Mrs W.E. Palmer (b.1908): Reading and Writing – Writing Lives

Mrs W.E. Palmer (b.1908): Reading and Writing

Reading, cycling and dancing were their chief hobbies (3)

Michael Mackinlay (1895-1958) – The Young Reader, 1945.

From Mrs W.E. Palmer’s fond recollections of reading both at home and in school, as well as her unique and engaging writing style, it is clear to see that reading had a major influence on her life. Like Winifred Relph, Mrs W.E. Palmer’s love for reading derived from her home life. Located in rural Sussex, ‘Francesca came from a home where there were books, children’s as well as adults, and where both parents being avid readers, took it for granted that their children would follow suit, and it seemed the children learned to read as a matter of course. That was the rule in most of the village homes’ (18). Yet, despite the active role that reading played in the Beaven household, Winifred refrains from revealing any of the reading material that her, or her family, enjoyed in a domestic setting. Perhaps this was due to the lack of high-quality reading material available in the home, as Richard Altik notes, ‘everywhere in the memoirs of lower class readers are laments that in their youth good reading matter was hard to come by’

There was a good library at the school, and pupils were encouraged to borrow books to read at home (20)

Yet, this is only applicable to Mrs W.E. Palmer’s experience of reading in the home. Winifred goes on to reveal an extensive list of authors of canonical literature that she was exposed to throughout her schooling experience. ‘As the children progressed up the school, they read Dickens, Thackeray, Hardie, Barrie, Daniel Defoe (it seemed that every school child at the beginning of the century read Robinson Crusoe) Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, The Brontes, Jane Austen, Mark Twain, Louisa May Alcott, many others and of course the bible. Their teachers told them, they should study the bible because it is such excellent prose’ (19-20). Similarly, Winifred attributes her mother’s strong relationship with reading to a good education, as she reveals that ‘Flo went to the town school which was most probably elementary, but Francesca suspected it was a good school, because in her eyes her mother was well educated and well read, as were any of the school friends the children were fortunate enough to meet’ (2). Therefore, Winifred illustrates the key role that education and schooling had on working-class experiences of reading.

standard seven, where a few of the students […] read Macaulay, a book on etymology, and some dry as dust books called “Domestic Economy” which Francesca did not like very much, so when no-one was looking, she would take out of her desk her current library book, place it on the top of the domestic book and enjoy a good read (21)

In his discussion of the English common reader, Jonathon Rose asks ‘how do texts change the minds and lives of common (i.e., nonprofessional) readers?’ Merely skimming through Mrs W.E. Palmer’s memoir can provide an answer to this question. As established in my purpose and audience post, Memories of Long Ago is laced with literary techniques. In the opening pages, Winifred utilises a framed narrative, or story within a story, in order to capture the attention of her audience. Instead of writing in the first person, which is typically the writing style that is utilised throughout many memoirs, WInifred chooses to write in the third person under the pseudonym ‘Francesca’. Upholding this air of mystery throughout her writing, she concludes her memoir with the claim: ‘once they got over leaving the hamlet they found West Lavington and Midhurst interesting places to live in, but that is another story. The End’ (p.34). By withholding details of her life, Winifred entices her audience as their curiosity and desire to learn about the next chapter of her life, heightens. Such a tactful ending to her memoir, whereby she evokes the ending of a story with a cliff-hanger and concluding phrase ‘The End’, suggests that she wrote with the aim of entertaining her audience.

Concluding sentences of Mrs W.E. Palmer’s typescript memoir

Therefore, in answer to Rose’s question, Memories of Long Ago is evidence that being an avid reader had a major influence on Winifred’s writing style. Similarly, Rose notes how one working-class author appeared to write in the same melodramatic mode as Charles Dickens does. Rose claims that ‘if Acorn […] adopted a Dickensian frame in reading and then used the same rules for interpreting  experience when he wrote his reminiscences, then that influence was very great and deep’ . However, despite highlighting the influence that reading had on her writing style, Winifred does not romanticise, embellish, or dramatise the depiction of her upbringing to the extent of evoking a work of fiction. Instead, Winifred strikes the perfect balance, as she successfully offers a frank discussion of the hardships faced by her family and draws on shared experiences of the era. Whilst, recollecting her fondest memories in a unique and engaging style. Thus, Mrs W.E. Palmer’s memoir is an entertaining yet enlightening read.


Works Cited:


‘Mrs W.E. Palmer’ in John Burnett, Davis Vincent and David Mayall (eds) The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography 1790-1945, 3 vol. (Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989): 2:582.


2:657 Relph, Winifred, ‘Through Rough Ways’, TS, pp. 120 (c. 63,000 words). Burnett Collection of Working Class Autobiography, Brunel University Library

582 PALMER, Mrs W.E., ‘Memories of Long Ago’, TS, pp.34 (c.12,200 words). Brunel University Library.

Images Cited:

– Accessed (30/03/17)


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