A guest post by Dr Claire Lynch.
As a researcher I’ve spent many happy hours, elbow deep in the manuscripts of the
Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography held here at Brunel. The archive contains over 230 autobiographies by authors born between 1790 and 1945 and
was compiled by John Burnett, David Vincent, and David Mayall. They were
interested in how working class people had written about their own lives and the
texts they collected are rich and varied.
My research looks at this material from a
literary perspective; I’m interested in the techniques these writers have used and the ways they have managed the almost impossible task of capturing life on the page.
Over the past few weeks I’ve been sharing this work with MA students from the English and Creative Writing programmes. For many of the students this is the first opportunity to work with manuscript material so we always begin with a few ground
rules. As some of the original documents are old and fragile it’s important that they’re handled carefully with clean hands. While it’s certainly vital to know how to use the material without damaging it, it’s equally important to know how we might begin to think about it.
Archives are different from published texts. As Philip Larkin described they have
both “magical” and “meaningful” qualities. For these students, being in contact with
handwritten documents, photographs and personal letters, provided a magical
sense of connection with the authors. At the same time, reading about the lives of
orphans, circus performers, soldiers and housemaids gave them a new and
meaningful insight into the past. The material includes surprising revelations about
private lives, comic anecdotes and tragic stories of hardship. Students have to take
on not only the content of the autobiographies but also the form, which may include
unclear handwriting or non-textual elements such as drawings or maps as below.
Since these manuscripts come directly from the author, without input from an editor
or publisher, it is tempting to read them as uncomplicated and wholly truthful. But as
Carolyn Steedman wisely reminds us, archives also include “the mad
fragmentations that no one intended to preserve”. Think for a moment about the
files on your hard drive or the contents of your inbox. If these documents were
archived for the future, would they tell a wholly accurate picture of your life?
In the following months the students will return to Special Collections to
develop their own projects using the Burnett Archive. Some will use the
manuscripts for academic essays, others for inspiration for writing fiction. Watch
this space for the magical and meaningful results.
Dr Claire Lynch is a Lecturer in English in the School of Arts. She has had the
privilege of sharing her work on the Burnett Archive at numerous conferences, most
recently with the International Auto/Biography Association in Canberra, Australia.
You can read more about her research on the archive.