Florence Powell – Life Writing, Class and Identity

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)

It is apparent from Powell’s surprise in the fact that people are interested in her memories from the orphanage that factors such as her upbringing, social class and hard, long working hours made it difficult for her to develop a sense of self and establish self-worth, while her feelings of shame towards her childhood in later life reinforce Gagnier’s argument.

Class is undeniably an undertone throughout Powell’s memoir. Whether intentionally or not, she highlights the contrast between her life as a working-class orphan and the experiences and wealth of those better-off, including the vicar and his daughter, and the gentry of the country, who invited the orphans to their stately homes on occasion. Powell reflects:

“We had sumptuous food, film shows and played with the games that belonged to their children. This seemed out of this world to me and like a dream” (p.17)

This memory in particular really highlights to readers that a higher social class felt truly out of reach to Powell throughout her years at the orphanage. The language she uses to describe her limited experiences of luxury, such as ‘dream’ emphasises that although Powell enjoyed these moments, she was always aware of the fragility of each experience, with the reality of the orphanage placed firmly in the back of her mind. This echoes Mike Savage’s (2007) argument in regards to class being something ascriptive, which allows individuals no control, as it is the circumstances they are born into which determines this part of life.

It also appears apparent that the orphans were consistently reminded that any privileges usually came from a charitable motive rather than genuine affection for them as individuals, perhaps indicating the issue of establishing an identity, yet it is reassuring that despite this reality, Powell did appreciate and enjoy them all the same. For example, Powell recalls that someone donated a large sum of money treat the orphan to a day out to the pantomime. Whether the charitable donation came from a place of guilt on behalf of the higher-classes, it is only relevant in the larger context. While looking at Powell’s memoir, it is difficult to feel anything but pleased for her and the rest of her friends at the orphanage that they could share some experiences of a happy childhood at all. With that in mind, the genuine appreciation displayed by Powell towards the small treats, gifts and festivities reinforces to readers that amongst all of the hard work and rules, she was undeniably grateful for these moments in the long-term, regardless of the questions her memoir raises in terms of the apparent injustices of social class differences.

Works cited:

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

Savage, Mike ‘Changing Social Class Identities in Post-War Britain: Perspectives from Mass-Observation’ Sociological Research Online, May 2007 http://www.socresonline.org.uk/12/3/6.html

Powell, Florence, ‘An Orphanage in the Thirties’, duplicated pamphlet, Illustrated. Brunel University Library

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