Introducing the author – Florence Powell
Florence Powell’s memoir is an endearingly personal and realistic account of life in an orphanage during the 1930s. Powell was taken into care in 1931 by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. She does not discuss her family history or circumstances throughout the memoir, aside from reminiscing about visits and days out with her Grandmother.
Powell’s memoir, significantly begins with lines of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem ‘The Cry of the Children’ which was written directly about the horror of child labour in Britain. The lines Powell chose to include could be interpreted as a reflection on the disciplined work expected of orphans within the home, while the juxtaposition of ‘weeping’ and ‘playtime’ appears to effectively summarise the life-long emotions she was left with after her childhood, along with the evident cherishing of her moments of playtime and true experiences of childhood that she shares in great detail.
Powell’s memoir is captivating for many reasons. However, one of the main features which intrigued me is her nostalgic and sentimental voice maintained carefully throughout. Impressively, while expressing some of her own feelings and opinions, her tone of voice remains consistently informative and clear to readers, making her memoir highly useful but also enjoyable and easy to read.
Arguably, one of the most intriguing sections of Powell’s memoir, is her honest and deeply sad confessions of shame. Powell admits that later in life she was reluctant to share stories of her childhood and was ashamed of her life as an orphan. While this allows readers to empathise with Powell on a more individual level, her honesty also provides us with valuable insight into society’s attitudes towards orphanages and children during the thirties, while more subtly, raises deep-rooted issues regarding the working class struggle with identifying a ‘sense of self’.
Powell’s family background
There is little information regarding Powell’s family history in the memoir. However, Powell reminisces fondly about visits from her Grandmother, explaining: ‘This was a great occasion for me. Grandma would choose a time during a cheap real excursion’ (p.21) She also goes on to explain that her Grandmother ‘had a very tough life and shortage of money was another trial’. As readers this gives us a small amount of insight into Powell’s family life, insinuating that her Grandmother did what she could and cared enough for Florence to visit her and take her on memorable days out to the cinema.
The passionate nostalgia felt by Powell for the time spent with her Grandmother is very apparent through her highly detailed descriptions of the visit. She recalls the film “Curly Top” starring Shirley Temple, which coincidently focuses on the adoption of a young orphan, and also recalls the exact songs played by the organist during the interval. This demonstrates quite evidently that Powell cherished the limited family life she experienced.
Life as an orphan
The beginning of Powell’s memoir includes a general outline of an orphanage in the thirties, which summarises:
‘The design of the charity is to provide maintenance, clothing and instruction for orphan girls, with a view of fitting them for domestic service, to train them in household work, and educate such children in habits of frugility, industry, within the principle of the Church of England.’ (p.2)
Powell gives readers detailed insight into life within the orphanage throughout the entirety of her memoir. However, she gives readers a particularly personal introduction to the start of this period of time as she recalls her arrival: ‘When we arrived at the orphanage, I can still remember how frightened I was, and the awe I felt at entering such a disciplined place’. (p.2) Powell’s choice of words such as ‘frightened’ and ‘disciplined’ gives readers a sense of the extent of the daunting experience Florence Powell faced alone. Although Powell describes many mundane and seemingly unenjoyable aspects of the orphanage, she foremost emphasises that “Despite little enough comfort and a lack of love, this had been my home”. It is undeniable from the beginning of her memoir until the end, that Powell was somewhat sentimental about the place she had called home over the years and the adults she had been raised by.
“Despite little enough comfort and a lack of love, this had been my home”
Browning, Barrett Elizabeth (1843) ‘The Cry of the Children’ Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine
Powell, Florence, ‘An Orphanage in the Thirties’, duplicated pamphlet,pp.26. Illustrated. Brunel University Library
‘Curly Top’ film poster (1935) http://www.imdb.com/media/rm1398325504/tt0026252?ref_=tt_ov_i