What can diaries tell us about how people adapt to social change?

by Dr Nick Hubble

8 Apr 2019

As an academic who works on 1930s and contemporary culture, it has been a strange and unsettling experience to find terminology concerning populism and fascism from the former period starting to be applied to our present over the last few years. I know, however, from my work on 1930s writing in general and my research into the holdings of both the Mass Observation Archive and the Burnett Archive of Working-Class Autobiographies in particular, that people at that time found ways of living with extreme social conditions and rapid change.

Autobiographies, memoirs and diaries of the period reveal – sometimes as though in real time – how ordinary people developed new values and ways of thinking that opened up transformed futures for them beyond the conflicts that seemed to be governing their lives.  I started thinking about how to develop a methodology from my past research that could also be used for analysing autobiographical narratives now, in the 21st century, so that we might see the emergence of new socio-cultural values as they form in the reflections of individuals.

Discovering tomorrow’s public opinion from today’s private thoughts

Mass Observation workers in Bolton circa 1937. Copyright Bolton Council.
Mass Observation workers in Bolton circa 1937. Copyright Bolton Council.

The original Mass Observation project (1937-49) sought to discover tomorrow’s public opinion from today’s private thoughts. Mass Observers, who ranged from ordinary people recruited through newspaper adverts to intellectual friends of the project’s founders, wrote about their everyday lives with the knowledge that their accounts would be read by Mass Observation staff and future researchers. Therefore, their writing often combines the intimacy of a diary with the self-reflection of an autobiography and an orientation to the imagined or desired future.

Lives lived with the knowledge that what happens will soon be written about become shaped by the stories their writers wish to tell. In other words, ordinary Mass Observers were able to become the authors of their own lives in a way that hadn’t been open to them before. This made writing for the organisation particularly liberating for women, such as the wartime diarist Nella Last, memorably portrayed by Victoria Wood in the 2006 television drama, Housewife, 49. Last’s diaries reflected on a variety of contemporary issues; through her writing, we can observe the start of a shift toward the post-war women’s movement.

Nella Last and her youngest son, Clifford
Nella Last and her youngest son, Clifford.

A shift away from Victorian ideals towards new ways of expressing individual identity

The unprecedented inter-war democratisation of culture, of which Mass Observation was a product, was a response to the collapse of the old Victorian values and the consequent release from outmoded and restrictive social conventions. The same impulses to find new ways of expressing individual identity, which gave rise to the literary modernism of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, also led a generation of working-class writers to follow the lead of D.H Lawrence in fashioning the more collective form of proletarian modernism.

While 19th-century working-class autobiographies were predominantly orientated towards the achievement of respectability and Victorian ideals of progress, 1930s writers were often explicitly oppositional to such ideas. In some cases, they turned to ‘autobiografiction’ (autobiographical fiction) as a way of expressing their experiences of hardship and crisis that didn’t portray themselves as the passive victims of events, but rather as the agents of new ways of being in the world.

Analysing the relationship of these kinds of texts, whether they are autobiographies, autobiografictions or Mass Observation diaries, to social change requires a blend of close-reading, literary interpretation and contextual knowledge. In the same way that a critic can tease out the interplay between desire, shame and the evolution of modern selfhood in Woolf’s fiction, it is possible to evaluate the conflict between respectability and new possibilities in these autobiographical narratives. Viewed retrospectively, we can see the origins of both the post-war welfare state and the radical social liberalisation of the 1960s in such 1930s writing.

Predicting future trends of social change

Recent directives of the Mass Observation project. Image by Mass Observation Archive.
Recent directives of the Mass Observation project. Image by Mass Observation Archive.

As part of the process of conducting similar analysis on 21st-century autobiographical narratives, I will first turn to an interim period of rapid social change, the 1980s, when the Thatcherite policies of monetarism and privatisation transformed Britain. Since 1981, a revived Mass Observation project has been run from the University of Sussex, in which participants respond regularly to ‘directives’: open questions that invite them to write freely and discursively. These concern both general topics, such as family or ageing, and specific events, such as the Falklands War or the EU referendum.

Reading across the directive replies of individuals over the years reveals layered life stories, which show attitudinal changes in relation to the contradictions of everyday life. By relating my analysis of 1980s autobiographical narratives to the social values of today, I aim to map out a historical model of self-reflection, adaptation to change and value formation covering most of the last century in Britain. I hope to use this model to predict future trends, but also to show social change in a positive light.

Dr Nick Hubble is Reader in English and Co-Director of the Brunel Centre for Contemporary Writing. Nick’s project Understanding Social Change through Autobiographical Narrative is funded by a British Academy / Leverhulme Small Research Grant. Keep up to date with the project on @SocialHums.


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