Lilian Westall (born 1893): Life-Writing, Class and Identity

 

Figure 1 Victorian London, just as urbanization was rising.
Figure 1 Victorian London during Lilian’s childhood

The early 1900’s and throughout the First World War created much stress on families and class divide. The level of poverty grew through this time due to the demand in money for the war.  With the rise of urbanization, many families could not meet the rising prices of food and the over-crowding of homes in the poorest areas.

Westall discusses the class divide through her employers and her fellow employees. ‘My employers didn’t seem to have much money themselves’ (4) Even with this, many people did not want to accept that they were poor or indignity.  When offered money at school Westall would not accept it. ‘I rarely raised my hand because of pride’ (4) It was the only thing people had, their pride.’

Westall also describes a time when her employers would leave money around the house she was cleaning. ‘My employers were careless with money, they had a habit of leaving golden sovereigns around. Perhaps it was their way of testing my honesty’ (6) Here, Westall shows a distrust between employer and employee, and distrust of the working-class. This is a way of showing the class divide and how society tried to stay within their own class, always wanting to keep themselves at a distance. The ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ structure of domestic life kept the rich away from the poor. Lilian speaks about this when she was employed at a hotel in Langham Place: ‘waiters scampered up and down the stairs; but two flight up was a different world. A world of carpets, soft lights, well-dressed people, all the signs of gracious, unhurried living.’ (9).

Figure 2 The Upstairs Downstairs Play Stage Set-Up, as it would have been during the early 1900s.
Figure 2 The Upstairs Downstairs Play Stage Set-Up, as it would have been during the early 1900s.

At a younger age when she tried to get a job during the worst of WW1, Lilian had a bad cold, because of her living conditions. At the interview the mistress was ‘aghast’ and made Lilian feel like a dirty, poor servant. ‘Good heavens!…You could be most infectious.’ (7) The mistress even got up and left the room, taking the interview from behind a closed door. Instantly, Lilian was literally divided by the mistress, who came from a higher class. Even other servants sometimes treated her with distaste: ‘servants could be as demanding as employers at times.’ (6)

Lilian got married in 1919, towards the end of the war. Her father was ‘a changed man’ (8) who had stopped drinking and finally made an effort with the family. On Lilian’s wedding day, her father bought her a blouse. The father who had never bought her anything! ‘I think it was the first present he’d ever bought me.’ (9) Up to this point in the memoir, Lilian has not mentioned dress, unless it was a uniform. But she goes onto speak or clothes often and I believe she always wanted to be fashionable and to afford clothes. She is pleased to mention ‘Looking quite fashionable in my blouse and an ankle-length skirt’ (9) This is the most feminine comment Lilian makes in her memoir. During this time ‘Self-Improvement Guides’ were popular and I am sure Lilian would have seen a couple in the houses she worked at. Even though she came from a working class background, looking clean and tidy was important. Westall’s class created her identity, but she worked her way through it. Perhaps, at last, choosing her own clothes was her way of saying to the world that she was not the poor maid.

Figure 3 Fashion Timeline showing the change in dress and fashion throughout the Great War
Figure 3 Fashion Timeline showing the change in dress and fashion throughout the Great War.

 

 

 

References 

Gagnier, Regenia. Subjectivities: A History of Self-Representation in Britain, 1832-1920, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991).

Mooney, Shelagh, and Irene Ryan. “A woman’s place in hotel management: upstairs or downstairs?.” Gender in Management: An International Journal 24.3 (2009): 195-210.

Westall, Lilian. ‘The Good Old Days’. Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 1:746

‘Westall, Lilian’, entry in The Autobiography of the British Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography, ed by John Burnett, David Vincent, and David Mayall (Harvester, Brighton 1984), vol 1, no. 746

Images

Fig.1 http://blog.placeni.org/2010/04/history-of-city-from-in-our-time.html

Fig.2 http://www.updown.org.uk/thehouse/house2.htm

Fig.3 http://glamourdaze.com/history-of-womens-fashion/1900-to-1919

 

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