‘If I have a message at all it is that one should accept life’s challenges, no matter what form they take: the rewards are truly worth it.’ (Skeleton outline)
Edith cites many different inspirations for writing her memoir. Unlike other authors, particularly female working class authors, there is no sense of justification for writing. Edith is confident in writing her autobiography, similarly to Mary Howitt who was writing because she lived through so many influential moments in the 20th century.
She writes, ‘I have had an unusual life, so wide- spanning, & interestingly related to recent turning points in our history.’ (Introduction) Events such as the Aberfan disaster in 1966 seem to have driven Edith to write. The school that fell victim to this devastating event was the school Edith attended as a child, the Pantglas Junior School.
I believe that Edith writes her memoir in the early 1970’s. As she was heavily involved with social issues surrounding the lives of coal miners during her working life, it seems clear that Edith would write in the 1970’s. This was a time when Britain was facing of miner’s strikes and pit closures. She makes reference to this period when talking about her move to Birmingham towards the end of her memoir. ‘It was fortuitous, in that it was up for sale before house prices rocketed shortly afterwards, in 1971-73’ (39).
Edith also notes that as an infant she had an uncertain start to her life, ‘having being given just six weeks to live’ (Introduction). The fact that she outlives the time that was given to her she feels is an inspiration for writing about the life she goes on to lead.
A large part of Edith’s life was dedicated to studying social history. She considers ‘G.M. Trevelyan’s great book on English Social History’ (Introduction) another reason behind the writing of her memoir. She quotes Trevelyan, ‘”…even this mass of knowledge is small indeed compared to the sum total of social history which could only be mastered if we knew the biographies of all the millions of men, women, & children who have lived in England.”’ (Introduction) It is with this fitting sentiment that Edith writes her memoir.
There are four pages missing from Edith’s memoir, pages 31-34. In my opinion, the pages that have been omitted purposely by the author contained the details of her husband Charles’s death. In the useful ‘skeleton outline of autobiography’ which is provided, Edith writes that in 1959 ‘He collapsed, & had to undergo a major operation. He died a few weeks afterwards.’ It is during this time in her memoir that the pages are missing. This led me to consider the fact that Edith was writing with a public audience in mind. She may have preferred to keep this aspect of her life private. She does support this idea in her own words, ‘I found great difficulty at first, in getting it down in writing…I had to learn to penetrate deeply into my inner self.’ (Introduction).
In the section of her memoir that Edith titles ‘Participation in Public Affairs’ it is easy to see that she is writing to provide information on the work that she was involved with during her life. She talks about her time leading up to the 1920’s working for the ‘Court of Referees’ (16). In this position it was Edith’s job to assess the claims made by men who deemed themselves unfit to work that were seeking unemployment benefit.
Edith recalls a lot of factual detail such as the exact amounts allowed in genuine cases, but she is sympathetic towards the plights of the workers. ‘It was a difficult & sometimes heartbreaking task, for we were aware of the impossibilities of finding work in the area.’ (17) Edith’s memoir is written with the workers that shared similar backgrounds with her own family in mind. Regenia Gagnier notes that memoirs that foreground political activism, ‘are not typically called autobiographies at all because they include so little of the self separate from political activity’ (Gagnier, 351). Edith’s memoir follows this, as she is concerned with representing the lives of other workers, perhaps more so than her own personal life.
Edith expresses this difficulty in sharing the details of her personal life: ‘so much of my life had been concerned with economic & social issues, & so little of the things that were exclusively personal.’ (Introduction). I think that Edith was conscious of what Gagnier describes when writing. She had an awareness of the fact that personal content was needed for an autobiography.
Edith does express class consciousness, looking back on her time when she first moved to Oxford in the 1930’s was tinged with a sense of luck. ‘We revelled in our good fortune in being so comfortably placed in this great & historic city’ (23). Edith demonstrates appreciation for her position in Oxford which she would not usually have been afforded after her humble start as a miner’s daughter.
Index entry in Burnett et al The Autobiography of the British Working Class: 832 WILLIAMS, Edith. A, ‘Untitled.’ TS, pp. 39 + 3pp. chapter summary (c. 11,700 words). Brunel University Library.
Coughlan, Alice. ‘Mary Howitt (1888-1983) Purpose and Audience.’ Writinglives.org. 17th March 2017. Web. Accessed 23rd February 2018.
Gagnier, Regenia. ‘Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender.’ Victorian Studies. 30:3 (Spring, 1987). 335-363.
Featured Image – Alangeorge.co.uk
Pantglas School http://www.alangeorge.co.uk/Aberfan_pantglas_school.htm
G.M. Trevelyan issue https://www.antiqbook.com/search.php?action=search&l=en&owner_id=-csmx&author=++TREVELYAN&page_num=41&sort_order=entered&sort_type=asc
Aberfan Disaster http://ihrrblog.org/2011/10/21/remembering-aberfan/