‘For sometime past when talking to various people about events that have happened during my lifetime they have said “You ought to write a book”‘
Walter John Eugene Elliott was born in 1890. His ‘Untitled’ memoir was written in 1970, 7 years before he passed away. His autobiography depicts his life as a child growing up in a village in Sussex, his first experiences in the working world and his first-hand experiences as a Sapper in The Great War.
What strikes me most about Walter’s memoir is how regularly he recalls life threatening struggles. He tells us that he signed up at the start of the war in October 1914, and speaks in great detail of his experiences. In this section of his memoir we learn of the numerous times Walter suffered an injury or came close to his deathbed. But it is not only during the war that we see Walter’s survival. On the subject of his working life prior to the war, working as a telegram messenger, he recalls a time when he was nearly hit by a train. We are therefore repeatedly shown just how lucky this man has been throughout his life.
Although through these experiences it is possible to see him as a lucky man, Walter sometimes sees his life as being the opposite. He speaks of his work life, his chores, his hours and pay and demonstrates to the reader how hard he had to work. However, alongside this he comments on the way people reminisce of that time as being ‘the good old days’ (24). He appears to disagree with this idea of his childhood being the good old days, saying that ‘if they had had [lived through these days] they would not boast ‘bout ‘um’ (24). This demonstrates to the reader not only how hard he had to work as a young adult, but also how much his life may have progressed positively post war, after the ending of his memoirs.
Nevertheless, a lot of Walter’s accounts of his childhood prior to the beginning of his working life appear to be very positive. Walter’s memoir focuses upon these early years of his life. Burnett offers an explanation as to why this may be the case, he says that:
‘almost all autobiographers write of their childhood, often at length, and some continue their life stories no further than this. Childhood is clearly seen as an important – perhaps the most important – phase of development, a time when identity and personality are formed and when crucial influences are brought to bear which shape the character and destiny of the individual’
This idea is clear to see when reading Walter’s memoir. This is because the memoir focuses on the crucial influences in Walter’s life and some of the key moments that appear to have affected him. He talks about his family a lot, and recalls stories of his aunt and uncle. Some of these provide humorous reading, leading us to feel that Walter’s childhood was a joyous one. He spends a considerable amount of time talking about ‘The Shop’. This was a shop owned by numerous generations of the Elliott family between 1860 and 1937, in the village of Little Common. Shop life played a significant part of Walter’s childhood, and even into his adulthood. During the war, he speaks of his gratitude for his fiancé, Gladys, for helping in the store because ‘otherwise when Ted [Walter’s brother] went [to war] the shop would have to close down’ (43). This clearly meant a lot to Walter as he says that ‘Gladys saved the day’ (43). This gratitude Walter shows also shows the reader how much he thought of his parents and the shop. He says if Gladys hadn’t have helped ‘what would happen to Pa and Ma’ (43). Thus, demonstrating the care that he had for his parents and the worry for them that he felt when he left to fight in the war. Walter shows just how vital the role of the shop played in the Elliott’s lives and their survival.
Walter’s memoirs cover numerous themes, including childhood, family, work, love, and the war. Although his memoirs finish with the Armistice of the First World War in 1918, when Walter was just 28, we do feel we get to know his character and his life quite well. And therefore we feel we get to know what life was like in the early 20th century rural Britain. However, Jonathon Rose suggests that ‘although autobiographies will probably prove to be the richest sources for a history of audiences, they must be used with caution and balanced against other materials. Memoirists are not entirely representative of their class’ (51). Therefore, it is important to remember when reading Walter’s memoir, that it does not represent all the lives of those in rural Britain in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Thus, although the memoir allows us an insight, it cannot be used in order to generalise and make assumptions upon the whole population.
However, from all the experiences Walter divulges in his memoir, it is clear to see just why Walter was often told ‘You ought to write a book’.
Burnett (ed.),Destiny Obscure: Autobiographies of childhood, Education and family from the 1820s to the 1920s (Allen Lane, London, 1982), pp.306-312. Brunel University Library and Ruskin College Library, Oxford.
Elliott, Walter J.E. ‘Untitled’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 1:227, available at: http//bura.brunel.ac.uk/handle/2438/9520
Rose, Jonathon. ‘The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes’ (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001)
Walter J.E 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): 1:227
Image 1: http://www.ossett.net/WW1/Charles_L_Whitehead.html