Elizabeth Dobbs/Annie Wakeman, The Autobiography of a Charwoman

What perspective is added by Annie Wakeman’s prologue?

Under what circumstances do we meet Elizabeth Dobbs? What are some characteristics of her speech? (homely, emotive speech, highly metaphorical)

What does she tell us in Autobiography's opening passages? What seem to be some characteristics of her temperament? (likes music, flowers, animals, industrious, seems fairly forgiving)

What does she list as her experiences during childhood? How may these have influenced her later life and character? (lack of stability, father's violence, mother's submission)

What attitudes does she express toward her parents? (able to pity and forgive her mother, doesn't complain much about her father) Her grandmother? (had been starved by her offspring, hastened to her death)

How may Dobbs' narrative be affected by the fact that it is oral? That it is told to her employer?

How intrusive is Annie Wakeman as a listener/transcriber? What are some ways in which she may have influenced Dobbs' narration of her story?

Are the breaks between sessions well-timed? Arranged for dramatic purposes?

What are Elizabeth's work experiences? Would these have been unusual for a young servant at the time? (paid slightly over 5 pounds a year plus board; harrassed by lodgers)

What had been her experiences in the country? How much education did she receive? How may lack of education have influenced her later life?

Under what circumstances does she claim to have been seduced? What do you make of her feelings of regret? (internalized sense of propriety)

What role is ascribed to "Aunt Bayley"? (compares Dobbs' father to Bill Sykes in Oliver Twist)

What are some of the literary or theatrical references in the Autobiography? How does she respond to music? What abilities does she evince as a young woman? (singing talent, skill at cooking and other practical tasks)

As she tells it, what were some of the advantages of her housekeeper's position? (sixteen pounds annually, assistant)

Under what circumstances does she claim to have been seduced? (feels love for her employer; he plies her with food and drink; gives her clothes) What do you make of her feelings of regret? (internalized sense of propriety)

What difficulties does she undergo as a pregnant unmarried woman? What forms of deceit does she practice? What forms of assistance does she receive? (parish assistance, Aunt Bayley)

What seems indicated by the length and detail with which she describes this period of her life?

What emotions does she express toward the father of her child? How do you account for her lack of blame? (proud of his higher social class, 50)

What are her emotions toward her son? (very attached, feels he was brightest of the lot, though as we later see, this wasn't the case)

What opinions does she express about her fellow workhouse inmates? Why does she make the effort to leave?

How does she fare as a street singer? (often hungry, 65; experiences advances, 69)

Under what circumstances does she encounter the Rev. Gutch? (sings in street) What benefits does he bring to her life?

What do we learn about the ministry of the Rev. Charles Gutch? Why do you think she describes him and his mission in such detail? (Wakeman would be interested; this was the high point of her life)

What are the Rev. Gutch's views on charity, as she describes them? (93, wealthy often did more harm than good by patronizing)

What attitudes does Elizabeth express toward her fellow "fallen women"? (86, tries to preserve her own respectability)

What causes her to leave his employ? What are some of Elizabeth's motivations for cohabiting with Jakes? What were his merits and demerits as a partner? Do you think her judgments are always just?

What does she record of Ferdie's development? What may have been some hindering circumstances in his life? (walks at 15 months, had been fed bread and milk)

What emotions does Elizabeth express toward her children? Whom does she favor, and for what reason?

What events lead to Jakes' death? What does she claim are his last remarks? 

Under what circumstances does her daughter Winnie die? How does she respond to the requirement of an inquest? (offended at imputation of negligence) Does she believe she had been responsible?

What does she tell her inquisitors?

What do you make of her concern about legal marriage? About the fact that despite this she had not married?

In what occupations does she engage? Are these successful?

What seem to be her views on alcohol?

In what contexts is food described or mentioned? Why do you think it is so important to her?

What motivates her marriage to Richard Goffin? What qualities does she seem to admire in men? Does this indicate a limitation in judgment?

What are Elizabeth's views on gender roles? On the respective duties of wives and husbands?

What are the qualities of her children? Which does she prefer, and what seems to be his character? What is her relationship with her second son John Henry?

What forms of abuse does she suffer from Goffin, and how does she respond to mistreatment? Why does she not leave him? (attached to him, claims she hopes for his reformation)

What effect does his behavior have on her elder children?

What are the fortunes of her younger children, and how may these have been affected by the circumstances of their birth and rearing? (violence during pregnancy may have caused younger daughter's birth defects)

How does she react to the birth of a disabled child? (blames self, considers Winnie "her cross") Who comforts her and how does she react to this? (John Henry, not the son of a gent)

Why did neither she nor her children report him to the authorities?

What finally precipitates his departure? (two sons and Florrie stage an "intervention")

What seem to be her qualities as a mother? As an employee?

What are her views on religion? Do these seem to vary according to her stage of life? (attends services, mostly sitting in the back; describes herself as firmly unrepentant of her extramarital affair with "Arry," 276; admires the Rev. Gutch and her Vicar; moralizes over the family bible when her son marries; religion seems a mildly comforting but not highly present force in her life)

What seem her views on men in general? (excuses Dobbs' vices as common in men; feels it's natural for her to talk with men, 267)

What do she and Annie Wakeman have in common? What qualities in her do you think evoke Wakeman's interest and sympathy?

Since this is an oral narrative prepared in the days before recording equipment, how accurate do you think Wakeman's rendition would have been? What may be ways in which this narrative may have been shaped or edited?

What circumstances surrounding Richard Dobbs' desertion bring special pain to Elizabeth?

How does she rationalize his infidelity and failure to raise his children? What are her final reflections on him and her marriage? (blames herself for not reforming him more, 301)

What events in later life bring gratification and happiness to Dobbs? (glad that John Henry is successful; gratified at marriages of her sons; daughter-in-law Florrie is helpful)

How does she respond to the news of her son Tim's engagement to Florrie? (feels Florrie and her family are of a lower social class) What kind services does Florrie perform towards her?

On what grounds does she approve of Ferdie's prospective wife? (no fringe, seems motherly, 272)

What remains a source of tension between John Henry and his mother? (277, her preference for Ferdie)

Under what circumstances does she take pride in what she considers her family's higher social status? (looks down on Florrie's family) What does she admire in her husband? (able to make public remarks when sober)

How does she respond to a surprise proposal of marriage?

Is there a pattern to the events and scenes which Elizabeth remembers most vividly? (likes festive events with ample food)

Are there instances in which Elizabeth's sense of fairness can be questioned? (hits Dick for visiting his father; blames her husband's partner rather than him for his adultery; fails to protect her children from her violent husband; criticizes John Henry as less well-born than his brother; feeds her cadging spouse at the expense of their dependent children)

Under what circumstances does she die? What reflections are ascribed to her on her deathbed?

What personal merits does Annie Wakeman ascribe to her?

How are humor and irony used throughout the narrative? (Dobbs' bluntness, evasion, use of unlikely metaphors)

What are some contemporary social issues or changes alluded to in the narrative? (vivisection, 7; punishment for violence to spouse--her father fined; establishment of urban missions and settlement houses; inquest into child's death)

How does our response to this narrative differ from/resemble readers' responses to a work of fiction? Would you describe aspects of Dobbs'/Wakeman's narrative as influenced by contemporary fiction or theater?

To what extent is the reader's response to this narrative altered or conditioned by knowledge of its likely origins?