Florence Powell – Purpose and Audience

Post 2 – Purpose and Audience

Florence Powell’s memoir is an informative yet personal, reflective account of her life in an orphanage during the 1930s.  Bravely honest, sentimental and nostalgic throughout, Powell confesses that later life she felt ashamed of her childhood, which is summarised in the line:

“In later years, when I had left the home, I was so ashamed to talk about it. I never told anyone that I had been brought up in an orphanage” (p.25)

This is a deeply sad confession from Powell, which allows us to empathise with her as an individual on a more personal level, yet also provides a significant amount of value for readers; her honesty gives insight into society’s attitudes towards orphans and child care during this period of time.

It is apparent that there are deep-rooted issues regarding social class and individual ‘self-worth’ for working-class auto-biographers. Powell’s shame and modesty are likely to have been shaped by factors such as the attitudes of society towards the working-class and orphans during the 1930s.

‘For working-class auto-biographers…subjectivity – being a significant agent worth of the regard of others, a human subject as well an individuated “ego”, or I for oneself, distinct from others – was not a given. In conditions of long work hours, crowded housing and inadequate light, it was difficult enough for them to contemplate themselves, but they had also to justify themselves as writers worthy of the attention of others’. – (Gagnier, pp. 338)

While reading Florence Powell’s memoir, it feels as though Regenia Gagnier’s ideas can be applied to a significant extent, as the tone of voice is consistently modest, despite her impressively detailed memories and the important reflections shared. Similarly, Carolyn Steedman has written about the celebrated psychology of narrated stories, summarising that ‘the tendency is to celebrate this psychology, to seek entry for it to a wider world of literary and cultural reference; and the enterprise of working-class autobiography was designed to make this at least a feasible project’ (p.144)

An uplifting turn in the memoir is Powell’s modest acknowledgment that despite her personal feelings towards her past, she has been surprised to find that people, particularly younger generations are interested in hearing her story.  Perhaps this is partly why Powell decided to write her memoir, as she has been encouraged by younger generations to share her experience and how it shaped her afterwards. The knowledge that young readers are interested in her life may have influenced the way in which Powell wrote her memoir and some of the information she included or excluded. However, it doesn’t feel as though Powell merely scratched the surface of her experiences. She doesn’t hesitate to delve into the detail of every aspect of orphanage life, including the sudden death of her best friend, Thelma Walker, who died of diphtheria. This contextualises Powell’s memoir considerably, as it would be far more shocking to readers from younger generations for such a sudden death of a child to occur. Though Powell confesses she missed her friend very much, she also explains that it took a long time for her to realize her friend had died, which highlights both Powell’s age and the attachment she felt to Thelma. However, Powell brings readers back to the reality of life in the 1930s once more, by emphasising that ‘it was common in those days’ to catch diphtheria. Since tragic circumstances such as that appear to have been frequent, it reinforces to readers the importance of working-class autobiographies. There are few other ways to tell the stories of those who died, or whose voices were not heard.

Although Florence Powell may have felt encouraged by other people to write her memoir, it is easy to sense Powell’s feelings of nostalgia and warmth towards the orphanage, no matter how limited her family life may have been. Despite later feelings of shame, Powell is able to reflect on life within the orphanage and the staff she grew attached to in great detail, suggesting perhaps that to some extent she may have always known her story was valid and deserved to be remembered.

Works cited:

Gagnier, Regenia. ‘Social Atoms: Working Class Autobiography, Subjectivity and Gender.’ Victorian Studies, 30, 3 (1987), 335-363

Steedman, Carolyn ‘Landscape For A Good Woman: A Story of Two Lives’ VIRAGO PRESS (1986)

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