Averil Edith Thomas: Purpose and Audience

‘…but there are customs and happenings which are now part of the past which I must tell about now.’ (7)

Averil Edith Thomas wrote her memoir during the last stage of her life. This draws questions to why she waited so many years to document her childhood, and what inspired her to change her mind. The answers are found within the pages of her memoir, as she offers an explanation to why she publically opened a gateway into her private memories.

Averil's handwritten memoir
Averil’s handwritten memoir

Averil, having a passion for history and a career in education, spent her life learning and teaching about the ways of the world. It appears that she realised during the final years of her life that her history deserved to be noted too. She states, ‘We all make history, even in quiet Melton’ (16), suggesting that although her life may not be as extravagant as other writers’, her story still contributes to the era and has just as much of a right to be known.

Averil asserts how ‘there are customs and happenings which are now part of the past which I must tell about’ (7). It appears that she is filling a gap within history that has since been forgotten. She achieves this by preaching of her own, not just for herself but for the community she belongs to.

Jane Martin writes of the historical discourse of gender and class politics, and believes:

‘Knowledge of women’s past can be a source of strength, of guidance and of inspiration. There was a concern to render women visible and offer an explanation for women’s disappearance. It is in this sense that we have a history of praxis with the emphasis on the meaning of experience and gender as a division of power.” (516)

Where others accepted their social and financial status, Averil pushed boundaries and fulfilled her dream of being a teacher. This success story was uncommon for someone of a poor background during the era, especially for a female. She may write of her struggle to become a teacher in a world of patriarchy as a source of ‘guidance and inspiration’ to others. Martin touches upon the disappearance of women’s history, and how there was a social concern towards rendering women ‘visible’. Averil stands as an example to this statement, as autobiographies were mainly for the male gender belonging to the middle and upper class divisions. She is an educated woman, an attribute not common amongst the working class, and utilises this to transcribe the forgotten life of those who did not have a place in literature.

The huge gap between her childhood and when she chose to document it may correlate with the social views of gender during the era in which she wrote her memoir. The 1970’s was overcome by female voices as a result of Feminism, which fought for gender equality across all aspects of society. It may be from this growing sense of entitlement for women that resulted in Averil’s realisation that her story mattered, as women held less power in society before this movement.

the struggle
Edited image of women reading during Victorian period

The intended audience of Averil’s memoir appears to be those who share an interest in history, and for readers with a similar history to hers. She merges the factual content of her autobiography with personal anecdotes, of which she comments ‘have been demanded over and over again by my grandchildren’ (5). The reader is placed in the position of a grandchild, listening to their grandmother’s tales of a time that the current generation knew little about. Whilst understanding Averil’s personal life to a degree, the reader is mostly educated on the customs of her town as she focuses more on the reconstruction of daily events and life without media and television. Her personal life becomes overshadowed by her need to recollect the town she grew up in, rather than expressing subjective feelings or relationships.

David Vincent wrote of the Nineteenth Century working class, and comments:

‘Love, grief and above all sexual activity are not necessarily verbal, let alone written categories of experience; you do not need to be able to read and write to make love or to fall in love, equally you do not need words to feel grief, or even to give some expression to that grief. These observations hold true for all sections of society but obviously are more relevant to the class which was least accustomed to using the written word in its daily transactions.’ (227)

Averil therefore uses her autobiography in a broad way of educating her reader rather than wanting to share her personal story; coinciding with Vincent’s idea that you ‘do not need to be able to read and write to make love or to fall in love’ (227). However, you do need words to be able to recreate a time and place which has not been before written about. This makes her autobiography a little impersonal in comparison to others, but in no way less interesting.

Sources:

Averil Edith Thomas, Untiled, pp.26 (c. 6,500 words), Burnett Collection of Working Class Autobiography, Brunel University Library. No 1:892

Martin, Jane. Thinking Education Histories Differently: Biographical Approaches to Class Politics and Women’s Movements in London, 1900s to 1960s. History of Education, Vol. 36, Nos 4–5. (July–September 2007) P 516

Vincent, David. Love and Death and the Nineteenth-Century Working Class, Social History, Vol.5, No2 (May,1980) p225-227

Images:

(picture from Thomas’ memoir) Averil Edith Thomas, Untiled, pp.26 (c. 6,500 words), Burnett Collection of Working Class Autobiography, Brunel University Library. No 1:892

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