Phyllis L. Buss (1902): Reading & Writing – Writing Lives

Phyllis L. Buss (1902): Reading & Writing

“There was a kind of prayer written on a board at the entrance to the churchyard.” (p4)

It is obvious throughout the memoir of Phyllis L. Buss that she is of the slightly more privileged group of the working-class society during her lifetime. Although one of her main focuses in the memoir is that of school and further education, there is no mention of any reading material, maybe novels or poetry, that she may have studied in school, nor is there any literature that she may have read for her own leisure. This lack of literature being mentioned is surprising as it is evident in the reading of her memoir that she uses a moral tone, as discussed in Purpose and Audience blog post, in order to address her grandchildren. It would be more obvious therefore, for her to have mentioned certain pieces of literature in an attempt to make her audience want to read also. James Hinton in ‘The “Class” Complex’ noted that members of the working class ‘were anxious to deploy a taste for high culture as a means of distinguishing themselves from their self-assigned class’[1]. Taking this into consideration, it may be that Phyllis did not want to distance herself from her working-class background, although it is obvious that she had an advantaged upbringing compared to other accounts of children’s lives during that era.

The only mention of any piece of literature in Phyllis’ memoir is a prayer that was inscribed on a board outside the churchyard where once a month, from St Giles Sunday School, she would be taken ‘from the school room to the service at church’ and she recalls how she ‘managed to learn it after all the times’(p.4) she passed.

‘It read like this –

“I am walking through God’s Acre

Let me do so, with the reverence due to those

whose bodies resting here

Await the Resurrection.”’(p.4)

Her inclusion of this Biblical literary reference shows how religion had a massive influence on the working class. Phyllis remembers this short, yet significant verse and as it is the only piece of literature she decides to write about in her memoir, these monthly trips to the church must have had a very prominent influence on her life.

However much the working class were viewed upon to be less educated than other members of society, Jonathon Rose in The Intellectual Life of the British Working Class stated that ‘memoirists are not entirely representative of their class (whatever class that may be), if only because they were unusually articulate’[2]. The memoir of Phyllis correlates with this statement through her style of writing. She writes in a coherent, understandable manner, using mostly correct punctuation, articulate phrases and examples of word play which conveys her humour and personality. She even includes a phrase that a market stall attendant would shout out to attract customers, spelling it in their accent so that the reader can get a full sense of how she would pronounce it: ‘Mrs. Blundell would sing out:- Luvely Fleshy Lundin Addick’(p.3). Her use of clichés is important also in relation to her writing. Many literary critics believe that borrowing from clichés can be an author’s attempt to appear genuine, to mask the fact that they are not as educated as they seem. Others believe, on the other hand, that the clichés are a sign of the authors giving rise to truths within their writing. As Julia Kristeva notes in New Maladies of the Soul: ‘this fiction borrows from the available ideologies or codes of representation that filter personal fantasies. The filtering here can become a repression of unconscious contents and give rise to a stereotyped writing of clichés; on the other hand, it can permit a genuine inscription of unconscious contents within language’[3]



[1] Hinton, James. ‘The “Class” Complex’: Mass-Observation and Cultural Distinction in Pre-War Britain’, Past and Present, no. 199, (May, 2008)

[2] Rose, Jonathan. ‘Preface’. The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes.  New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2001. 51.

 [3] Kristeva, Julia. New Maladies of the Soul. New York: Columbia University Press. 1995. 9.




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