Katherine Henderson (B.1908): Life Writing, Class and Identity – Writing Lives

Katherine Henderson (B.1908): Life Writing, Class and Identity

Regenia Gagnier identifies six types of working-class autobiography. Katherine Henderson’s memoir does not fit directly into one of the six categories, although it has elements of a memoir of self-examination. Gagnier asserts a memoir of self-examination ‘places emphasis on individual rather than social explanation.’[1] Katherine’s entire memoir focuses on her life and the struggles she overcomes to achieve a working status. Katherine fits perfectly into the category of a memoir of self-examination as it is almost like a healing session to grieve for the loss of her son. Memoirs of self- examination, Gagnier suggests, are ‘written by people with lives of mitigating misery and hardship, for whom, writing is a form, more or less successful, of therapy.’[2] ‘Life had always been a challenge’ (introduction) for Katherine and her mission of completing her memoir meant she could relive the death of her son Colin, and mourn properly as at the time she had people around her to occupy her. Katherine, ‘does not try to sell[3]’ her work; she merely analyses her life in order to ‘alleviate’ her pain. However, while Gagnier sees writing and self-examination as a mechanism ‘to succeed’, this is not Katherine’s motivation. Gagnier states that ‘writing and self-understanding will help them succeed,’  However this does not fit into the purpose of writing for Katherine as she does not seek to  better herself through her writing as she believes she has achieved all she wants through her working life.

Class is frequently referred to in ‘Had I But Known’ but indirectly. Katherine’s memoir does not focus on class yet her exploitation as a working class citizen can be seen implicitly.

Her working class identity is shown through her parents’ work. Her working life appears to have been one of survival rather than to improve her social position.

The Wightwick Family Census- Those who did not attend school carried out agricultural labour.
The Wightwick Family Census- Those who did not attend school carried out agricultural labour.

Education is a major source of ‘cultural capital’ and class distinction.  Cultural capital ‘acts as a social relation within a system of exchange that includes the accumulated cultural knowledge that confers power and status,’[4] enabling the middle classes to improve themselves and move up the social ladder, yet the working class have less opportunity to access education gain cultural status and therefore remain in low paid jobs, which means they can’t improve their social position.  Katherine’s education was limited.  Due to the financial needs of the Wightwick family Katherine had to leave school at a young age – of course to her dismay! Leaving school meant she did not have the opportunity to improve her social status. Katherine did not have the advantage of the forms of knowledge from further education to advance her career, as her family needed the support of another pay packet –‘so she had to leave.’ (7)

While the 1870 Education Act had expanded elementary education, further reforms in 1904-12 ‘made significant provision for secondary and technical education.’[5] Councils were encouraged to provide free places in secondary schools for working class children. However the problem arose as these councils were not compelled to do so, therefore further education remained in the hands of the middle classes. Children such as Katherine did not get the opportunity of further education, therefore remained as the class of subordinate social identity.

Class is not explicitly referred to throughout Katherine’s memoir, but it is at the foreground, reflective of society as ‘Britain is a class- bound and class obsessed- nation.’[6] (Cannadine) Although her memoir is not class orientated, class is implicitly spoke of throughout the memoir, giving the reader an insight to the exploitation herself and family received as she ‘often marvelled how these man stood the pace every year, with no paid holidays.’ (1) As a whole, Katherine’s memoir has a consistently regretful tone. Her regret stems from not being able to progress in school and to marrying her husband John, who tragically murdered their son. These were the key events which shaped her narrative.

[1] Gagnier, Regenia. ‘Social Atoms: Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender.’ Victorian Studies, 30. 3 (1987), 357


[2]Gagnier, 357

[3] Gagnier, 357

[4] Chris Barker (2004). Cultural Studies. London: Sage Publication. 37.

[5] http://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/transformingsociety/livinglearning/school/overview/reform1902-14/

[6] David Cannadine (2000). Class in Britain. 2nd ed. London: Penguin. 1-24

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *