Susan Silvester (1878 – 1968): Home and Family

‘We had to put up with a lot of discomfort but we always knew that when we got home there would be a good fire with a kettle singing on the hob, and a good meal, perhaps some nice hot soup or some potato cakes’ (6).

As I have already discovered on writing my introductory and purpose and audience blog posts, the focus on Susan Silvester’s memoir is solely on her childhood and early life. I think this part of her life bears more significance to her as her life was much simpler. Whether her early life was genuinely more special than her later life, or that she believes it to be due to nostalgia, is hard to say. A lot of the values that she has held onto seem to come from this part of her life, with her father working ‘nearly seventy hours a week’ (3), while her and her mother ‘produced a lot of their own food’ (3). Susan states how her mother was ‘so thrifty and such a good manager that nothing was ever wasted’ (3). Her parents worked very hard to keep her and her three sisters well-fed and looked after.


‘A Warwickshire Lane’ – David Bates, 1893. Hartlepool Museum and Heritage Service.

‘Autobiographers were faced with the challenge of writing about the more intense and private incidents in their emotional lives, their command of language frequently proved inadequate’ (1980, 227), writes Vincent on nineteenth-century autobiographers, which proves true to Susan’s memoir as well. When she writes about her marriage with William Silvester, the blacksmith, she glosses over intimate details. She simply states – quite out of the blue – ‘it was understood that as soon as we could get a convenient house Will and I would marry’ (21). It is at points like these that makes Susan’s writing more informative, rather than subjective. I have no doubt that Susan loved her husband as she speaks fondly of his ‘placid and easy-going disposition’ (27) although this is only one of few instances wherein she speaks of him from a personal perspective.

She also avoids speaking about her sisters in detail, even less so than her husband. She mentions having an ‘elder sister and two younger ones’ (5) but does not name any of them. However, She does talk about her close friend Emma Hughes – sister of her husband and daughter of her employer at the village shop – in considerable detail. The penultimate chapter is even titled ‘Emma and Other Characters’, in which she talks in detail about Emma, such as her two ‘anything but happy’ (22) marriages, and her specific characteristics: ‘unpredictable and impulsive, and generous to a fault’ (22).

An aspect of her home and family life that reoccurs throughout the memoir is death. She notes her father’s ‘death in 1936’ (10), the death of her employer ‘Miss Hughes’ (21), and her husband dying ‘at his anvil’ (28). Strange reports that a ‘Liverpool journalist in 1883 commented that death and disease were so familiar to the poor that they merely represented mundane incidents in life rather than personal tragedies’ (145). Considering the frequency of death in Susan’s memoir it is clear to see it happened much more frequently than it does today (and it is also not just found in the elderly and sick at the time). This could explain why Susan does not offer any considerable meditation on the passing of her loved ones and the people close to her.


Susan Silvester’s gravestone at the Church of St Nicholas and St Peter ad Vincula, Curdworth.

Another point in the memoir that sparks my interest in regards to this issue is when Susan recalls sitting outside after a long walk a passer-by ‘said in a joking way, “You children do look ill, you’re sure to die soon”’ (4). I found this shocking as such a morbid joke was used casually towards children – and not thought twice about. This emphasises how death was less of a sensitive subject, presumably due to how it occurred more frequently. Bearing in mind that death was such a common occurrence in her time for the working class, it fascinates me that Susan lived to be 90 and that she was well enough to write such well-composed memoir at 89.

Although Susan’s family were poor, meaning her parents had to work tirelessly to support her and her three sisters, when writing this memoir Susan sounds eternally grateful for the kindness her family and the people around her provided.  Susan demonstrates with stories of genuine characters that compassion and hard work can travel such a long way even in the most trying of times. ‘In a World that has Gone’ lives on with Susan’s memory as proof that this is true.

Bibliography

Silvester, Susan, ‘In a World That Has Gone’. pp. 31. Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, Brunel University Library, Special Collection, 1:628, available at: http://bura.brunel.ac.uk/handle/2438/10895

Strange, Julie-Marie. “‘She Cried a Very Little’: Death, Grief and Mourning in Working-Class Culture, C. 1880-1914.” Social History 27, no. 2 (2002): 143-61.

Vincent, David. “Love and Death and the Nineteenth-Century Working Class.” Social History 5, no. 2 (1980): 223-47.

Images used

www.artuk.org

www.findagrave.com

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