This is the first instalment of two posts on Norah Elliott’s home and family. If you’re new to the wonderful life of Norah Elliott, you may find it useful to read an introduction to her life and also the purpose and audience of her memoir. This first post focuses on Norah’s well-lived, but also grief-stricken, childhood life.
Norah’s family history is extensive, complex, and heart-breaking, and because of this she places her family at the core of her autobiography. Her entire memoir captures how each of her family members affected Norah’s own life and personality. Never marrying, or having a family of her own, Norah lives her life through the memory of her childhood home and family. Norah’s parents were typical of other working-class parents in that they ‘enjoyed large families, regarding them with pride as a blessing and joy, as well as a Christian duty and economic responsibility’ (Burnett, 2013, 270). It is distressing to learn that many of her siblings died in early childhood, largely due to illness. But what followed these early deaths was even more difficult, and particularly atypical, for the young, working-class Norah…
“I hope I remembered it correctly, death due to drowning”
Norah’s father, John Pilch, was the secretary of his local labour party, but his day-to-day occupation involved working in Annesley pits. However, following a strike failure he was blacklisted and had to relocate his family to Bentley in Yorkshire where he worked in the Yorkshire coal fields. In 1913 John Pilch drowned, leaving Norah fatherless at the age of ten. Norah’s family was destined for further disasters as her mother was admitted to a lunatic asylum, later dying in 1938, and Norah was split from her siblings and adopted, making Norah Pilch, Norah Elliott.
Unlike many female, autobiographical writers, such as Mrs W.E. Palmer, Norah does not appear to be particularly fond of her mother. Although Norah was only ten when she was split from her mother, her memoir was written during Norah’s late 60s, early 70s, so you would assume that Norah would have acquired some kind of love or sympathy for her biological mother. But she never talks about her caringly or understandingly, unlike her father. John Burnett notes that children of this period had ‘a high degree of affection and intimacy with one parent’ (2013, 237), clearly for Norah, this was her father John Pilch.
Not only does Norah remember her family experience, but the homes she lived in. Norah was born in Hucknall, Torkard but moves to Annesley during infancy. Her childhood memories are from her house down Sherwood Street in Annesley. When remembering Annesley, she writes, ‘I expect it was built as a model village with 2 rows of miners’ houses’. She goes on to describe her home on Sherwood St: ‘a row of houses on each side whose front doors open so that you step up from the street into the parlour, a door that leads into the living room with the fireplace along one wall and at rights angles to this the door hiding the stairs leading to the bedrooms: the door is not level with the floor, one step sticks out into the room’.
Her long, descriptive paragraphs about the homes that she lives in are like many working-class auto-biographers whose reasons for writing are to expose the working-class, ordinariness of life during the 19th or 20th centuries. However, the mundane detail that Norah includes in her memoir is often followed by reflective remarks. Her words written about the home and family are both physical and emotional, and following the previously cited description of her childhood family home, Norah writes:
Have you ever noticed how that, in autumn, if you bring a bunch of rose buds indoors some will open in the warmth and produce lovely blooms but others, having been too early severed from the parent plant or too badly battered by wind, rain or frost remain tightly closed till they shrivel and die?
So it is with some children; Separated from their parents they seem unable to respond to love and kindness and remain coiled up within themselves never developing their full potentialities, never joyous or giving joy to others. I think I am such one.
– Norah Elliott, 29.10.71
Find out more about Norah Elliott’s home and family in part two.
Burnett, John. Destiny Obscure: Autobiographies of Childhood, Education and Family from the 1820s to the 1920s. London: Routledge, 2013.
Elliott, Norah. ‘Untitled’. The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography. Ed. John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall. Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989 (3 Vols) Nb. 2:242. Available at http://bura.brunel.ac.uk/handle/2438/10895
‘Norah Elliott’ in John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall (eds) The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography 1790-1945, 3 vols. (Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989): 2:242