Norah Elliott (b.1903): Purpose & Audience – Writing Lives

Norah Elliott (b.1903): Purpose & Audience

Norah Elliott’s autobiography represents her hard-working Grandfather Pilch, her beloved Aunt Susan, her drowned father, her mentally ill mother, her adopted family and finally, herself. However, she is also concerned with social histories, particularly in her poetry, which challenges social class. Whilst we can learn so much from historical sociologists, census material and parish records, these materials ‘can never tell us[:] how much a man loved his wife, to what extent he grieved over the death of a child, nor can it establish… the way in which fundamental emotional experiences were affected by the material circumstances of the family.’ (Vincent, 1980, 223) It is the memoir that is capable of doing just that. Giving her version of events, Norah’s memoir is a nostalgic gateway that leads to her inner-most thoughts and feelings of a well-lived, working-class, life.

“I have all the documentary evidence of my father’s existence…”

Norah’s words are saturated with the details of her family heritage. The numerous documents regarding sibling funeral costs and parental death certificates, the extensive family profiles, the poem entitled ‘Aunt Susan’ and the hand-drawn family tree, is all evidence of Norah’s family-orientated life.

Norah Elliott’s Hand-drawn Family Tree

Whilst it may appear that the sole purpose of Norah’s memoir is to chart her complex family history, the motives behind her autobiography are complicated. Norah begins her memoir compiling her family heritage, and later her writing becomes more reflective and poetic. It actually transpires that one of the purposes for recording her life is ‘to discover whether [her] youthful dreams of being [a] writer will come to anything at the age of 68 years’. Also, Norah writes numerous poems, focusing on politics, family and death, which indicate a possible desire for publication. However, Norah’s voice remains modest, earnest and passionate about both her family and her political views.

New Annesley – The earth is nourished by the many dead, / The poor, unknown, whose endless toil / Nurtured the living, made the wealth / Which others spent. / Let us remember such. -Norah Elliott

At numerous stages in her memoir, it appears that Norah had a philosophical understanding about the fragility of life. Her poem ‘To my Ancestors’ is particularly thoughtful and combines her deep-thinking mind with her love for family and writing. In her poem, Norah writes ‘their lives have passed/ Like winds that blow’, and continues, ‘You have died, inarticulate, / Left no recorded mark.’ Clearly recognising the silent passing of her ancestors, Norah’s memoir is an attempt to voice the forgotten lives of her family.

Whilst many working-class autobiographies begin with an apology for ordinariness[1], Norah’s words remain fixated on her ancestors, to whom she shows admiration and thanks. And although, as Regina Gagnier states, the autobiographer’s ‘reasons for writing are functional rather than aesthetic’ (342), Norah manages to capture her beautiful ability to write whilst paying tribute to her family.

“I had my 68th birthday on Sept’ 2nd 1971: I retired from teaching in Dec. 1963 and now live alone so I have leisure: I used to think I should be a writer, now I have the opportunity to find out”

The last date Norah uses in her account is 1983, making her 80 years of age. However, 13 years prior to this date, Norah writes a letter stating she is ‘going to begin to write an autobiography’. Never explicitly giving a reason for doing so, the sheer love that she holds for family and writing, together with her old age and abundant ‘leisure time’ as she says, appear to be her principal motivations.

Norah Elliott’s sense of audience is apparent, but is not obtrusive or arrogant, and the purpose of her memoir does not invade her writing. Her memoir is certainly not narcissistic, but is also not apologetic. Norah’s commemorative, authentic, storyteller tone is born out of her vivid and disorganised memories. Her memoir proves how family history can be an inspiration for creativity.

To my Ancestors

The many poor! their lives have passed

Like winds that blow, now soft and


Now shift to bow the trees

And lash with rain or snow

Unprotected man and beast.

Winds come and go

And then are quite forgotten,

As is a sea wave breaking on the shore

That flattens to become a part

Of the eternally changing main.

You have died, inarticulate,

Left no recorded mark.

Yet I must believe a spark divine

Burned in you,

Quenched by poverty and the grind

Of toiling merely to exist,

To survive hunger and ill health,

Till death returned you to the


Give me winged words

To fly to every man,

Sharp words, to pierce the heart,

Soft words, to stir compassion,

Wise words, to paint a picture

of the past,

That you may be remembered.

-Norah Elliott

Works Cited

Elliott, Norah. ‘Untitled’. The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography. Ed. John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall. Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989 (3 Vols) Nb. 2:242. Available at

[1] Gagnier, Regenia. ‘Social Atoms: Working-class Autobiography, Subjectivity and Gender’. Victorian Studies. Vol 30.3. (Spring 1987) 335-363.

Gagnier, Regenia. ‘Social Atoms: Working-class Autobiography, Subjectivity and Gender’. Victorian Studies. Vol 30.3. (Spring 1987) 335-363.

‘Norah 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): 2:242

Vincent, David. ‘Love and Death and the Nineteenth-Century Working Class’. Social History. Vol 9.2. (May 1980) 223-247.

Images Cited

‘Norah 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): 2:242

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