Averil Edith Thomas: Reading and Writing

Averil has proved to be very passionate about all things educational. From her dream of becoming a teacher to the countless hours spent on revision, highlighted in my Education and Schooling post, it is evident that reading and writing featured an important part of Averil’s childhood memoir, and, essentially, her whole life.

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Vision of what Averil’s attic may have looked like

As Averil’s family home doubled up as their father’s business (selling picture frames and second hand books) it is not surprising that she was surrounded by literature whilst growing up. She states, ‘my father often bought scrap lots [of books] at the end of an auction sale and these were stored in about a third of the attic’ (26). This was ‘a very exciting place, wonderful for playing “hide and seek” and also for storing the books on shelves along the passages’ (26). Despite their lower class status, she is depicted as belonging to a very educational family who prided themselves on knowledge and learning. This inherited interest may have been what encouraged Averil to pursue a career in teaching, in hope of sharing this passion with her students.

Whilst this may have been infrequent behaviour of a poor British family during the era, it was not completely unseen. Mary Hollinrake, born 1912, also belonged to a working-class family. Her autobiography, Lancashire Lass, draws similarity to Averil’s in many ways. Mary reveals how despite their struggling financial state, her family had a mutual love for reading and writing. This leaves both Mary and Averil’s work inverting the stereotype that working-class people were less educated than other social brackets.

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Charlotte Brontë

Holly Shea, an author bringing Mary’s memoir back to life, comments; ‘Mary discussed the significance of her family members’ reading habits which may have impacted her own. She stated that “My aunts were avid readers they had read many of the classics” such as “all the Bronte’s books, most of Dickens and Shakespeare” (6) showing the extent of her well educated family, despite their class status.’

Both women’s memoirs stand as an inspiration to both their gender and social class, as they break away from the social boundaries that prevented women and poor individuals from becoming educated writers. However, this untypical behaviour of working-class individuals leave both women as misleading representatives of their social group.

Jonathan Rose writes of the working-class and autobiographies:

‘Memoirists are not entirely representative of their class (whatever that class may be), if only because they were unusually articulate. Autobiographies were produced in every one of the several British working classes, ranging down to tramps and petty criminals, but a disproportionate number were written by skilled workers and especially the self-employed. One in ten nineteenth century workers’ memoirs were written by women’ (51)

As Averil is an articulate member of the lower class, shown through the skill of her writing, spelling and presentation of her memoir, Rose suggests she does not stand as an authentic representative of the working class community. Therefore, her family’s interest in literature would not have been shared by many, with most working-class households focusing more on their means of income than their interest in reading and writing. Mary and her family also stand as an example to this, but this does not mean that the women’s memoirs are not a triumph. Their works speak for the majority of their class who were illiterate and thus could not communicate their life through writing, and that is something truly remarkable.

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Cover of Mackenzie’s novel

Mary’s autobiography states how her family were influenced by classic writers during her childhood, and this helped to inspire her own love of reading. Averil pulls away from referencing any known texts from her childhood, although there will undoubtedly be many, and instead draws focus upon a book that has influenced her adult life. It is worth noting that this is one of the few times Averil refers to her life outside of her childhood in Melton Mowbray. She states, ‘lately I have been reading “Our Street” by Compton MacKenzie and it brought back to me very vividly King Street in the town where I spent my childhood’ (23). Our Street by Compton McKenzie was written in 1931, and centres itself around a street in London. The narrative describes each neighbourly household, and, whilst not one of MacKenzie’s most famous works, the piece clearly had an effect on Averil and her own feelings towards her childhood street.

MacKenzie’s writing is nostalgic and descriptive, which is echoed within the style of Averil’s autobiography. She vibrantly and precisely recalls each house on King Street, and recites every family business from ‘Jackson’s the sweet shop’ (23), to ‘Manchester’s “The Clothiers”’ (24), to the ‘Three Tuns Vaults’ (23) (a pub that still remains open for business today.) The structure of this part of her autobiography is very much influenced by the reading of Our Street, which may have inspired her to recount aspects of her life that she had possibly not thought about for a long time. This could explain Averil’s excessive use of description throughout, which helps to metaphorically place the reader at King Street alongside her childhood self, gazing up at the large, overpowering houses and shops that held such significance within her memory.

It seems reading and writing allowed Averil to progress in her life and career, whilst also allowing her to regress back to her childhood during her last years. This power leaves words as timeless; as ironically it is words that you are reading now that keep the legacy of her life alive.

Sources:

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

Shea, Holly. ‘Mary Hollinrake (b. 1912): Reading & Writing’. Writing Lives.

Rose, Jonathan. Rereading the English Common Reader: A preface to a history of Audiences. Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 53, No.1 (Jan – Mar 1992) p 51

Images:

https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/236x/80/a6/71/80a671a0a74146d8fd5f18f6f67c953b.jpg

http://i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/02495/CBronte_2495332b.jpg

http://www.amazon.com/Our-street-Compton-Mackenzie/dp/0450013510

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