Lucy Luck, straw-plait worker, from John Burnett, ed., Annals of the Poor

  1. What are some features of the style of this autobiography? Is it dramatic? Matter of fact? How can the reader tell which incidents or situations were/are important to the writer?
  2. How does this resemble or differ from other autobiographies you have read? What may be some reasons for this difference?
  3. Many more Victorian working-class men than women wrote memoirs. Do we know the motives which prompted Lucy Luck to write hers? How do these circumstances differ from those under which Elizabeth Campbell and Ellen Johnston wrote accounts of their lives?
  4. What are some occurences and circumstances which determined Lucy Luck's early life? Her later life?
  5. Which events does she remember with greatest unhappiness? Does she bear resentment for her early anxieties, and if so, against whom?
  6. What are some of her pleasant early memories? Were all the adults she encountered as harsh as “Black Garner”?
  7. To what extent do you think Ms. Luck's difficulties were shared by many at the time? What social changes made this level of poverty less common in Great Britain, and when did these changes occur?
  8. Which aspects of her life were the result of her own choices? As she tells it, were these generally good decisions?
  9. Did she have any special features of temperament which made her life harder/easier?
  10. Which aspects of her life seem to have given her satisfaction and/or pride? What does her memoir reveal about her character?
  11. What do we learn about her courtship and marriage? Why does she at first look down on her future husband, and what causes her to change her mind?
  12. What is revealed by her account of her wedding day?
  13. Does she seem to have been content with her choice of marriage partner, and why? What were her reactions to his choice to remove the family to London?
  14. What would have been some reasons Lucy Luck was determined to preserve her “respectability” and to enjoin similar values on her children?
  15. What are some of the ground assumptions of her life? Are these consistent with the stereotypes historians/middle-class people have held about the working poor?
  16. Which aspects of life receive little or no mention in her memoir? Why may this be? Are there some pieces of information which you expected might receive more mention?
  17. How do you evaluate her life and memoir? What reflections does it prompt?

Elizabeth Campbell, “The Life of My Childhood”

  1. Who was Elizabeth Campbell? Why do you think she chose to preface her volume of poems with a memoir entitled “The Life of My Childhood” rather than an account of her entire life?
  2. What do you think of the style of her memoir? Are some portions dramatic or poetic?
  3. How does her account differ from/resemble the memoirs by Lucy Luck and Ellen Johnston? What were some common features of their lives?
  4. What were some similarities in their original family situations? What common working-class experiences did each manage to avoid? To what do you attribute any differences in their levels of education?
  5. Which aspects of her childhood does Campbell most remember? What do we learn about her temperament and sensibilities?
  6. What seems revealed in her description of the moth? (x)
  7. Which adults does Campbell remember from her childhood, and with what associations?
  8. What do we learn about her mother’s death? Does Elizabeth condemn her father’s sternness? (xiv) What does she remember about her stepmother? (xii-xiv)
  9. Who were the “tinks,” and why were the children frightened of them? (xi)
  10. What emotions does she express toward the family’s dog? Why may she have been so attached to Cherry? (xi-xii)
  11. At what age did Campbell begin to work? What were the circumstances of her first employment? How did the little Elizabeth attempt to resist her circumstances? (xiii)
  12. What was Elizabeth’s attitude toward schooling and learning? (xiii, xiv) What girlhood achievements especially pleased her? (xiv-xv)
  13. What aspects of childhood perception seem to interest her? (xiii) Do you know of any Romantic poet(s) with similar interests? xiii-xiv)
  14. What seem to have been her religious views? Does she differ from Lucy Luck or Ellen Johnston in her attitude toward religion, and if so, to what do you attribute this?
  15. What values toward expenditure does she profess? (xiv)
  16. What is revealed by the nature of her reading? (xv)
  17. What do you make of the scene in which the children visit their father’s employer? (xv)
  18. Why do you think Campbell records the scene in which a neighbor’s son comments on her singing?
  19. What were some of Campbell’s later employments? Which aspects of her later life does she seem to wish to remember?
  20. What was her opinion of France?
  21. What do we learn of her marriage and her husband? Why may her account of her married life have been so abbreviated?
  22. What happened to her sons? Why do you think she fails to describe her four daughters (of whom at least one was still alive at the time of her death)?
  23. What does she express as her attitude toward death? Should she have heeded Dylan Thomas’s injunction to his father, “Do not go gentle into that good night/ Rage, rage against the dying of the light”?
  24. Can you tell anything about Campbell from her photograph and handwritten poem?
  25. Is this a good memoir? What effect is produced by its selectivity? How is Elizabeth Campbell’s account different from those of Lucy Luck and Ellen Johnston?


Ellen Johnston, "Autobiography of Ellen Johnston, ‘The Factory Girl’” (first edition)

  1. Johnston was about thirty two when she published this memoir. Why do you think she styles herself, “The Factory Girl”?
  2. Why does she call attention to her occupation? Could she have been the only “factory girl poet” of the time?
  3. What aspects of her life cause her to “remind my readers that whatever my actions may have been . . . that they were the results of instincts derived from the Creator”? (3)
  4. Which aspects of her account might not have pleased Victorian readers? In a later 1869 edition she removed some passages at the “kind suggestions” of helpful critics. Can you imagine which passages were removed?
  5. What tone characterizes this memoir? Is it notably different from that of Elizabeth Campbell or Lucy Luck?
  6. What were Johnston’s parents’ position in the social scale? Were they at the bottom? What were some usual/unusual features of their family life?
  7. Why do you think she records that her father’s employer noticed her when she was an infant? (4)
  8. What seems to be her attitude toward her father, and toward his departure for America?
  9. What was her relationship with her dog “Dainty Davie”? Can you see a parallel with Elizabeth Campbell?
  10. . In what way did Johnston suffer “trials and wrongs that have but rarely fallen to the lot of woman”? (5) If she exaggerated the relative good fortune of others, how may this have helped her survive?
  11. What were some features of her adolescent family life? (6-8) What did she resent in her stepfather’s behavior?
  12. What may have caused her anger at beginning factory work at 11? What well-known Victorian writer experienced similar anger at being forced to begin factory work at 14?
  13. What were some features of Johnston’s girlhood reading? Was she better-educated than Campbell and Luck?
  14. What does she report as features of her mind and character? (7-8) Were these traits useful in helping her to survive?
  15. Why had Johnston contemplated suicide? Why may her account at this point be so cryptic? What do you think is meant by “the mystery of my life”?
  16. What role do family members play in enforcing her submission? (8-9) How does she react to her “tormenter”?
  17. What prevents her from committing suicide, by her account? (10)
  18. What does she report as the attitude of her fellow factory-girl workers toward her? (9)
  19. What sexual/romantic complications entered her life during adolescence? Why does she deny the charge of being a “fallen woman”? (10) Who seems to have been the father of her child?
  20. What is the purpose of adducing Oliver Goldsmith’s poem (from The Vicar of Wakefield) on pages 10-11?
  21. What does she see as a motivation for giving birth? (11) Would the Victorian reader have expected this response to out-of-wedlock pregnancy?
  22. What do we later learn about Johnston’s daughter? (She would have been fifteen at the time Johnston’s “Autobiography” was published.) Why do you think Ellen fails to mention what has since happened to Mary Achinvole?
  23. What is Johnston’s attitude toward her poetic talents and career? Where does she publish her poems? To what extent is she correct that publication in the Glasgow Examiner would have “made my name popular thorughout Great Britain and Ireland”? (11)
  24. Under what conditions is she forced to assume new obligations toward her stepfather and mother? How does she manage this?
  25. What motives may have prompted her employer to assist her? (12) Did his gift accomplish its full intention?
  26. Where does she travel, and what prompts her choice of destination? What does she find notable about her life in Belfast and Manchester? Where does her daughter remain during her absence?
  27. How does Johnston respond to the unexpected letter from her father? (13) What did she believe she had lost by his death? (13) To what motive does she ascribe his suicide? (13) Is this likely?
  28. Under what circumstances did her mother die? (13)
  29. How do you interpret the fact that she leaves for Dundee without mentioning whether her daughter went with her?
  30. What are some of Johnston’s experiences in Dundee? What seem to have been some of her traits of character?
  31. What account does Johnston herself give of her character, and to what extent might readers have found it convincing?
  32. What circumstances finally improved Johnston’s life? What is her relationship to the readers of the Penny Post? (15)
  33. Who might have been the readers of the Penny Post? Many readers wrote poems showing their interest in her life and autobiographical poems; what about her poems may have attracted them?
  34. Where was Johnston able to publish? Under what circumstances was she enabled to publish a book?
  35. What are her goals for her book? What do you think are some of the motives which prompted her to write?
  36. Johnston never left the factory, though she published a second expanded edition of Poems. Many of the Poems present her as a romantic single woman in search of love; and there is no mention of her now adolescent daughter! Six years after the publication of “Autobiography” she died in the hospital of the Glasgow Barony Poorhouse.
  37. Do you think Johnston would have considered the publication of her poems a success? How do you think she would have evaluated her life?
  38. How would you contrast this “Autobiography” with the others we have read? To what do you attribute the differences?
  39. Had Johnston lived to write another memoir at the age at which Elizabeth Campbell and Lucy Luck wrote theirs, do you think it might have been different, and if so, how?