Any author that chooses to write an autobiography must view their life as being worthy of literature. To the writer, their life is unique against others, and fascinating.
Professor Regenia Gagnier argued that most working-class autobiographies 'begin not with a family lineage or a birthdate but rather with an apology for their authors' ordinariness'(1). However,
I feel that Perry, born 1922 in Nottingham, chose to write her autobiography for various reasons.
As a working class writer, she depicts economic struggle, meagre education and the dissatisfaction of her position, something that Perry felt from an early age. The role of the family is also clear in her memoir, as it is within many working class writings, e.g. ‘I loved my father when I was a child. And he loved his children, the youngest always being the favourite’ (pp. 1, Margaret was the second-to-last).
Perry obviously felt herself to be a unique individual of the working class to write her memoir. Indeed, Bourke saw class as being 'a "feeling of belonging"'(2) from the routine of everyday life, while also 'intrinsically tied up with the awareness of difference'(3). Clearly, Perry's understanding of class position was that she could rise from it. She attended adult evening classes, corrected her accent and speech, and pursued middle-class employment (as a clerk). Her family moved to a finer house when her father’s job improved, and she had a white wedding just after the Second World War (many coupons were saved for this celebration!). I feel that her main aim with this memoir was to depict her success story. She was ambitious and determined to rise from her position, and she went on to do this. Perhaps it was to also give other people hope or encouragement that they could do the same, against obstacles such as economic hardship, gender, or social crisis – for Perry, this included The Depression and the Second World War (in which she lost two lovers).
Time of Publication and Taboo Subjects
Perry’s memoir was written in 1975, when she was fifty-three years of age. As mentioned in my previous blog, I feel that there was great significance in this timing of publication. Perry discussed many taboo subjects in her memoir, such as alternative religions (spirituality), adultery, and sexual subjects such as abortion, sexual desire, and rape. Many writers of Perry’s era would have steered clear from these sensitive and controversial subjects, being indecent and immoral in their discussion. This was especially so for a female writer, perceived to be genteel and without sexual appetites (unlike male writers such as D.H Lawrence with Lady Chatterley’s Lover). It is clear that these subjects were significant to Perry, and she was unafraid to discuss them in her memoir. However, we cannot know when Perry began her memoir – all we know is that it was finished in 1975, and her full autobiography, Family Life in the Royal Air Force and Later(Serendipity Publishing), published in 2006. By this point, the transforming ‘free-love’ decade of the 1960s had passed, and so with it a changed attitude to sexuality – e.g., the production of the contraceptive pill and a legal freedom to homosexuality, ‘My father’s youngest brother Arthur, was the oddity of the family. No doubt these days he would have been called “gay”’ (pp. 2). Times were changing, and by 1975, they would have changed significantly. Perry may well have waited until her memoir could be socially and morally accepted for all of its subjects, and without the need to be censored, or her autobiographical voice taken away. After all, an autobiography should be honest, and truthful to the writer’s voice.
Her Personality and Pride
Another reason behind Perry submitting her memoir in 1975 could be due to her personality. It is clear that she was a determined individual, and set on self-improvement. In her acquirement of a better education, her improved speech, and even her grammatical corrections to the memoir, it is clear that she prised a lot on intelligence, and on appearing thus. I feel that the reason behind this later submission is due to her wish to appear intelligent, writing her memoir as best she could and as intellectually as she could, 'the impression of intelligence' (pp. 24) Perry appears as a perfectionist, and I doubt she would have wanted to submit her memoir if she did not convey herself as correctly as she could.
I feel Perry also wrote her memoir in acknowledgement of those who helped her to rise from her position, and with gratitude for this help. These people include her parents – e.g. buying her a piano when they could not afford it, and when she could not fully play - her ‘Aunt Maria’, a neighbour who treated Margaret as ‘one of her own’ (pp.15), and also the older men who broadened her mind politically. I believe that Perry wanted her reader to empathise with her, such as through the experiences of a violent schooling and World War Two. She could also give readers hope that they can improve their life if they believe that they can. Perry would realise that she also gave readers a sense of sensationalism through her discussion of sexually taboo subjects.
With her focus on self-improvement to a higher class, I feel that Perry would have hoped for an intelligent readership. This is obvious through the corrections to her own work – unless it was due to her perfectionism, as I speculated – and her discussion of subjects such as politics. Perry never stipulates her purpose and audience, however this is implied through her frequent corrections and themes of self-improvement – she felt that she was an intellect, writing for an intellectual audience.
Working Class Solidarity?
I believe that one of the main similarities to Perry with other working-class autobiographers is her acknowledgement and discussion of working class hardship and human suffering e.g. through The Great Depression, 'In "our street" every other house-hold had a father on "the dole" which meant a few shillings a week to keep his family' (pp. 6). However, the one main difference with Perry to other working class writers is that she aimed to leave her social background, rising to a higher position. Her memoir is a testament to the fact that people can rise from their positions, as she herself did.
Having began the module, I wanted to know a bit more about my writer – or to at least put a face to the name. I was thrilled to discover that Perry went on to write an autobiography, entitled Family Life in the Royal Air Force and Later (London: Serendipity Publishing, 2006) . Having trawled through Amazon and Ebay, I found just one copy. Of course I ordered it, thrilled to know the rest of Perry’s story, with her memoir only covering 1922-1950, the ages 0-28. I was elated the day that the slim shiny autobiography arrived. As frantically as I’d trawled through websites trying to find a copy of this autobiography, I skipped immediately to the photograph pages. It was almost surreal and moving to finally put that face to the voice, the character, the person that I had come to know through her writing (having worried over a childhood squint – ‘there is nothing more disfiguring than a squint and I suffered much taunting from unfeeling school children’ pp. 21 and ‘the operation … I now had complete control over this wayward eye … to talk to someone close to me was no longer an embassment’ pp. 22 – I thought Perry was just lovely). In the Introduction to this autobiography, Perry details what motivated her to write her story :
‘I began to write this story around 1970 when I was working in london and had a tedious train journey to endure between Paddington and Twyford. It began more as a time-killer than anything else. When the story of my childhood was put into print by Dr John Burnett in his Destiny Obscure it inspired me to continue, but very spasmodically. Now that I am a widow and living alone, I have plenty of time to write but am too impatient to make a literary work of it. That would be laborious … To be forever looking for metaphors, descriptive adjectives, searching the pages of Roget’s Thesaurus as we were taught to do in various courses I have attended, would take years to finish, and all I am to do in truth is to give my children and grandchildren a record of their grandparents life. In doing so I have to jog my memory painfully and I hope to prevent the old cells from giving up the ghost for a few years yet. Do not then, dear reader, judge this writing by any standards beyond my capabilities. I refuse to re-write it at all. Take it or leave it …’
(1) Gagnier, Regenia. ‘Social Atoms: Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender.’ Victorian Studies, 30. 3 (1987), pp. 338
(2) and (3) Bourke, J, Working-Class Cultures in Britain 1890-1960: Gender, Class and Ethnicty (London: Routledge, 1994) pp.4
Perry, Margaret, Untitled, TS, pp.38 (c.13,000 words). Extract in J. Burnett (ed.), Destiny Obscure: Autobiographies of childhood, education and family from the 1820s to the 1920s (London: Allen Lane, 1982), pp.319-24 (2.606)
Perry, Margaret, Family Life in the Royal Air Force and Later (London: Serendipity Publishing, 2006)