John Britton 1771-1857: Purpose & Audience – Writing Lives

John Britton 1771-1857: Purpose & Audience

John Britton born 1771 was an author and antiquarian who towards the end of his life wrote an autobiography. Britton stated that the reason for writing his autobiography was for his close friends. Britton writes in the opening of his memoir directly to his friends, ‘My dear friends, deeply impressed with a sense of gratitude for the kind and generous feelings which promoted you to gratify me in old age by a spontaneous Public Compliment, I am induced to inscribe the present work to you, as a more comprehensive acknowledgement of my sentiments than I could adequately convey by any private expression of them.’[1]  Britton addressing his friends directly shows exactly who his intended audience was.

As mentioned in my previous ‘Introduction to John Britton’ blog post Britton’s friends made a committee (subscribers) up with the intention of purchasing a gift for John due to him being of great importance to their lives. The committee came up with a few ideas of how they would honour Britton and came up with following according to him,

‘Amongst various suggestions, the following were recommended: A portrait, to be painted by an eminent artist, to be engraved, and prints given to all the subscribers. A marble Bust, of which caste might be distributed in the same manner as the Portrait. A medal; an impressive gold to be given to the author, and others, in silver and bronze, to the subscribers, according to the amount of their subscriptions. A Literary Essay on some subject of Archaeology, for which a prize of one hundred guineas was to be presented to the most successful writer, and the work to be printed and distributed to the subscribers. A piece, or Service of Plate. Objecting in part to all of these, and particularly to the last, I however, preferred the Literary Essay.’[2]

Britton ultimately abandoned the literary essay idea and instead decided the best and most viable gift he could give back to his friends/subscribers was a memoir on his life. The committee raised over £900 much to Britton’s surprise, a considerable sum at the time of writing.’ When I originally promised to write an Auto-Biography, it was my intention to limit it to about 200 moderately sized pages, with eight or ten illustrations, and to incur an expense of about £200. But the number of persons who have added their names to the Testimonial list, and the greatly increased amount subscribed, induced me to write a volume of much greater extent than first proposed; in the preparation of which upwards of £900 (A huge sum of money at this time) have already been expended; and the materials collected and arranged for the further portion are so numerous and varied, that a considerable additional cost must yet be incurred.’[3]

When reading the opening of Britton’s autobiography you get an incredible insight into just how humble a man he was. Britton didn’t want elaborate ornaments from his friends/subscribers such as a marble bust but instead choose the best gift he could receive could also be enjoyed by others. Britton was giving a gift to his subscribers while also to himself. Britton’s humbleness is most likely due to his working class background as he seems to find the idea of receiving spectacular and expensive gifts quite garish. Britton instead would write, which is something he had always loved doing throughout his life, the most modest of things he could have done.

Britton’s reasoning for writing the auto-biography as I have mentioned in my ‘Introduction to John Britton’ blog post was that he was already very old being 74 at the beginning of his writing and he had battled with illness such as bronchitis his entire life. In other words Britton knew he we close to death and was unsure how much time on Earth he had left. Britton’s rationale was that if he didn’t write his memoir now it was possible he never would. Britton also states that he has outlived all his family suggesting some sort of deathly illness runs in his family.

A less morbid reason for Britton writing his memoir when he did was because it gives a full account of his entire life from birth until close to death, a beginning middle and end in a way. Britton writes, ‘The following pages will contain “a round unvarnished tale” of the “whole course” of my life, from infancy to old age.’[4]

[1] Page 14

[2] Page 45

[3] Page 15

[4] Page 26



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