Bessie Wallis (b. 1904)- Purpose and Audience

‘Most working-class autobiographies begin not with a family lineage or a birthdate but rather with an apology for their authors’ ordinariness’ (Gagnier, 338)


Regenia Gagnier states that working-class autobiographies provide their audiences with either a lineage or birthdate. Although Bessie Wallis ignores an apologetic start she does discuss her lineage with a detailed description of her family. Bessie expresses pride when expressing the happy memories of her Yesterdays. 

Bessie does not specify her reason for writing her memoir, her autobiography contains a detailed description of her life experiences. The memoir gives a detailed expression of what it was like to be a working-class girl in the twentieth century. Bessie also provides her readers with a detailed description of life in a mining community.

On the last page of Bessie’s memoir she states how she was now in her seventies and sadly was ‘half blind and disabled'(6,31). With Bessie’s health deteriorating, I believe her memoir was a way of reliving her freedom once again; ‘I’ve had a full life and now I’ve relived it again by telling you’ (6,31). Bessie also states that when the century was young life was easier. This gives refers to a period in her life where she was able to fulfil all her needs and wishes on her own; but also can indicate how life itself was easier at the beginning of the century.

Bessie hints at another reason for retelling her earlier years: ‘as the old die, their knowledge so often goes with it’ (1, a). As David Vincent states ‘what is not said’ (Vincent, 226) is an important factor in working-class narratives. Bessie wishes to tell all, therefore no history or past knowledge is taken to her grave with her. Bessie’s intentions were to express what life and especially family life was like at the start of the century.

Gagnier Regina. Social Atoms: Working- Class Autobiography, Subjectivity and Gender.
Gagnier Regenia. Social Atoms: Working- Class Autobiography, Subjectivity and Gender.

Gagnier wrote the article, ‘Social Atoms: Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender’. Gagnier suggests that many working-class memoirs were written to protest their social stand within their community. Bessie does not seem to express her social standing within the community, but what she does express passionately is her mother and her role in retaining family unity.

Bessie retells the story of when her mother saved her from having to attend a different school to her brother due to her gender. Bessie’s mother illustrated passion towards woman being equal to that of men and told the school panel expressing ‘she would have her way’ (1,b). Bessie also tells her readers how her mother saved money which bought her family a poultry farm which her father tended to when he became ill with Tuberculosis. Looking at this dynamic of the family, Bessie can purposely be seen to address her mother as a dominant figure in the household.

Close family unity is something that runs throughout Bessie’s memoir expressing how family sticks together. Bessie also mentions how the mining community was like a large family as ‘our neighbour became our family too'(2,1).  The idea of mining being at the centre of Bessie’s world is something that runs throughout the memoir.

Dudley Metropolitan Council, Earl of Dudley Estate Collection.
Dudley Metropolitan Council, Earl of Dudley Estate Collection.

Memories of her family unit are retold in detail in her earlier life rather than her later years. This is due to the uncertainty of what is in store for Bessie in the future. Bessie’s past had a secure position as she has lived through it with the freedom shown through determination and travel. Apprehension towards her future was something of a worry as she no longer was in good health to live it to the fullest.

‘There were many more Yesterdays which were good and bad because life is what one makes of it’ (31)







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

Vincent, David, ‘Love and Death in the Nineteenth-Century Working Class’, Social History, 5:2 , (1980), pp. 223-247

Wallis, Bessie. Yesterdays, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 2:0794



Image References

Dudley Metropolitan Council. Earl of Dudley Estate Collection. 14 January- July 2014.

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



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