Many working-class people felt that they had to apologise for writing their memoirs. They often felt that they held little importance and therefore felt that maybe they should not be writing about themselves. Thus, ‘most working-class autobiographies begin not with a family heritage or a birth date but rather with an apology for their authors’ ordinariness’ (Gagnier). These ideas of apprehension when it came to working-class people writing their autobiographies can be seen through Walter John Eugene Elliott’s autobiography.
From the outset of Walter’s memoir, it is clear to see that he is apprehensive as to whether he should be writing about his life. This is because he begins his memoirs by offering the reader an explanation as to why he has begun drafting his memoir. He says that ‘for some time past when talking to various people about events that have happened during my lifetime they have said “You ought to write a book”’. This implies that it is other people who have encouraged him to write about his life, not Walter himself who believes his life is necessarily worth writing about. He emphasises this doubt about writing his memoirs by saying that the idea is ‘easier said than done to [his] way of thinking’. Thus, he gives the reader understanding that writing down his life experiences is a concept that he does not feel particularly comfortable with.
Following this explanation as to how Walter came to write about his life, he explains how he developed the beginning of his memoirs. He references The Daily Express as to how he decided what to write. He says that for a reader to ‘understand fully just what anyone was writing about one should know something of the writer’s background, their antecedents, town or country bred schooldays and the kind of work they do’. This therefore demonstrates to the reader the reasoning behind Walter’s chosen topics. Thus, we realise that Walter perhaps anticipated that people who were not his family may read his memoirs. This is because he felt the need to explain his background further, for those who may not have been in similar situations to understand. Therefore, Walter could have seen his memoirs as an educational tool for people to understand what growing up in Sussex was like in the 18 and 1900s, as well as what life in The Great War was really like. Thus, his ‘reasons for writing are functional rather than aesthetic’ (Gagnier).
On the other hand, Walter follows up these apologies with multiple pages of family history. He takes the reader through his family ancestors, beginning with his great great grandfather, Peter Elliott. Continuing down to his father, Richard Elliott, and his immediate family. This information on Walter’s ancestry is significant as it demonstrates the idea that Walter may have also had his descendants in mind whilst writing his memoirs and that perhaps Walter was also using his memoirs to record his family history. Therefore, his memoirs become a method to pass on his family knowledge on to future generations of the Elliott family.
Walter’s memoirs are thus out of the ordinary. Instead of simply just apologising for his ‘ordinariness’ he includes family heritage, something that Gagnier claimed ‘most working-class autobiographies’ did not begin with.
Elliott, Walter J.E. ‘Untitled’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 1:227, available at: http//bura.brunel.ac.uk/handle/2438/9520
Gagnier, Regenia. ‘Social Atoms: Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender.’ Victorian Studies, 30. 3 (1987), 335-363
Walter J.E Elliott in John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall (eds) The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography 1790-1945, 3 vols. (Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989): 1:227