Industrial Revolution. Many biographers devote a sentence or so to Engels's and Burns's reunion, but there are those, such as Stepanova, who fails to mention it at all. This is in stark contrast to how much is made of the amount of time these founding fathers of Marxism spent at Cheetham’s library. It is here that biographers conjure a scene of intellectual bliss as Marx and Engels immerse themselves in the study of economics. Engels managed to convince Burns to return with them to Brussels, Belgium, undoubtedly her first trip abroad. She and Engels would live together here for over a year, which indicates the strength of their relationship. In Brussels Burns formed good and friendly relations with Marx’s wife and they were soon joined by George Weerth.
Green has suggested that, despite Burns living openly with Engels and enjoying a network of solidarity, Brussels was a time of great loneliness for her:
with only English and a little Gaelic, she will have found it virtually impossible to converse with the others, apart from with Weerth and, to a limited extent, with the Marxes. But with Marx and Engels spending most of their days and evenings locked away in intensive reading and writing, and having little money herself, she will have felt very isolated (Green, 2008, p. 101).
Engels was estranged from his father and his father’s money, which meant that the year was a time of financial struggle. Weerth ‘helps them financially when he can, but they are living from hand to mouth most of the time’ (ibid. p. 103). Despite this, Brussels is the start of what I see as the beginning of Friedrich Engels’s and Mary Burns’s ‘proper’ relationship; the time when she is increasingly referred to as his ‘wife’.
Harney wrote to Engels from England that ‘when I informed my wife of your very philosophical system of writing in couples till 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning, she protested that such philosophy would not suit her’. Harney later joked that had Mrs. Harney been in Brussels ‘she would get up a pronunciamento amongst your wives...’ meaning that she would incite a military uprising, or coup, from those wives against their husbands (Hunt, 2009, p. 129). This letter, used by many biographers as evidence of Marx and Engels’s increasingly close partnership, overlooked the increasing importance of Burns and Engels’s relationship, with Mary now being referred to as Engels’s wife.
In the summer of 1846 Burns returned to Manchester alone, whilst Engels travelled on to Paris.
There is no information to suggest what Burns may have done during 1846-9, but it is reasonable to assume contact was maintained through correspondence if, as I contend, she was literate. These may also have been the letters between them, (or simply from Engels to Burns, for he was a prolific communicator), which Engels was said to have later destroyed. Whitefield asserted that Engels’s purpose was to ‘remove all references to his personal life with Burns and to the methods he had employed to try to disguise his dual existence during those years’ (Whitfield, 1988, p. 7).
At this point we learn nothing more of Burns until 1850, the year Engels returned to Manchester, at which point the couple seem to have proceeded more formally than in 1843/4 and 1845/6: ‘Shortly after returning to... Manchester... he set up house with her in a modest suburb, her sister Lydia (Lizzie) acting as housekeeper. At the same time he occupied bachelor lodgings nearer the centre’ (Carlton, 1965, p. 113). The pair are tracked by Whitfield as Mr & Mrs Boardman and Mr & Mrs Burns as, amongst other aliases, over the years, they move from Moss Grove, Moss-Side to Dover Street in Rusholme to Ardwick and then the address where Burns would spend her last night alive, at 252 Hyde Road, Ardwick.
Burns is next mentioned by reference to the fact that her father and stepmother admitted themselves to Manchester’s notorious workhouse, or ‘Poor Law Bastille’, on New Bridge Street. Michael Burns died there in 1858 and was buried at St. Patrick’s Church in Miles Platting (Whitfield, 1970, p. 7). Whatever the reason for Michael and his wife becoming unable to fend for themselves, be it lack of employment and lack of supportive social provision, or habitual fecklessness, Burns’s relationship with them at the point at which they entered the workhouse must have reached plain indifference.
Just two years before her father’s death, Engels and Burns took a holiday to Ireland. The letter Engels wrote to Marx upon their return, in May 1856, demonstrates the maturation and settled nature of his relationship with Burns, casually referring to ‘we’, and ‘our’ as in ‘during our trip to Ireland...’ (Letters). The trip also served to instil in Engels a genuine sympathy for the Irish plight. I have portrayed this trip as serving to deepen Burns's sympathy for her deceased Father.
Burns and Engels saw approximately two thirds of Ireland during this trip. They travelled from ‘Dublin to Galway... then 20 miles north and inland, on to Limerick, down the Shannon to Tarbert, Traice and Killarney, and back to Dublin...’ (Engels, 1856). He referred to the famine when they saw all the derelict farmhouses, ‘most of which have only been abandoned since 1846... I had never imagined that famine could be so tangibly real. Whole villages are deserted...’ His sympathies are evident when he wrote ‘...through systematic oppression, they have come to be a completely wretched nation and now, as everyone knows, they have the job of providing England, American, Australia, etc., with whores, day labourers, maquereaux, pickpockets, swindlers, beggars and other wretches’ (ibid.).
Apart from this trip to Ireland there is little more to be gleaned of Burns. Even her premature death from a heart attack is considered by Engels’s biographers only for the fact that it gave rise to the much discussed, infamous letter between Engels and Marx.
Soon after Burns’s death Engels and Lizzie Burns formed an intimate relationship that would last for the next fifteen years. Lizzie Burns died in 1878, whilst they were living on Regent’s Park Road in Primrose Hill, London. A day before her death Engels had conceded to Lizzie Burns's dying wish that they marry, making her Engels's only official wife.
My first major departure from the portrayal of Burns by Engels's biographers is the decision to start Mary Burns in 1832, and not in 1831, the year she was said to have begun work. There were many dramatic advantages to this.
It was a year made notable for its outbreaks of disease, resulting in increasing panic, which stirred public health figure Dr. Kay to compile what became his internationally renowned improvement works of Manchester’s fourteen districts. His inspection of these areas formed the foundation of his report, propelling him to public prominence. Ironically it was also the year in which the economy experienced its ‘green shoots of recovery’ from the cotton depression of previous years. The year of 1832 made an ideal starting point for a poverty-stricken young girl to take her first foray into the increasingly hungry factories.
The conditions of work were severe. The average day for a factory worker was to wake at 5 am, work from 6 – 8 am, at which time half an hour for breakfast was granted, and then work until noon. An hour was given for the mid-day meal, ‘which contained little meat, and might be only boiled potatoes with lard or butter. They then returned back to work until 7pm, perhaps later’ (Messinger, 1985, p. 23).
From Burns’s first day I show how one can submit to factory life, suppressing the rage, falling into the daily monotony and grind of the condition described by Marx and Engels as alienated labour. I show Burns's fascination and growing engagement that occurs as a result of her attendance at Chartist meetings, which makes her a part of an increasing mass intent on self-preservation through dissent.
Led by Feargus O’Connor, the Chartists demanded Six Points that were set forth in a Charter. Initially devised by William Lovett and the leaders of the London’s Working Men’s Association the Charter had originally called for women’s suffrage, yet this was quickly abandoned for fear that it would result in no suffrage at all. However, Lovett, a Knowledge Chartist, who believed that education was the key leading to reform, was at odds with O’Connor, a physical force Chartist. O’Connor believed that the various movements within Chartism, such as temperance Chartism and moral force Chartism, distracted away from their true cause. He believed that the granting of these six points should not be contingent on whether they were tee-total, engaged in arguments of morality or on how educated they were. I show Burns remaining true to O’Connor. This was a decision based on Engels's own ‘impatience with patience’, and his favouring of O’Connor and other prominent physical force Chartists, such as George Julian Harney.
Part of Feargus O’Connor’s attraction, particularly for first and second-generation Irish immigrants, lay in the rumour that he was descended from the ancient Kings of Eire. This became a legend which O’Connor made no move to dispel and which helped attract Irish workers to stand alongside their English counterparts, swelling the Chartist ranks even more.
The collective memory of Peterloo fuelled the need for justice from many of the Chartists and was regularly invoked amongst them. Indeed, the symbolism of that day, and Peterloo’s links with the French Revolution, can be seen in the proud wearing of Liberty Caps on public occasions. I allude to Mary Burns's father as burdened with the memories of Peterloo and the failures of protest, which serve as partial explanations for his cynicism towards the Chartists, and which adds another point of antagonism between father and daughter.
I show that the death of Burns's mother is a turning point for her – Burns holds her father partly responsible for that death whilst she also has to become more responsible for her younger sister.
In 1842 I feature Mary grappling with a period of despair as she has left her employ with the Chadfields, unable to tolerate the fictionalised sexual advances of the lecherous Mr. Chadfield. The sexual advances of the ‘mill masters’, as well as male heads of households, was a point often made in working-class protests. It also featured in literature, particularly around the birth of the novel, such as the earliest works of Samuel Richardson. Yet these are the hungry forties, with 1842 being the worst year of that decade, and Burns is left in the vicious circle of trying to return to factory work. It is here that I portray her as having to resort to prostitution, which leads to my second departure from Engels’s biographers and local historians.
Portraying Mary as a prostitute
Whitfield, Green, and Hunt claim that Burns was still in service at the time of meeting Engels in early 1843 (1988, 2008, 2009). Yet I wondered where she would have had the time, freedom and energy to guide Engels around those areas for The Condition of the Working-Classes in England in 1844.
Maids-of-all-works worked very long hours – dawn till dusk – and could not be conveniently slotted around Engels’s office hours or even at weekends. There is also the only document directly pertaining to Burns to take into consideration, a poem by George Weerth (Cited by Green, 2008, pp. 102-3 from Sommer, KD, (ed.) 1970, Poesiealbum 37), which is laden with allusions and double-entendre as it refers to Mary's 'bearded acquaintances' at Liverpool Docks, where she sold her 'juicy fruits'. The prostitution motif is obvious.
Von Irland kam sie mit der Flut,
Sie kam von Tipperary;
Sie hatte warmes, rasches Blut,
Die junge Dirn, die Mary.
Und als sie keck ans Ufer sprang,
Da riefen die Matrosen:
"Die Dirne Mary, Gott sei Dank,
Gleicht einer wilden Rosen!"
Und als sie schritt zum Markte frank,
Sprach ein Gesell mit Grüßen:
"Die Dirne Mary, Gott sei Dank,
Geht auf zwei weißen Füßen."
Und als sie saß zu Liverpool
Mit schwarz verwegnen Blicken,
Da wollten sich um ihren Stuhl
Die Menschen schier erdrücken.
Von Irland kam sie mit der Flut,
Sie kam von Tipperary:
"Wer kauft Orangen, frisch und gut?"
So rief die Dirn, die Mary.
Und Mohr und Perser und Mulatt
Und Juden wie Getaufte -
Das ganze Volk der Handelsstadt,
Es kam und kaufte, kaufte.
Da fuhr kein Schiff den Fluß hinauf,
Da schwamm auch keins zum Meere:
Saß ein verliebter Schiffsjung drauf
Und dacht: Oh, wenn ich wäre
Erst auf dem Markt zu Liverpool,
Da sitzt von Tipperary,
Mit den Orangen auf dem Stuhl,
Die junge Dirn, die Mary!
Gab es wohl größre Liebe je?
Die Dirn am Mersey-Strande
Hatt tausend Schätze auf der See
Und mehr noch auf dem Lande.
In jeder Zone, wo der Mast
Von einem Fahrzeug krachte,
Schwamm eine Seemannsseele fast,
Die an Orangen dachte. -
Sie aber trotzte wild und keck,
Ob auch die Lippen brannten,
Stets an des Markts geschäft'ger Eck
Den bärtigen Bekannten.
O Leid um all die frischen Küss -
Sie hatte kein Erbarmen,
Sie fluchte, schrie, und ach, sie riß
Sich los aus allen Armen!
Und mit dem Geld, das sie gewann
Für saft'ge, goldne Früchte,
Lief hurtig sie nach Hause dann
Mit zornigem Gesichte.
Sie nahm das Geld und schloß es ein;
Und erst im Januare
Gen Irland sandte flink und fein
Das blanke sie und bare.
"Das ist für meines Volkes Heil,
Das schenk ich euern Kassen!
Auf, schärft den Säbel und das Beil
Und schürt das alte Hassen!
Wild überwuchern möchte gern
Den Klee von Tipperary
Die Rose England - grüßt den Herrn
O'Connell von der Mary
(My emphasis on 'dirne'.)
Correspondence with Green highlighted the word 'dirne' in the second stanza. Dirne, particularly in the nineteenth century, referred to a girl or young maid. However, it was also used as a synonym for prostitute, harlot, or strumpet and this is now its contemporary meaning.
Engels biographer Hunt refers to the poem by saying that Werth ‘recounts in deliciously laboured verse the life of a vivacious young Fenian girl selling oranges on the Liverpool docks’ (2009, p. 99).
Traditionally, the selling of oranges was a euphemism for prostitution. It sprang up during the Restoration period and applied to girls/women who sold oranges at the theatre. This is not to ignore Engels’s description of the Hall of Science in a letter of 1843, in which he states that: ‘In one corner of the hall is a stall where books and pamphlets are sold and in another booth with oranges and refreshments, where everyone can obtain what he needs or to which he can withdraw if the speech bores him’ (Letters). When the established euphemism of ‘selling oranges’ is combined with Weerth’s salacious tone as well as his possible use of the synonym of dirne, the allusions made by a few of Engels biographers are clear.
One of the main questions arising from the poem is whether Weerth would have taken such liberty with Burns in print had she been Engels’s official wife? It seems unlikely. Yet the last stanza presents her as a mythological character – the spirited woman who sells her ‘juicy fruits’ to donate money to the Irish Cause. Seen in this light Burns is changed from a common ‘whore’, or even ‘grisette’ (an ambiguous term that will shortly be discussed), to one who is involved and committed to the causes they champion.
Weerth’s poem also draws on the same motifs of Christina Rossetti’s famous poem, Goblin Market, written in 1859 and published in 1862. Rossetti’s poem, about two sisters named Laura and Lizzie, contains unmistakable sexual imagery, bound up with the goblin merchants’ selling of 'fruits'.
Prostitution during the century was rife and Engels, like many young middle-class men about town, had a ‘roving eye’; it is well known that he liked to indulge himself when it came to wine and women. In one of his allusions to Burns's prostitution, whilst also stressing the deep affection between Burns and Engels, Hunt also states that she was ‘for Engels, a very helpful entree into the dark continent of industrial Manchester. Taking him by the hand, Mary Burns acted as his underworld Persephone, profoundly enriching Engels’s appreciation of capitalist society’ (Hunt, 2009, p. 100).
Shortly after the publication of his biography, Hunt claimed that Engels was a man mired in ‘supreme self-contradiction – particularly when it came to feminism’:
He was a socialist who condemned the use of prostitutes as “the most tangible exploitation – one directly attacking the physical body – of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie,” but then regularly enjoyed their services. He demanded female equality, but couldn’t bear the company of high-minded women. Engels was the intellectual architect of socialist feminism, and an old-fashioned sexist (Hunt, The Guardian, 2009).
Hunt’s particular claim that Engels visited prostitutes was reached on the basis of a letter that Engels wrote to Marx in 1846 in which Engels said:
If I had an income of 5000 francs I would do nothing but work and amuse myself with women until I went to pieces. If there were no Frenchwomen, life wouldn’t be worth living. But so long as there are grisettes well and good!
Despite the point that Hunt emphasises, it is doubly strange that he fails to openly entertain the idea that Burns could also be a ‘grisette’.
The failure of Engels's biographers to make any claims about a woman already in Engels’s shadow may be a result of assuming that prostitution was a downward spiral with all chance of returning to ‘decency’ relinquished. It is a picture that we have inherited from the Victorians. Prostitution as a state of total ruin from which there was no return abounds in the art and literature of the period, such as Augustus Egg's moralising triptych Past and Present, or many novels by novels by Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell. Yet this apocalyptic scene was far from true. One such counter voice came from Dr. Acton who, writing in 1857, said that: ‘prostitution is a transitory state, through which an untold number of British women are ever on their passage’ (p .73). There is also a strong argument, much-echoed, particularly by Judith Walkowitz, that prostitution was something that was resorted to in times of legitimate unemployment and which would, in the wake of the 1834 Poor Law, keep the gates of the Workhouse at a healthy distance. In short, it served as a life preserver in times of desperate need. Acton sought to dispel the myths that ‘once a prostitute always a prostitute’; that there was no possible advance, moral or physical, in the condition of the actual prostitute; and that the harlot’s progress is short and rapid’ (Acton, cited by Walkowitz, 1980, p. 45).
It is telling that many saw working in the factories and mines as differing little from actual prostitution, not least Engels himself. Engels's biographer Henderson emphasises this when he underlines Engels's claim that prostitutes learn their trade in the factories (Henderson, 1976, p. 327). I portray Burns encountering Engels as she waits by the Hall of Science, a suitably symbolic site of exchange. By quickly following this with a placement of Burns within the Ermens & Engels mill I hope to have shown prostitution as this short-term measure. It is in the Ermens & Engels mill that they encounter each other in a different context, along with an earlier meeting at a Chartist gathering. These two meetings, coming quickly on the heels of their night together, then serve as the basis for a strong continuing relationship.
In correspondence with me in early 2010, Engels’s biographer John Green explained that he could not imagine that Engels could have built a lasting relationship with Burns had she been a prostitute. His response raises the issue of projecting middle-class (masculine) morals onto our subjects, as well as the motives of his biographers. Each biographer, confronted with a dearth of information on Burns, has presented her to suit their own ideas as to who Engels was and what his prejudices may have been; in doing so they have upheld stereotypes about working-class (Irish) women of that era.
The treatment of Burns by Engels’s female biographers is different to most of the male biographers. Stepanova, for instance, describes the relationship as being on a surer footing, stating that it was only in the company of his Irish wife, Marry [sic] was he able to relax and meet his Communist friends... [Mary was] a devoted and loving woman [who was] a powerful support and comfort to Engels during the dark days’ (1958, p. 118). This is in marked contrast to the impression given by Carver, who describes Burns as little more than ‘a bit on the side’, which he reinforces by neglecting to mention her until mid-way through his, albeit slim, book (1981, p. 35). Yet even here he brings her into the narrative only to comment upon Engels’s departure to London to be near Marx and that, with Burns having died in 1863, ‘her sister Lizzie took her place in Engels’s life until 1877, when Engels married her the day before she died [after which] Engels’s household was then managed by Lizzie’s niece...’ (ibid.). Carver creates the impression that Engels treated the Burns sisters, and the niece, as being there only to service him; when one packed up another soon took its place. Even Whitfield, who devoted the most space to Engel's relationships with Mary and Lizzie Burns, also commented of the sisters that ‘the experience they gained in service would have equipped them for their positions in later years as keepers of the Engels household' (1988, p. 22).
Engels's biographers have consistently portrayed Mary Burns as illiterate, which constitutes my second major departure in how I characterise her. I came to view this illiteracy as being another easy track followed blindly by each subsequent biographer. It was certainly a cliché too easily attributed to the working-classes during this time. It is ironic, then, that whilst those such as Hunt and Green attribute much credit to Burns for making The Condition of the Working-Classes in England in 1844 a reality, her illiteracy has gone unchallenged, despite there being information on literacy amongst the working-classes throughout the nineteenth century to suggest otherwise. Hilaire Belloc claimed that widespread illiteracy was a myth (cited by Webb, 1950, pp. 333-351). Ironically, Hunt comes close to conceding Burns’s literacy when he refers to a quote saying as much. However, two pages later he claims she was not. This is not lost on Birchall: [Hunt] ‘makes a rare slip in describing Mary as “illiterate” when two pages earlier he had given proof that she could read and write’ (Socialist Review, 2009). The proof to which Birchall refers is the oft-cited letter, from Eleanor Marx to Karl Kautsky, in which Burns is described as ‘... a very pretty, witty and altogether charming girl... Of course, as she was a Manchester factory girl, quite uneducated, though she could read, and write a little...’(cited by Hunt, 2009, p. 98).
As a Chartist Burns was an active woman with a strong political consciousness garnered from within a like-minded robust and knowledge-hungry community. Chartism was a political organisation that valued auto-didacticism for its emancipator potential. It also relied on the written word – from banners to newspapers to petitions. Indeed, it needs to be questioned how uneducated a group of people actually are when the poetry of Shelley and Byron, and the works of those such as Thomas Paine, were often fluently recited and consciously used as tools of political rhetoric.
The glimpse of Burns offered by Eleanor Marx certainly cast a new light on her in my mind. It helped me feel that, in giving her a direct voice, in the narratalogical sense, I would be moving towards greater authenticity. I employed first person in the epistolary section of her story when, from 1845-6, I have her writing to her sister whilst Mary Burns is in Brussels.
I increasingly came to view Burns's illiteracy as impossible – not least when one considered the great value Engels, himself a life-long learner, placed on literacy and learning. Before I began what would be the third version of Mary Burns, I found myself describing Burns to a friend as illiterate, to which his reply was, ‘Well, wouldn’t Engels have taught her?’ The fact that this was not considered by his biographers reveals much about the relationship they assumed Burns and Engels had.
The Education Act of 1870, which outlined a framework for the formal education of children aged from five to twelve years of age, came too late for Mary Burns. Although it would benefit a later generation it would not remove working-class children from the clutches of the factories. Ethel Carnie was one such beneficiary of the Act, but had to work part-time in a factory from the age of eleven, before leaving school and going full-time from the age of thirteen. Like Burns Carnie was politically active, although Carnie channelled her experiences into writing. She began with poetry and moved into journalism, founding one of the earliest anti-fascist journals, The Clear Light, in addition to producing ten novels. Carnie wrote her last novel in 1931 and died in 1963. Since then her work has been known only to a few, including Dr. Kathleen Bell of De Montfort University who has championed Carnie's work. From these efforts a re-issue of her book, This Slavery, is set to appear in 2011, to include an introduction by Nicola Wilson, who declares that the work is ‘a rare novel written by a working-class woman and marks a key intervention in socialist feminist interwar debate’ (Cottontown, 2010).
Gustav Klaus (1987) also explored some of Carnie's novels, along with Angela Ingram and Daphne Patai (1993), Pamela Fox (1994), and Mary Ashraf (1979). Christopher Hilliard mentioned Carnie in his 2006 work, in a section examining working-class writers who wrote ‘for their own people'. Carnie's heroines are working-class women, struggling to keep body and soul together, whether it is in domestic service, the factory, or the institution of marriage. It is in ‘writing for her own people’ that perhaps best explains Carnie's neglect, despite the fact that all her works share the concerns that preoccupy many: anti-capitalism, socialism and feminism.
The reason why Carnie's work has been ignored has much to do with a general disdain for working-class literature, or ‘writings’, as they are commonly referred to. This demarcation between literature and writings invokes the high/low culture debate, undoubtedly accounting for their absence from ‘literary’ canons. Predisposed to melodrama, and predominantly concerned with the collective, working-class literature loses out to the bourgeois psychological journeys of the individual. Valentine Cunningham represents the view of the academy when he observed that working-class writers fail to avoid:
... the faults of their sort: triteness and melodrama of plot, sentimental class chauvinism about workers, urgent dogmatisms, as well as a tendency to make the workers, especially members of the Communist Party, into men and women of excessive heroism and unbelievably steely militancy (1998, p. 309).
Another reason for Carnie's neglect could be that her most active period was one in which the dominant women’s literary tradition was the ‘mediocre middlebrow’, which continued in full force until the 1950s. Efforts have been made to recover those middle-brow novels considered to have been unjustly forgotten. Subsequently they have been introduced to a contemporary readership, via both feminist and mainstream publishing houses. These efforts have also produced essays aimed at the academic, thereby reaching a new generation of students and readers. Carnie’s works have also been blocked out by the critical preoccupation with modernist writers of this era.
However, apart from Bell, Klaus et al, there have been efforts to uncover neglected voices such as Carnie's. Since the nineteen seventies there has been an increased call by feminist academics such as Elaine Showalter, Sheila Rowbotham, Angela Ingram, Daphne Patai, and others, to ‘rescue’ women writers who have not just been ‘forgotten’, but overlooked, and ‘abandoned’; to bring them from the margins of history and introduce them to a wider audience; to give them, the shop girl and the factory worker, a ‘voice’. Of course, there are far fewer of these to bring to light. Barriers to working-class women writing include time and resources; those who did write may not have maintained personal papers such as diaries and correspondence for future generations to mine.
The absence of the working-class woman from mainstream discourses is compounded when we realise that the very term ‘working-class’ has long been constituted as masculine. In addition, male working-class writers such as Walter Greenwood, John Braine, and Alan Sillitoe have, to a certain extent, been subsumed into the mainstream. This masculine constitution of ‘working-class’ is evidenced by the recent launch of an online archive of working-class literature (although the site is called workingclasslit, it refers to them as ‘writings’). The archive was conceived by Timothy G. Ashplant, which is comprised of 812 authors; 784 are male, and the remaining twenty-eight are of ‘unknown sex’. Not one woman has been listed. There are small projects that have chosen to focus on women such as Carnie. For instance, Meagan Timney of Dalhousie University is building an online archive of Victorian working-class women poets, comprised of eighteen women. Carnie's poetry has garnered some critical focus. Patricia Johnson (2005) hones in on the development of a working-class feminist vision in Carnie's poetry, but her novels are barely touched on. The same approach to Carnie's poetry is also made by Susan Alves (2000).
This focus by some on poetry when it comes to working-class literature is understandable, given that it played a vital role in working-class politics. The Northern Star, the main Chartist newspaper, had its own poetry section, to which readers steadily submitted. Unlike our contemporary age of high-tech multi-media, poetry had fewer forms of entertainment with which to contend. Publications such as Punch carried cerebral comic verse, and the Poet Laureate of the era, Tennyson, was a much-sought after celebrity.
The areas in which Carnie grew up in Lancashire were also marked by a particularly strong poetic tradition. One possible reason for the adoption of poetry by the working classes as part of their political activities is that its condensed form is more amenable to the powerful polemic than the novel. Poetry also earned Carnie her first way out of the factory.
Robert Blatchford, a founder of the Independent Labour Party, read Carnie's earliest verse, which led him to offer her a position on his London-based magazine, The Woman Worker. Carnie took this opportunity to cover issues that affected working-class women. However, she left just seven months later. Roger Smalley suggests that Carnie’s departure was due to Blatchford’s uneasiness at Carnie's increasingly political and vociferous views (Smalley, 2006, p. 99). Following her return to Lancashire Carnie was replaced by Blatchford’s own daughter, Winifred, at which point the title took on a more genteel and impartial tone (ibid. p. 89). The title was also changed to the less leftist and more ‘feminine’ ‘Women Folk’. Despite this Carnie continued to have articles published by the title (ibid. p. 89). According to Edmund & Ruth Frow, it was not long after her departure Carnie felt that poetry was no longer meeting her expressive needs. She moved away from the abstract notions of beauty and nature found in her poetry to the concrete, pragmatic prose that she employed in her novels and ‘...became aware of herself as a woman, consciously and conscientiously writing with women as the pivot of her stories (1987, p. 251). Her increasingly political writings are no surprise given her upbringing.
Ethel Carnie was born in 1886 in a small Lancashire mill town. Her father was a member of the Social Democratic Federation (SDF), which was established in 1881, more than three decades from the end of Chartism. Key SDF members included Karl Marx’s daughter, Eleanor. Carnie’s father encouraged her political knowledge, and would later take his daughter to political meetings and helped to clothe her instinctive socialist attitudes with scientific understanding (Frow, 1982, p. 251). There was much to kick back against. The years from the collapse of Chartism to the emergence of the SDF were ‘the golden age of British capitalism, with free trade and individualism the dominant ideologies’ (Crick, 1994, p. 13). Whereas earlier in the century Mary Burns grew up under the collective memory of the Peterloo Massacre, Carnie grew up under the memory of the original ‘Bloody Sunday’, which occurred in November 1887. Testing a ban on all public meetings in London’s Trafalgar Square, the SDF and other radical groups, like their Chartist predecessors, formed a demonstration against the coercion in Ireland. Thousands of police and hundreds of troops, including volunteer constables, formed to quell the proceedings. The demonstration, intercepted before reaching Trafalgar Square, resulted in hundreds of injuries (ibid. p. 47). It would seem that whilst these mass demonstrations did not result in revolution, the sense of injustice that the police and military exacerbated through their heavy-handedness, and the heroic mythologizing of the protestors, fuelled awareness of the causes that were of particular importance to the working-classes.
Carnie's first novel, Miss Nobody, published in 1913 by Methuen, was written between serving customers at the draper’s shop her mother had taken on in Little Harwood (cited by Smalley, 2009, p. 58), and between lectures at Owens College, where she registered as a non-degree student from 1911-191 (ibid. p. 58). This was followed by Helen of Four Gates (1917), The Taming of Nan (1920), The Marriage of Elizabeth (1920), The House That Jill Built (1920), General Belinda (1924), This Slavery (1925), The Quest of the Golden Garter (1927), Barbara Dennison (1929), All On Her Own (1929), and Eagles’ Crag (1931).
Carnie gave up novel writing in 1931, at the age of 46, an age arguably within a writer’s prime. Years after Carnie’s death, her daughter, interviewed by Edmund and Ruth Frow, said that her mother stopped writing novels because she was ‘worn out’. The familiar northern idiom that Carnie's daughter used is telling; it can be unpacked in this literary context to suggest that she may have turned her back on the novel because she felt that she had exhausted herself writing, perhaps with a sense of futility, about women like herself. The very nature of Carnie's subject matter is itself exhausting, albeit lightened somewhat with romance, although even this was obviously not enough for her to continue. Novel writing, as Carnie's daughter makes clear, had become a long struggle, which brings us to consider Raymond William’s observation that:
The novel with its quite different narrative forms was virtually impenetrable to working-class writers for three or four generations, and there are still many problems in using the received forms for what is, in the end, very different material... ...the forms of working-class consciousness are bound to be different from the literary forms of another class, and it is a long struggle to find new and adequate forms… (Williams, 1987, cited by Beverly, 1992, p. 92, in Smith & Watson, 1992, pp. 91-114).
The struggle for an ‘adequate form’, particularly one that could wed class with gender, may have been responsible for ‘wearing’ Carnie out. This search is evident in her work, and is the main reason I felt compelled to include Carnie's work for how her 'cobbling' together various genres reflects the approach I finally chose to adopt in my own Mary Burns - A Work of Autobiografiction. For instance, her novel Miss Nobody juxtaposes ‘urban and pastoral sites, along with realist, proletarian, and “folk” narrative, (as a result) it defies simple categorization’ (Fox, 1994, p. 61). This ambiguous categorization can also be seen as another reason for Carnie's neglect. Fox agrees, claiming that her work has been ignored or mishandled by critics otherwise keen to embrace working-class writers because it defies assumptions about working-class politics and literary practice’ (ibid. p. 58).
Carnie's dialectical approach - the 'motor' that drives the autobiografictive content - can, I believe, be seen in her wedding of class with gender by appropriating aspects of the New Woman novel with the Chartist novel. This can be seen in her 1924 novel, General Belinda. This is despite the fact that ‘... the Marxist interpretation of culture did not become widely effective in England until the ‘thirties of our own century’ (Williams, 1987, p. 655). As well as being a pioneer working-class female writer, Carnie was also ahead of her time in her anti-fascist politics. This is demonstrated in her founding of the journal, The Clear Light. Therefore there is little reason not to believe her being ‘ahead of the curve’ when it came to Marxist interpretations of culture. Yet, put simply, the dialectical approach is adopted by any writer keen to expose contradictions and intent on providing a story that raises questions and which seeks ‘a’ truth, in this case about working-class women like Carnie and Burns, and their representation, or lack thereof.
Carnie's dialectical approach can also be read in her use of romance, particularly in light of her quote on ‘innate cheek’ that is included further on, with which she works knowing its contradictions. Her attitude towards the institution of marriage is one that was shared by Engels and, presumably, Burns.
It should also be noted that, the mere act of providing interpretations of Carnie’s novels also bestows on them the same dignity of theory that has long been afforded to those works considered to be literary, but which it could be argued, only the interpretation of a ‘critical industry’, serving as a stamp of approval, can provide.
The New Woman novel, which I claim Carnie wed with the tradition of the Chartist novel, was preoccupied with middle-class women’s need for freedom in the public sphere and from the constraints of domesticity and patriarchy. Instead of this archetypal middle-class ‘New Woman’ in General Belinda, Carnie nestled the working-class woman into place as a ‘General’, providing an image of a working-class woman who was not afraid to be herself. Carnie's heroines can be seen as a challenge to mainstream representation of working-class women because they run counter to two long-held images of such women as either the victimised, bedraggled and overly humble who needed to be ‘rescued’ by middle-class ‘missionaries’, by novelists such as Dickens and Gaskell, or those ‘bigmouths’, who were mocked in the mainstream press - both stereotypes that I was anxious to avoid projecting onto Mary Burns. From the early eighteenth century onwards politically aware and active working-class women were often portrayed as harpies and harridans in the cartoons of the day, such as those regularly appearing in Punch magazine, many of which, like Burns, found their voices in the Chartist movement. In providing this space for women ‘of her own kind’ Carnie challenged the image of the working-class woman as ripe for mockery or condescension, of needing to either be helped or silenced, as well as the idea that the exclusive feminist pioneer was the middle-class woman. The calls from ‘New Women’, particularly on the issue of universal suffrage, were made long before by the likes of Mary Burns and Chartist members of both sexes. In addition, Carnie also subverted ‘mainstream’ New Woman feminism by claiming the private sphere to be an urgent concern for the working-class woman – the freedom to stay at home and be a mother.
Carnie's appropriation of the Chartist novel is a continuation of the working-class political and literary tradition. Mary Ashraf uses three of Carnie's novels as part of a scheme to show connections between working-class writing from the Chartist period in the 1830s - Mary Burns's era - through to the advanced socialist literature of the early twentieth century, so that she can claim it is part of a historically determined social process (Smalley, 2009, p. 51). Carnie drew on the Chartist novel, particularly its predilection for melodrama. The Chartist novel, writers of which included Ernest Wilson and Thomas Hood, borrowed heavily from the tactics of the increasingly popular magazines, which also contained much romance.
This neglect and misreading of the working-class woman and her work, which Carnie exemplifies - and which, as I demonstrated in the first section, was the treatment of Burns by Engels's biographers - has as much to do with the women of the academy as it does the men; working-class feminism clearly did not, and to a significant extent still does not, accord with that of the middle-class woman who now also ‘mans’ the literary gates and decides what is recovered/‘uncovered’, and what remains hidden.
Similar to the way that, whenever Burns has been mentioned it has been in stereotypical terms, so too Carnie. Whenever Carnie is mentioned in regard to her novels, it is as a romance novelist, (despite the ambiguity of genre mentioned by Fox), which serves as another reason for her neglect, given that romance has long been seen as ‘unliterary’ and frivolous - and therefore unworthy of rigorous critical treatment. The popularity of romance with working-class women has also long been ridiculed as little more than a pacifier. Carnie's male contemporaries added to the chorus of disapproval, including the Lancashire School, a group comprised of Arthur Laycock, Fred Plant, Allen Clarke, James Haslam, Peter Lee and John Tamlyn. Unlike Carnie these men enjoyed a common outlet and writerly solidarity in which to foster their work and ideas – all without needing to encounter the vagaries of the private publishing house. Instead, the Lancashire School published through Clarke’s publication, The Northern Weekly. Paul Salveson observes that ‘without this it seems unlikely that the Lancashire School would ever have appeared at all, given its highly political content, and the strong regional thrust, through its use of dialect and depiction of local customs and culture’ (Salveson, 1987, pp. 172-202). Fox opens her essay, in which she claims that Carnie used romance as a political tool, with a quote from James Haslam, member of the Lancashire Group, from an article in The Manchester City News (1906):
‘Romance, romance, romance’, is their monotonous cry. Romance served up in penny batches; romance that depends upon nonsensical scenes, shallow thoughts, spurious philosophy, and unreal life, for its popularity (Fox,1993, p. 57, in Ingram, A & Patai, D [Eds]).
Fox argues that, being a linchpin of the patriarchal system, romance has always been ripe for critique from writers such as Mary Wollstonecraft onwards. For working-class women, however, ‘beginning in a different place in relation to the convention of romance... it can never be fully available as an “intimate” register of cultural practices’ (ibid. p. 59). Desiring the romance script itself, she claims, can be seen as a transgressive act. Working-class women had to be much more pragmatic. This is clear in Burns's case, when she has to resort to prostitution, a move reinforced by Dr Acton's study that explains the transitory nature of prostitution being tied to periods of economic necessity. It can also be seen in my creative work when Engels returns to Manchester in 1845, and Mary dare not fall into romantic dreams that Engels has returned to 'rescue' her. Fox continues this long-running meme of necessity that runs through the history of working-class women, with mothers traditionally telling daughters that ‘romance was purely a fantasy with little relevance to their lives and that marriage was primarily an economic relation, rather than a fulfilment of love, to be performed as a perfunctory ritual (if at all) (ibid.).
In the opening to one of her essays Fox begins by citing Carnie from her days at The Woman Worker, where she pleaded with her fellow women to ‘go out and play’ (ibid. p. 57) citing Carnie – Woman Worker 14th April 1909). She also cites Carnie from an earlier issue in an article entitled The Factory Slave, in which she shows only too clearly Carnie’s alertness to what is considered subversive of the working-classes when she writes: 'Girlhood glides into womanhood, and one falls in love. (Which shows the innate cheek of the working-class, who dare to dream of happiness living from hand to mouth)', (ibid. 3rd March 1909).
Echoing Fox, who cannot fathom Carnie writing romance for the sake of romance without there being a political message, a resistance to stereotypes, Roger Smalley claims that Carnie used romance to coax women into the more serious political issues included in her stories. It is a common justification of why politically aware writers opted for the romantic ‘page-turner’. It is appropriate then to turn to the act of reading romance.
Janice Radway’s study of romance reading breaks no new ground in telling us that romance reading is a form of escape and relaxation (1984). There is no reason to think this was any different in the 1920s. In fact, this was more likely to be the case in a country mourning hundreds of thousands of men who were killed in the First World War, destroying the marriage and family prospects of as many women in the process. However, Radway’s study makes apparent that it is not just the content of these novels that provides the escapism, but the actual act of reading. In Carnie's case the reading was straightforward and ‘pragmatic’, which made her novels easier for work-tired women to enter into. This immersion into reading, is also the ‘utopian private arena in which one is valued for one’s gendered self alone’ (Fox, p. 24, 1993 [Eds. Ingram, Patam, 1993]), which Fox claims that romance provides.
Many of the women surveyed by Radway say they received disapproval from husbands and families who would rather the attention accorded to these books be diverted to them instead, implying an emotional absence on the part of the reader. Therefore who has the stronger claim in terms of Carnie’s use of romance – Smalley or Fox? And are they not simply on the same sheet – that the romance is itself a transgressive act, one that offered a temporal space of escapism, as well as including political concerns? It cannot be determined whether Carnie's readers were brought to consider issues they would not usually as a result of reading her books. However, it is important also to highlight that those surveyed by Radway seem to be reading for something different than those readers from Carnie's time – the latter set can be seen as reading for escapism from, amongst other things such as the daily grind, as lack of marriage and romance prospects, and the former set – as perhaps did earlier generations – read for escapism from married life and, for working-class women, the daily grind of having to work outside the home. The point that applies to both Radway’s romance readers and those of Carnie's is the same – escapism. Is it a transgressive act? It is when we consider the fact that it can cause problems in relationships and in the home in that it diverts attention away from the spouse and family. Romance reading can be seen as being both covert and overt transgression.
Despite being opposed to marriage as an institution, unlike Burns, Carnie did marry. Whilst working at The Woman Worker, her comments on the issue were, in Smalley’s words, ‘uniformly hostile...She believed it was an inimical institution which society would be better without’ (2006, p. 78). Yet Carnie's treatment of marriage in General Belinda is not hostile, but pragmatic, allowing no room to desire the romance script. The heroine is thirty years old and lives with her parents until her father’s death. The next door neighbour wants to marry Belinda, yet she declares that he cannot afford to marry. In doing this Carnie is drawing attention to several issues. Firstly, the inherent feminism that is revealed as the story develops is one that also considers working-class masculism. A man cannot earn enough to be able to marry and raise a family and so they are both financially, emotionally and physically repressed. The daughter of Belinda’s employers, Cora Ridding, a New Woman who refers to Belinda by her first name and who mocks her mother’s grandiosity, is being coerced into marriage with an old man for financial gain. There is no romance in this either. It is a situation Engels was certainly keen to avoid - particularly with Mary - a relationship, it could be argued, was kept more alive and stimulating because he could not, or would not, bring it into the bourgeois mainstream and thus potentially 'deadening' it through convention. Engels can be seen - in a different way - as yearning for romance more than the women, thus challenging the stereotype so scorned by Haslam et al. It is through both women in General Belinda, Belinda as the working-class domestic servant, and Cora as the New Woman, that Carnie seeks to build a bridge – romance can be sought by both, but that, until there is concerted action to change capitalist society romance is little more than an illusion. Mary Burns is portrayed as instinctively knowing this, and being wary of it, particularly as she flees from the room in which she and Engels spent their first night.
When we see the female cross-class solidarities between Belinda and Cora in General Belinda, the way Mr. Riddings, ordinarily a seducer of the servants, respects Belinda enough to confide in her a shared class heritage, we are shown the respect one is accorded when there is a strong and unashamed sense of self. Carnie resists the portrayal of helpless victims that feature so strongly in ‘slum fiction’, often a convention of melodrama. Belinda succeeds in portraying herself as strong, matter-of-fact and mentally and emotionally sharp, all qualities working-class women generally needed to be in order to carry the weight of often difficult lives.
Belinda Higgins’s father calls her ‘The General’, because she can control and marshal the people about her, albeit limited to, or enjoyed in, the domestic sphere. Belinda Higgins can be seen as a working-class heroine; active, opinionated, assertive. She is a subversive character because she is all of these things whilst employed in domestic service.
Carnie's particular use of melodrama warrants further attention, particularly in the way her use of it in General Belinda deviates from the way that it was employed by Chartist writers, who adopted ‘melodrama over realism (because it was) more expressive of their lives and aspirations (Vicinus, 1982, p. 9, 1982 in Klaus [Ed.], 1983 pp. 7-25).
The use of melodrama suited the working-class author and reader because it:
seemed like a psychologically accurate reflection of working-class life. Melodrama’s character typing, with the clear struggle between good and evil, was attractive at a time when traditional values were being undermined; moreover, it provided a vehicle for the full expression of sentiment and emotion, without concern for character motivation or development. Melodrama appeals to those who feel that they have no control over their lives, but are prey to larger social forces (ibid.).
The development of melodramatic Chartist fiction coincided with the proliferation of women’s magazines, which carried articles on fashion and stories of romance. By portraying a feminine ideal that was out of reach, these magazines reflected the unfulfilled desires of many working-class women, something which Carolyn Steadman would later be concerned with in Landscape for a Good Woman (Virago, 1986).
With this distinctive mix of melodrama and New Woman, without betraying the particular needs of the working-class woman whose aspirations are more towards the private as opposed to the public sphere, it can be seen that, far from being a two-dimensional writer that the comments of Cunningham would suggest, Carnie is much more complex than originally treated. In fact, in addition to claiming that Carnie approached her literature dialectically, I also assert that her work is better described as autobiografiction. It was the result of her striving for a form that began with the poetry that served as her way to a journalistic voice, leading into the essay form of The Clear Light, and coalesced and tried to find expression throughout her books. I identified with Carnie's journey for a suitable form, as I scrabbled from one version of Mary Burns to the next - attempting to seamlessly integrate research into a more recognisable historic novel of Burns; feeling all portrayals of overt romance between Burns and Engels to be contrived and false because of what would have been Mary's caution of it, just as Carnie instilled into her characters, before moving onto the autobiografictive mode that would allow me to write across the genres whilst maintaining my own integrity as the creator and conveyor.
Autobiografiction is a term that was coined by Stephen Reynolds in a paper of the same name in 1906, before he went on to write A Poor Man’s House (1911). Reynolds was specifically interested in working-class life, and A Poor Man’s House, written according to his defining principles of autobiografiction, became popular with labour historians (Saunders, 2008, pp. 13-15). The few serious mentions of this term can be located in the past decade. In 2001 the term was used by Charles Swann in relation to the problems of autobiographical fictions and fictional autobiographies (2001, Modern Language Review), characteristic of what are widely taken to be the first novels, particularly those by Daniel Defoe and Samuel Richardson. In 2003 the term was used as the title for a conference, held at Goldsmith's University in London, on life-writing. It was from this conference that Max Saunders, like Reynolds, wrote a paper of the same name, although Saunders therein argued for a revision of Modernism based on its relationship with autobiography (TLS, 3rd October 2008, pp. 13-15).
My use of this portmanteau term is primarily a literal one; it describes most clearly the genres that comprise Mary Burns: autobiography, biography, fiction - ergo autobiografiction. However, there are other reasons why I felt compelled to use the term, and deploy it, with regards to both the form and content of Mary Burns. I shall expand on these reasons as I unpack Reynolds's own definition.
A factor in my adoption of autobiografiction on a strategic level, or as a guiding framework, was the obvious affinity with Reynolds's representation of working-class lives. Mary Burns could not have been written in any good faith (to use the existentialist term) within one homogenous and bourgeois form, or genre, that seeks to convey the illusion of seamlessness – that, quite literally, hides the work or suspends disbelief, in any case presents it as coherent and whole, which the novel has overwhelmingly sought to achieve from its inception. The novel, linked with the rise of capitalism, can be seen as analogous with the very state of the workers as reported by Engels in his Conditions of the Working-Classes in England in 1844. He is reproachful of those town planners and industrialists who designed Manchester so that the living and employment conditions of the workers were kept out of sight of those travelling in from the suburbs. The true source and seams of the work, to use a suitable textile reference, were hidden behind facades designed to tell boastful and nationally progressive stories. Nowhere is this more true than in the construction of the Watts Warehouse, the Britannia Hotel since 1982. A distinctive landmark on Portland Street in Manchester city centre, the sandstone building has a tremendous facade. The warehouse was ambitiously designed in an eclectic palazzo style, yet inside there existed a sweatshop of misery for thousands who spent long days churning out cotton, the use of which was to make dresses and fine outfits to present yet more of this misleading and boastful facade that added to the dubious narrative of national prosperity.
My intention in writing what evolved into the third version of Mary Burns, then, was to foreground the work in form and content. It was also an act of refusing to comply with discrete genres. I did this by not remaining within one or even two genres; not specifying which content is auto/biography or fiction; nor, more interestingly, stating which content is a melding of the three. This ties in with Reynolds own definition of autobiografiction as connoting: 'shortly a minor literary form... of a nature at once very indefinite and very definite', (1906, p. 28). (My emphasis.)
Jacques Derrida refers to genre as laying down a set of rules or conventions. “Do,” “Do not” says “genre" (The Critical Inquiry, Autumn 1980, pp. 55-81). One of the conventions in historical fiction is that the research/factual foundation of the novel be integrated seamlessly, so as not to hinder the story and draw attention to the ‘stitch marks’, to provide the prime conditions by which the reader can 'suspend disbelief'. In rejecting the ‘illusion’ of homogeneity that is needed to present the reader with a ‘credible’ work in which the research and the author herself do not get in the way, I then had to present the work as a story that holds author-ity, and the roots that bestow this authority by both showing and implying the links between Mary Burns and Ula Tully. Going against the grain of illusion that is so bound up with the novel was a conscious act aimed at achieving overt leftist political affiliation and integrity, by the obvious revelation of these seams of fact/research by the simple inclusion of newspaper extracts and actual reports, in addition to the very simple tactic of stating, in the work's full title, that it is one of autobiografiction - and eschewing the novel branding. Of course, it could be argued that the novel is roomy enough to hold the insertion of factual reports, biography, and autobiography without losing its marketable name, such as Ghost Light by Joseph O'Connor, but, judging it to be predominantly a work of non-fiction, I found that I could not honestly use the term.
The biography element of my work, the reader may assume, is straightforward, for this belongs to Mary Burns's narrative. But to assume even this much would be erroneous. There are no clear boundaries - Mary Burns c'est moi - and me, her.
Another way in which I strove to avoid illusion was by an, at times, jagged pace that is more reflective of time and how the writer remembers episodes, such as Ula's wait behind a wall for her Mother to appear, which reminded her of the lengthy waits outside pubs during her childhood.
The purpose of the inclusion of the factual extracts can be seen as a voice-enabling device; a way of including the voice of many others hitherto denied it, as the extracts inserted imply the struggles and barriers to having an actual voice in literature, as Carnie experienced, and discussed in the previous section. In this way the employment of these extracts also widens the network of cross-generational solidarity between the narratives of Mary Burns and Ula Tully and thereby recreates it as a collective endeavour, as opposed to the individualistic one that is the hallmark of the novel.
Reynolds use of the term was also not limited to the discrete genres that the term is comprised. He also defined autobiografiction in relation to a quest for the ‘inner life’, which Saunders says ‘led to an increasing sense of generic instability’ (2009, p. 1042). This quest, as used in connection within a working-class consciousness, can be seen as innovative, for the inner life has long been the domain of the middle-classes; introspection is afforded to those with a greater framework of intellectual and cultural references, and the time with which to engage in a wider variety of discourses.
I also approached the final version of Mary Burns with an understanding that Liz Stanley’s ‘kaleidoscope’ approach needed to be adopted in my work, knowing that 'the' truth could underpin the work only if the differing configurations of the author's life were acknowledged, in terms of gender, race, class, and age (Stanley, 1995). The inclusion of Ula Tully as an alter-ego was one of the ways in which these influential conditioning factors could be implied and/or revealed. The use of an alter-ego written in the third person provided me with the distance I felt I needed in order to achieve a balance of the leftist tendencies, for Mary Burns is (leftist) tendentious, an earlier type of which was so scorned by critics such as Valentine Cunningham. I wanted to avoid a personal subjectivity that could easily so easily have overshadowed Mary's Story. This is a charge that could be levelled at works with similar conceits, such as The Lost Child, by Julie Myerson, in which she attempts some distance in the memoir side by referring to her son as 'the boy', whilst also including the story of Mary Yelloly, a nineteenth century artist and writer. Yelloly's part of the narrative was wholly overshadowed by the media furore that followed the controversial identification of her son.
Mary Burns is a story of fathers and daughters and strained relationships, but, like many tendentious works, the issue of work is its core theme. I sought to contrast the nobility of work, as exemplified in Thomas Tully and so distinctly lacking in Michael Burns, with seeking a greater freedom to introspect and question, as demonstrated by Mary and Ula.
In The Ethics of Working-Class Autobiography, Julie Bindinger states that ‘it might be said that all autobiography recounts some kind of transformation in the author...’ I would go so far as to say that, in my own case, the inquiry of writing of auto/biografiction has resulted in ‘some kind of transformation’ in the author, or any author of working-class origins because this inquiry forces one to confront the politics and limitations of forms, and how these can be seen as analogous as one's place or role in society and its cultures. It is telling, then, that Bindinger refers to a particular kind of transformation:
one’s crossing of class, cultural, and social boundaries; one’s attainment of higher education than one’s parents had; one’s entry into a life that includes writing and abstract, analytical thinking; and the processes of self-invention and re-invention that one has undergone throughout this movement... (2006, p. 1).
I recognised that, should I ever have written a ‘straight’ first-person autobiography, and turned myself into the subject of my own scrutiny along a traditional chronological/linear narrative, I would have only patronised myself; placing myself in a tradition, a genre, that has, of late, become popular in recounting the (working-class) struggle to accomplish, to ‘get on’ or ‘get into’ or ‘get out of’. In addition, I did not want to replicate the individualism bound with conventional the first person autobiography. It in this regard that Pamela Fox refers to the ‘pressures of a proletarian master narrative’, and yet those pressures are also to do with trying to find compatibility in a form that, as already mentioned, grew up with the rise of the bourgeois. In short, I did not want to pigeon-hole myself or my life in what I felt would be an inauthentic and constraining and unbearingly subjectivist way. Saunders added to autobiografiction's description by stating that its ‘... narratives are not simply reducible to the facts of one’s formal biography or autobiography’ (p. 1057). I recognised that my life to date amounted to more than the mere facts; biography and fiction became essential. I also felt the need, as a working-class female writer, to consciously resist constraints by straddling many genres and forms within fact and fiction, in order to represent a working-class life and how it also continues an, albeit tenuous, conversation with the more politicised working-classes of previous generations. In this way I was also able to bypass the anxiety of influence of other novelists that may also have served to 'wear out' Ethel Carnie.
I also experienced an instinctual aversion in trying to conform to the feminist academic tradition, so bound up as it has been with the middle-class woman and her history and needs. For instance, whilst studying for a BA in English Literature, modules on ‘women’s writing’ presented the lives of middle-class women’s issues as the norm. Yet I did not even recognise them as my norm, never mind those of my grandmothers', who did not have the luxury of time and space needed to 'play out' the patriarchal constraints that were said to give rise to neuroses such as hysteria. Working-class women had also long since ‘enjoyed’ the ‘luxury’ of the right to work, which also refers to the much-used term within working-class politics.
In honouring class-based needs then, a novelised biography of Mary Burns could have been written in a style that adhered to either Lukacs’s social realism or Brecht’s avant-garde. To do so would, as already mentioned, have proved unappealing, yet also needlessly conformist to existing accepted approaches, albeit leftist. This is particularly true of social realism, which, whilst different in its various gradations from run-of-the-mill to gritty to dirty realism, differs little to the ‘mainstream middle-class literature’. In short, it offers no new way of seeing. In this regard it could be seen a contrary approach to want to aim for defamiliarisation, as espoused by the Formalists who judge a work on its literary devices and techniques only, and pay no regard to the author or the political context that has proved so vital for Marxists.
On the other hand the avant-garde would only have served to alienate itself from those readers who do not fancy themselves as being able to work out some writerly puzzle, hence the contradictions and tensions. The mixing of discourses and genres into the production of ‘autobiografiction’ is a ‘counter-hegemonic’ act. The answer to those who would ask ‘why not imagine her (Burns’) story, then just write it?’, would be that, to have done so would have been operating from bad faith, false consciousness, or little (class) consciousness at all. The working-class woman writer cannot simply and unquestioningly put on the dress of the middle-class woman writer; in order to be true to herself she has to wear it inside out; to show the seams that demonstrate the work. She can best achieve this by writing within autobiografiction, and thus build a tradition that not only honours herself and her descendants, but those of previous generations who could find no voice, and with who she can extend solidarity, and convey the importance of repeating history in our present societies.
Pamela Fox, in ‘contesting theories of social and cultural reproduction developed by Louis Althusser, Pierre Bourdieu, Samuel Bowles, and others,’ instead chose ‘a body of work’ arguing ‘for the existence of a dynamic and relatively autonomous working-class culture which always retains the capacity to resist dominant ideologies’ (1994, p. 103). I concluded in the previous section that this can be found in autobiografiction. It is notable that this mixing of discourses has recently become more prominent. At the time of writing, the most recent 'biographical novel' that comes to mind is the aforementioned O’Connor’s Ghost Light, which revolves around the love-affair of the ruling class Anglo-Irish playwright John Millington Synge and the working-class actress Molly Allgood. There are many ways in which Synge and Allgood resemble those differences between Burns and Engels. ‘Separated by class, religion... their relationship is severely disapproved of by their families’ (Hopper, 2010, p. 20). O’Connor switches between past and present, and the descriptions of Molly are in second-person, intimate, free indirect style, ‘while Synge is remembered more distantly, in the third person...’(ibid.) There is also the stereotype of the working-class female at play as Molly is described as both ‘feisty’ and ‘resilient’.
O’Connor has woven ‘a wide range of discourses into the fabric of his text: ballads, limericks, fragments of plays, films, guidebooks, graffiti, newspaper clippings, book inscriptions and epitaphs’ (ibid.). Ghost Light also achieves a strong sense of place - O'Connor grew up in the same areas of Dublin as Allgood - which complements the sense of the past, in the same way I have attempted in Mary Burns. The insertion of extracts from newspapers and reports into Mary Burns attempts to evade hegemony. It has not been written within the tradition characteristic of capitalism – where cultural production and ‘creativity’ bows to the instant entertainment needs of a society whose escape is sought through cliché (of form or content); the cliché being the form that is most recognisable, manageable, and comforting to the average middle-class reader. The inserted extracts serve many purposes, not least the seams of the work itself; how it is comprised, of where inspiration and information was sought and gleaned, instead of simply integrating it into the work as though it came into being like a five-year-old just emerged from the womb.
However, as some critics were quick to note, Ghost Light raises questions to do with the practice and ethics of novelising the life of Allgood, which has been fictionalised in many important respects. O’Connor’s representation of Allgood, it can easily be argued, whilst ‘rescuing her from the shadows’ of Synge, also misrepresents her by providing the reader with a stereotype, and in so doing, O’Connor can be accused of using her and succeeding only in keeping the positive spotlight on the sickly sacrificial Synge. This issue of misrepresentation, surely has no place in a work of fiction? But can the work still be called ‘fiction’ if the protagonist is based on a real figure? Mary Burns certainly could not, as should by now be clear. Compared to Allgood the biggest difference was that there was no significant information or records that could assist me in the construction of Burns in the same way as O’Connor could have achieved for Allgood.
It was only in the third and final draft of Mary Burns that Ula Tully became a character. As previously stated, her purpose was to present a different aspect of the author’s self in a sufficiently distanced way. This initial decision came about when I realised that writing Burns's story was not just an attempt to fit into the feminist academic tradition that sought out overlooked women and gave them a voice. I was also using Mary to say something about myself, my life and social/political context in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century.
Ula Tully's story runs alternately, but forward, yet in the past tense to indicate political apathy; progressing chronologically yet being stuck in the past. Mary Burns's story is told going backwards - to her childhood - but in present tense, indicating that the working-class movement then seemed more progressive and engaged - certainly more vital - than it is today.
Tully's memories of growing up bubble to the surface as she returns to Manchester from London in order to help her father during the illness that leads to his death. Tully grapples with the need to find, or accept, her working-class heritage as identity through her writing, to find, as Reynolds says, a ‘spiritual experience’ that will serve to transform her.
Like Burns Tully's relationship with her father is strained, and her mother has a fleeting presence in her story. Her father, Thomas Tully, evades real engagement with his daughter because she represents a threat to his perspective. It is clear that he has been brought up during a time, and in a milieu, when working-class women did not simply give up ‘good little jobs’ as chambermaids in fancy hotels, as his daughter had, to go to university and write. For Thomas Tully to try and understand his daughter’s needs it would require a revision of how he views himself, and a confrontation with the way he has lived his life – of having spent the best part of thirty years as a labourer with little reward. Clearly, to do so would prove too painful and, some would argue, unnecessary at this point in his life. It is also clear that Thomas Tully has little connection with the ‘established’ Irish culture. This is apparent in the scene when his daughter visits him in the pub, upon whose walls are mounted old, dusty photographs of the likes of Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, et al. Ula Tully points to each of them, naming them, in a bid to connect to her father through ‘his’ culture, yet she comes away only with a sense of his cultural bankruptcy or disconnection. Thomas Tully has led the life he was expected to live – that of the proverbial cart-horse, in a similar way that Belinda is treated in Carnie’s General Belinda. He toed the line, worked hard every day, and, as a result, lacks a rewarding inner life. He will also die much younger than his middle-class counterparts as a result.
However, the employment of the autobiografictional mode, which shows Ula Tully's recognition of the issues that motivated her to writing about Mary Burns, is an act of loyalty to class issues as well as acknowledgement of the politics of form.
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