Home
Novels
Journalism
Other Writing
Quotations
Criticism
Collections
Features
Timeline
Pictures
MR Society
Links
Contact

William Hale White and The Early Life of Mark Rutherford by Mike Brealey

[Based on a talk given at the Mark Rutherford Society Conference, March 2004]

Those who approach White first through his novels and wish to find out more about the author are glad to discover the Early Life of Mark Rutherford (W. Hale White), by Himself (Oxford University Press, 1913). Here it appears that some of the difficulties associated with pseudonymity are eased and we can read the 'real' life of William Hale White. It is used as a yardstick by which the supposed facts behind the fiction may be checked. Of course, it is not that simple.

This is to challenge White's emphatic declaration in the opening paragraph that, in contrast to previous writings, 'what I now set down is fact'. However we understand claims to truthfulness in literature, the Early Life is not the whole truth about the writer. Some similar texts have already been reassessed; Philip Gosse, in his famous Father and Son (1907), offered a childhood reminiscence that 'in all its parts, and as far as the punctilious attention of the writer has been able to keep it so, is scrupulously true'. This claim is close to White's, yet Anne Thwaite's recently acclaimed biography of Gosse has shown how far his memoir is from simple truth (Glimpses of the Wonderful: The Life of Philip Henry Gosse, Faber & Faber, 2002).

What kind of work is the Early Life - is it autobiographical, and if so what does this mean? In a broad sense we can think of all literature as 'autobiographical', that is, based upon the writer's life and experience. In some ways this is a truism - what other resource does the writer have to draw on? Typically however, we consider autobiography as more consciously representing the life story of the author, through an account which could in theory be verified against external evidence. A certain amount of 'poetic' truth might be allowed to accurately convey feelings and experiences, but the basic framework is historical. The fictionalised autobiography - such as the Autobiography of Mark Rutherford - awkwardly seems to have a foot in both camps. One influential theorist in the field of 'self-writing' studies suggests a crucial test to determine if a text is to be recognized as autobiography. Content alone cannot help us (especially given the status of works like the Autobiography), but the author reveals his or her intention on the title page, establishing a 'pact' with the reader, which may be relied upon. This approach, associated with the work of Philippe Lejeune, is not without its critics (and it is hard to see how it can be proved), but is worth noting here because of the emphasis that has been laid upon the title page of the Early Life.

The explicit link between 'Mark Rutherford' and William Hale White seems to promise a lifting of the veil, but it does not necessarily clarify the subject matter of the text. The manuscript has no title page - it is simply headed 'Autobiographical Notes' - and the details supplied in the Early Life must be presumed to have come from the family. They cannot be proved to reflect the writer's intention. They may even have subverted it, if he had envisaged this as telling his own story, and they have instead given prominence to 'Mark Rutherford'. If Mark Rutherford's life was 'told before under semi-transparent disguise' (p. 5), then White is surely the corresponding 'real' figure beneath that disguise whose life is now being told as 'fact'. The name Mark Rutherford appears nowhere in the text - and although there are references to the novels these are rather elliptical and no names or titles are cited. The purpose of reporting the 'early life' of Mark Rutherford (even 'really' as White) is a puzzle in itself, when this is in many ways a re-telling of the years covered in the Autobiography of Mark Rutherford. Although the changes and additions are significant, it is really the later life of the writer about which we know little. He obviously intended to withhold such information. It is clear that White sometimes simply took over almost verbatim details from the Autobiography. In places he may therefore have mistakenly, or deliberately, presented a life conformed too much to the fictional account.

A few words about the manuscript may not be out of place here. Everything is in White's hand, but some sections are very heavily over-written. In most cases what is scored through is no longer readable. Changes seems to be of three types; simple corrections, stylistic alterations, and more major changes to whole sentences or blocks of text [see examples]. It must be significant that the greatest evidence of revision is in the most personal sections - such as the expulsion from New College. He presumably dwelt on these, re-read them, and variously altered the emphases. It would be valuable to be able to restore the original text at these points (impossible on the microfilm used in preparing this, but physical examination of the manuscript in the British Library might help). In any case, we work now with the text as we have it, apparently published without changes from the manuscript.

Once past the title page the Early Life reveals itself as a curiously structured - or, rather unstructured? - and meandering work. This is in contrast to strongly narrative or stream of consciousness type childhood accounts. Analysis of the content is revealing. There are two particularly large sections of material, firstly on his father, and secondly on the college years (including here the admission to Bunyan Meeting). It is instructive to compare White's account with similar autobiographies of childhood, a sub-genre which flourished from the nineteenth century. Here the seminal work by Richard Coe, When the Grass Was Taller: Autobiography and the Experience of Childhood (Yale University Press, 1984), which considers hundreds of such texts and isolates key characters and experiences ('archetypes') is especially helpful. This forms a useful context in which the Early Life can be analysed, and the characteristic features separated out from the unusual.

It can be suggested that White presents his life in terms of people, place and piety, though with considerable overlap. At times the influence of people and experiences on the young White can be separated from later reflection; elsewhere the original impact cannot be recovered and we have only a mature judgement.

For people, clearly close family would be expected to figure largely. The typical cast of grandparents, parents, siblings, uncles, aunts, and cousins are all represented, along with one household servant, the children's nurse, Jane Reed. As quickly becomes clear, some characters are more important than others, and with the exception of Samuel Ebenezer ('Tam' to the family), siblings are mere ciphers about whom we learn nothing. This relative silence is not as strange as it seems, and here the value of Coe's comparative analysis become clear. He finds 'almost without exception, the man or woman who, in later life, returns in imagination to revisit and re-create a past childhood was, in that childhood, a solitary, an alienated, an exceptional child. Not necessarily lonely, but, in all essential ways, conscious of being alone' (p. 51). This fits well with what we know of White.

It is noticeable that relations are described by their beliefs as well as behaviour; an emphasis on the importance of the latter which occurs so often in the novels. Mere formal or orthodox belief is not prized. There is little mention of friendships outside the family circle. It is clear from other sources that the chapel community provided close links but there is no direct evidence for the social structures which studies show to have been an important feature of nonconformist life. It is likely that this simply reflects a natural focus upon those closest to him - though there are wider questions to be asked about the way Bunyan Meeting is portrayed in this source.

What he says about his parents is interesting. Though White has more material about his father than any other figure he does not seem close to him. Coe finds the 'inadequate' father to be a common type, manifest in different forms, and sometimes only failing by reference to the greater success of the son. This might well apply here, for Hale did outstrip his father's fame. His mother and her relations are passed over more lightly. It does not seem that White was happy at home - there are no positive descriptions of family life at all. This is seen again in relation to place, the second 'lens' through which White can be viewed in this text.

The childhood world is inevitably small, and often described in detail. With some qualifications this is true of White, but the accuracy of his picture is questionable. In the first place, Bedford in the 1830s and 40s is consistently represented as a sleepy backwater in a way which contradicts contemporary accounts. Differences of emphasis alone cannot explain this. The work by Matthiason published in the year of White's birth, the local newspaper reports collated by Hamson, and the summary in Samuel Lewis's Topographical Dictionary (like Matthiason, from 1831) all indicate a thriving town marked by change and development - which is not revealed at all in the Early Life. This is strikingly illustrated by the reference to the Times Bedford to London coach, made without mentioning that it ceased to run in 1846 (two years before White went to Cheshunt College), killed off by the opening of the railway. Complete silence about the great impact of the railway age must be deliberate - long before the branch line reached Bedford (1846), associated engineering work and the effect of the nearby London-Birmingham railway would have been felt locally. This is a consciously anachronistic portrayal, which must not be treated as historically accurate. White's account is nostalgic, with a bias towards stasis rather than change.

Another very important aspect of place is the family home, and by extension the houses of relations and friends. The lack of any detailed description of White's house is surely significant. From this text we find out almost nothing about it, or any pleasures enjoyed there. By contrast, other houses - his grandparents and above all nurse Jane's parents' home - are recalled. The latter, at Oakley, is especially praised for its simplicity; 'Oh, for a house with this one room, a Homeric house!' (p. 41 - echoes here no doubt of his frustration with houses in adult life). The only conclusion to draw from this is that White was uncomfortable at home, and possibly quite unhappy. Emphasis upon the freedom, simplicity, and spontaneity enjoyed elsewhere implies that these qualities were in short supply in the home.

The importance of the countryside - 'never was there a town better suited to a boy than Bedford at that time for out-of-door amusements' (p. 49) can hardly be over-estimated. Here a still more complete freedom is offered - and the text therefore conforms to a common Victorian theme of the Edenic world of childhood. This is almost the only place where White speaks of 'we' rather than 'I' (apart from the New College pages), for un-named friends share his adventures. This is a rare departure from the solitary and bookish self seen elsewhere. A supremely active life is described, rather than the passive, contemplative enjoyment of nature which is recorded in some much later pieces (and witnessed in the Groombridge Diary). Although the countryside is not depicted as fully for its natural beauty as we find in the novels, we can be sure that his Wordsworthian appreciation of nature informs the writing.

The other 'place' of great importance is Bunyan Meeting, and this also leads to a consideration of the role of piety. Participation in chapel life has been radically understated, giving a more limited engagement than might be reconstructed from the Autobiography, and much less than is indicated from other sources. White's father's posts as trustee, lay preacher, Sunday school teacher and Sunday school superintendent have all been excised. His own time in Sunday school, and later teaching there, have likewise disappeared. There is nothing even to show what he felt in church services or Sunday school, with the exception of the evening sleepiness as a young child; this may be a deliberate attempt to make the Wordsworth encounter stand out more vividly. Others have suggested that a lack of sacramental inclusion contributed to a feeling of distance - as far as we know White was never baptised, and he seems not to have taken Communion. Although an insider, he writes of chapel more as an observer than a participant. This reflects a later perspective, but once again is a stance which distorts the picture. The aim must have been to disguise the depth of commitment in order to lessen the feeling of alienation which later arose. The reader easily assumes that gradual separation from public religion was inevitable.

The seminal experience at Bunyan is the admission to membership which preceded going up to Cheshunt. There is a quite unfair emphasis upon the falseness of his faith confession, which fails to allow for its sincerity at the time - he was not unusual in lacking a radical conversion, as the case of Frederick White shows (no relation). He was one of the other two expelled from New College with Hale White, and the college archives preserve evidence of his testimony not to a sudden 'conversion', but 'the assiduous instructions of a pious father'. Compare this with Hale White, who 'had enjoyed the privilege of godly parents' (p. 58). It seems that White has exaggerated the falsity of his statement in order to make the later expulsion a 'punishment' and parallel; a false reward for 'near lying' succeeded by a false penalty (expulsion) for truthfulness (p. 59).

Life at Cheshunt College, for all its frustrations and limitations, covers the time when Wordsworth was discovered, and all belief and hope reborn; 'it was a new capacity' (p. 61). The poet's work has been a source of life to many, and Coe has some fascinating examples of this influence. His conclusion about many writers and poets and their 'instinctively realized transcendentality' is worth quoting; they commonly move 'from an awareness of beauty, thence to a sense of the mystery of the beautiful, and finally to a kind of pantheism, frequently with existential overtones' (p. 114). This trajectory can grow to replace traditional belief or (uneasily) accompany it.

This awakening would have been a perfectly natural ending to the Early Life. What follows is rather different, for in describing New College and the controversies over the Bible White clearly depends almost entirely upon printed sources rather than memory (and also goes beyond what might be recovered from the Autobiography). Direct quotation is used extensively, especially of the reported words of the College authorities during the trial of the three expelled, taken directly from the contemporary reports - still preserved in White's cuttings collection in the Bedford archive. Considerable editorial work has taken place though, omitting almost everything said by the students in their defence, probably with the aim of allowing the Principal and others to be condemned out of their own mouths. A lack of natural justice is thereby suggested.

Why did White include this episode at all? The expulsion does not feature in the fiction, and may not have been much known even within his family. There must have been a need to exorcize the memory of it, and to have the last word on the affair.

The overall place of religion and faith in this text can only be briefly mentioned here. It suffuses most of the material, and confirms the vital importance of the key events at Bunyan Meeting and at College, but the book is not as revealing about his personal belief and experience as one would wish. Mental assent to doctrine is shown to be inadequate, but there is no repudiation of specific beliefs - the inadequacy of doctrine to describe mystery seems to be at the heart of this issue. The link between conduct and belief is emphasized repeatedly. There is a stress upon the continued importance of religion, which was not wholly lost, but 'revived under new forms' (p. 78). A life-long commitment is clearly suggested, under these 'new forms', and there is no indication of religious belief having been completely lost. If Dorothy White's reports in the Groombridge Diary are to be believed, religion was a common topic of debate and conversation during the years in which the 'Autobiographical Notes' were being written. It never became something simply of the past.

There is much more which could be said on this text, on what it contains, and on the significant matters on which it is silent (such as the extraordinary fact that references to Bible reading and Bunyan's works are absent). Its enigmatic nature and reticence reflects the author's character, as does the preoccupation with identity and belonging. The final pages mark the emergence into full independence - married life and secure employment. The very brief 'meanwhile I had married' (p. 88) is not quite so odd as it seems; the focus is upon the self, and it is not uncommon for autobiographies of early life to exclude detailed references to marriage. John Burnett cites similar instances, though from predominantly working class accounts; see his Destiny Obscure: Autobiographies of Childhood, Education and Family from the 1820s to the 1920s (Penguin Books, 1984, p. 257). The ending seems particularly uneven, as if White several times extended what he wrote, before finally settling for a few line on the Victorian age as a kind of coda for the text - the feeling there portrayed of being out of tune with the times is absolutely typical of the man.

Even this brief reassessment of the Early Life, especially in terms of truth and historicity, indicates the need for a fresh look at its use in constructing a biographical outline for White. Only by reference to a range of external sources can a true picture begin to emerge. Let the reader beware!