Joseph Terry (1816-1889): Purpose and Audience – Writing Lives

Joseph Terry (1816-1889): Purpose and Audience

To warn others; to teach others… to understand themselves. Regenia Gagnier (342)

This quote from Gagnier relays some reasoning to the question, why do working class people write autobiographies? She states that they were mainly ‘functional rather than aesthetic’ (Gagnier 342) and this judgement unquestionably coincides with my author Joseph Terry. In his autobiography, he does not directly address an intended audience but his writing is clearly aimed to teach and impart the knowledge gained from his tempestuous life.

Working Class Fisher Girls in Yorkshire

Joseph underwent many hindrances but disallowed these obstacles to defeat his mentality, even when the future seemed bleak. At one point, Joseph was simultaneously drowning in debt and suffering from a lack of work which meant asking his ‘poor father-in-law to lend (him) sixty pounds’ (Terry 84). It would have been easy for him to throw in the towel and succumb to these ill-fated situations but, instead of this, Joseph continually manages to attain that glimmer of hope and this positive mentality is often why he perseveres.

I had now a family of eight children entirely dependent on my labours

Joseph may be hoping his autobiography will encourage working class readers to adopt this virtuous lifestyle as his diligence is constant throughout. Where others would have no qualms dabbling in debauchery, Joseph is able to resist all influence and remains true to himself for the sake of his family. However, a wife, children and a great debt to pay back, all of this places an increasing pressure upon his ability to provide capital, ‘I had now a family of eight children entirely dependent on my labours’ (Terry 83). But both Joseph and his wife, Sarah Anne, would rather fail with their morality in check than compromise the ethical values by which they live their lives.

William Emery Adams

As well as attempting to educate his readers Joseph Terry also uses the autobiography for inner contemplation which is instantly apparent from the title ‘Recollections of my Life’. The word ‘recollection’ suggests a mere recall with no flamboyance or ostentation and this type of humility was common amongst working class writers. W.E Adams describes himself as ‘a small speck on the surface of society’ and perhaps Joseph had a similar outlook as he did not attain the egotistical mind that is associated with the trivialized autobiographies today.

The sky was dark and lowering, and still increasing in blackness

Additionally, Joseph’s memoir would not need such unnecessary embellishment as his chaotic life involved much adrenaline and adventure. For example, he describes being chased in a field by a bull and his peers being ‘much amused’ (Terry 23). This jovial tone insinuates that he is writing for an audience beyond himself as he wants it to be an enjoyable read. He also uses a commendable range of devices throughout the autobiography, such as personification and pathetic fallacy to describe disheartening situations, ‘The sky was dark and lowering, and still increasing in blackness’ (80). These striking depictions enables the reader to conjure an almost palpable image in their minds. It suggests to me that, as well as being factual and informant, he is writing with the intent of entertaining others.

The autobiography could merely be a physical reminder for Joseph of all he has endured and surmounted. Yet I believe that he is directing it to people with a working class background who also attain that thirst for success. The main moral he portrays is the importance of faith and loyalty, and these traits are ones we should all endeavour to uphold. This decent message is one that is worthy of being shared and has hopefully had the effect on readers that Joseph intended.





Adams, W.E. ‘Memoir of a Social Atom’, Hutchinson and Co. (1903)

Gagnier, Regenia. ‘Social Atoms: Working- Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender’. Victorian Studies, 30. 3. (1987), 335-363

Terry, Joseph. ‘Recollections of My Life’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection

Image reference: . (Accessed 07/11/2015)

Image reference: (Accessed 07/11/2015)


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