Susan Silvester (1878 – 1968): Purpose and Audience

‘The things I remember… will most likely be of interest only to those who know the place and the people where I used to live, for mine is a simple story of an ordinary life’ (1).

Susan Silvester underplays the value of her memoir from the very beginning, which would put her amongst the majority of other working-class autobiographers of this time that Regenia Gagnier refers to as lacking confidence in the feeling of ‘significant selfhood’ (1987, 335). However, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Susan refrains from talking about her experiences introspectively in order to capture life how it was when she was young.

Part of what makes me think that Susan did not intend for her memoir to be read only by her children or family is that she does not focus on people or her relationships. She does however devote a chapter to her friend Emma and other people she knew, but she does not say too much about any one person. She talks about her parents in anecdotes and she mentions her three sisters only twice. It appears to me that she simply tried to sum up what life was like for poor people who lived in rural areas from the Victorian era into the early 20th century. Susan devotes her other chapters to places in the village: ‘church and chapel’ (10), ‘the village shop’ (13), ‘the blacksmith’s shop’ (19) and the bakery.

‘Blacksmiths’ – unknown artist, early 1900s. Credit: North Ayrshire Heritage Centre.

Although her early life may have been ordinary, it would be wrong to say it was not special. It seems that Susan decided to write her memoir as a way of preserving the place and the time she came from. It appears she did not write her memoir for anyone other than herself and desired to capture what her youth was like. Although it is never explicitly stated, I gather that 89 year old Susan took comfort in reminiscing over her early years, as she often recalled quaint rural activities such as ‘sewing and knitting’ (6), ‘potato picking in the autumn’ (4) and ‘hay-making in summer’ (4).

It is unclear whether Susan even knew that her memoir would be published. As mentioned in my introduction, it was her son, W.F. Silvester, that self-published it in her memory. He offers it as ‘an expression of gratitude to the many friends whose kindness and help she enjoyed to the end’ (1). The writing of this memoir and the publication therefore have separate purposes: the writing seeked to honour the memory of Minworth, and the publication seeked to honour the memory of Susan.

‘Going Home’ – James Edwin Meadows, 1888, waggoners after a hard day’s work. Credit: Wolverhampton Art Gallery.

Her memoir does not follow a linear narrative. It starts with the first things she can remember, and the final chapter outlines what Susan felt like was the end of an era she refers to as the ‘old world’ (28). She mentions her husband’s passing in July 1928 and her sons both having completed grammar school, ‘amongst the first generation of ‘scholarship boys’’ (28), with one in university. However after this, she admits, ‘I have run ahead to things I didn’t mean to talk about’ (28). Although a definitive point where the ‘old world’ ends is not made, I think that that in itself is telling of how periods of our lives are often over before we realise, as time runs ahead of us.

‘Only one in ten nineteenth-century workers’ memoirs were written by women’ (1992, 51), Johnathan Rose notes, which puts Susan amongst a small minority of female memoirists. I think that this makes her story even more special as female working-class memoirists from this era were much rarer. However, Susan avoids discussing the social issues of the time, such as how she only mentions the war on a couple of occasions. 

Susan therefore has a very specific audience, and a very specific purpose. Her memoir was written to recall what life was like for her from childhood to a young woman. I find it hard to distinguish whether her early life was idyllic or that she purposefully leaves any negative aspects of her early life out of the memoir (as she often focuses on the good aspects of her youth). She states at the beginning ‘I am not going to talk about ‘the good old days’ or ‘the bad old days’… all times have their dangers and fears as well as their comforts and pleasures’ (1). Perhaps Susan knew that even with the demanding manual labour, low family income and self-sufficient lifestyle her and her family had, only people from similar backgrounds would understand the charm in it, despite its hardships.

Bibliography

Gagnier, Regenia. ‘Social Atoms: Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender.’ Victorian Studies 30, no. 3 (1987): 335-63.

Rose, Jonathan. “Rereading the English Common Reader: A Preface to a History of Audiences.” Journal of the History of Ideas53, no. 1 (1992): 47-70.

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

Images used:

www.Artuk.org

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *