Copyright 2019 by Michael W. Rickard II
Factory Lives: Four Nineteenth-Century Working-Class Autobiographies (Factory Lives) provides an opportunity for study as comparative literature to emancipatory narratives . While comparative literature often studies works from different languages, Factory Lives and emancipatory narratives such as Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery and Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl facilitates comparisons between many issues including the definitions of slavery and identity, and whether these definitions differ by culture. Here, I will focus on the memoir, The Memoir of Robert Blincoe, an Orphan Boy (Memoir). First, I will examine Blincoe’s description of his experiences as a child laborer as worse than slavery, comparing them to slavery as defined in emancipatory narratives. and how legitimacy of narrative is an issue in his story and emancipatory narratives.
Robert Blincoe’s account of his life in a factory (what I call “factory narratives”) mirrors American emancipatory narratives, both with its plea for reform and the inherent questions concerning the narrator’s reliability. Blincoe argues for factory reform just as liberated slaves argue for the abolition of slavery, and like liberated persons, Blincoe would find his story questioned, even by the people sympathetic to his cause.
Memoir raises the question of whether child factory workers are enslaved people. Blincoe’s narrative sees him compare his situation to, “…a fate more severe than that of the West Indian slaves who have the good fortune to serve humane owners” (106). He later asserts, “…it would be difficult, if not impossible, from the record of sufferings inflicted upon Negro slaves, to quote instances of greater atrocity, than what I have, or am about to develop” (138). Blincoe makes a strong case that his time as a child laborer is akin to being enslaved. He has little legal redress (arguably none as 1802’s Health and Morals of Apprentices Act is considered toothless and Blincoe is unaware of its existence), is confined to the factory area, is forced to work, and is subject to beatings. The publisher’s preface in Memoir also equates child factory labor with slavery as Richard Carlile asks, “And yet, who shall read the Memoir of Robert Blincoe, and say, that the charity towards slaves should not have begun or ended at home?” (Brown 91). By comparison, emancipated person Harriet Jacobs travels to England and examines the lifestyles of what she refers to as “the poorest of the poor” (150), stating they are not the same as slaves, “…I felt that the condition of even the meanest and most ignorant among them was vastly superior to the condition of the most favored slaves in America” (150). Jacobs’ analysis provides material for comparing the factory narratives and the emancipatory natives in terms of cultural perceptions of what constitutes slavery whether it is de jure or de facto slavery
Like emancipatory narratives, Blincoe’s depictions of conditions for children in factory life is so shocking that some could not believe it. Both factory narratives and emancipatory narratives contain supporting documents from “reputable” citizens confirming the events did happen. This raises questions of why the stories need to be confirmed. Is it because the stories are so horrifying they cannot be believed, because there is a question about the author’s credibility, or a combination of both?
The need for authentication provides another example to compare factory narratives and emancipatory narratives, exploring whether there are similarities or differences as to the need for confirming the author’s identity. Does a factory worker’s status as a lower-class citizen raise questions about their reliability? Does a factory worker’s status as a child raise questions about their reliability? How does this compare to an emancipatory narrative? Does race play a role in the reliability of a liberated person’s account? Does gender or education play a role in an emancipatory narrative? Identity also raises questions for comparative analysis. What is the status of children and how does it compare to enslaved people? How does this identity necessitate the confirmation of their stories?
Finally, there are questions concerning different cultural attitudes towards slavery in factory narratives and emancipatory narratives. Any comparison between the two must take into England’s changing attitudes towards slavery including the passage of the Slave Trade Act of 1807 and 1833’s Slavery Abolition Act. Did these changing attitudes have any impact in how factory narratives were authenticated compared to the United States where greatly conflicting attitudes towards slavery impacted an audience’s tendency to believe or discount an emancipatory narrative.
Comparative literature provides an opportunity to explore similarities and differences in cultures (amongst other things). Comparing factory narratives and emancipatory narratives provides a means of analysis for exploring the similarities and differences between American and English views on what constitutes slavery and the identities of child laborers and enslaved persons.
Brown, John. “A Memoir of Robert Blincoe, An Orphan Boy. Factory Lives: Four Nineteenth-
Century Working-Class Autobiographies, edited by James R. Simmons, Jr., Broadview Editions, 2007, 87-180.
Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Dover Thrift Editions, 2001.
Mitchell, Angelyn. The Freedom to Remember: Narrative, Slavery, and Gender in
Contemporary Black Women's Fiction. Rutgers UP, 2002. EBSCOhost, proxy.buffalostate.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=mzh&AN=2002533212&site=ehost-live. Accessed 4 Sept. 2018.