Social Stations

Susannah Clapp

  • Edwardian Childhoods by Thea Thompson
    Routledge, 232 pp, £9.75, February 1981, ISBN 0 7100 0676 4

This book contains the memories of nine old people. Asked by a number of interviewers to talk about their childhoods in England before the First World War, they offer notes on families, schools and factories, on nursery teas and crocheting and ringworm. They talk a little about their feelings, less about their fantasies. Collected together to make a bag of recollections, their observations are presented less as life-histories than as a means of becoming acquainted with the conditions of a generation – a generation which, as one contributor points out, ‘was pretty well wiped out’.

Pledged to the notion of naturalness, editors of oral history can feel an unnatural constraint when faced with anything that might seem to constitute interference with their subjects’ words – editing, for example. This doesn’t, of course, mean that they have no axe of their own to grind. In her introduction to Edwardian Childhoods, Thea Thompson declares herself anxious to ‘suggest the varieties of childhood in different families’, admonishing us, with some air of revelation, that ‘class is not the only factor that influences the experience of childhood.’ Some of the other influences she mentions – ‘relationships with kin’ or ‘the restricted patriarchal nuclear family’ – might not be immediately recognised by her contributors, but her book could hardly fail to include families of different region, religion and size: there are memories of the Carmelites as well as the Band of Hope, of sparrow pie and ferreting as well as of hand-looms and smoking chimneys. Nevertheless, the introductory essays and the arrangement of the monologues themselves, in a remorseless social spiral, suggest that it is class which makes us.

Edwardian Childhoods begins with Tommy Morgan’s account of his upbringing in East Lane – ‘Hard Street they called it’ – with two brothers, five sisters and parents who were ‘known as the two biggest drunkards in Waterloo and Blackfriars’. It was a childhood spent in cramped rooms and congenial alleys: playing in the sawdust of the pub while his mother shelled peas for the Savoy; being scattered, quite amiably, by the police for gambling in the street; procuring the ‘two pennorth of block ornaments’ for Sunday lunch. With more accuracy than necessity, the introduction points out that this was a life ‘lacking any pretensions to bourgeois respectability’. The book ends with Joan Poynder talking about her solitary childhood at Hartham Park, Wiltshire, left by a much-loved nanny (‘she went to the Crown Princess of Sweden, brought up all those children’) to linger among ‘big solid toys you didn’t forget’. Savouring a variety of disagreeable moments – from lying on a baize board to learn the Kings of England to spilling chocolate down a moleskin coat in Paris – she delivers a spirited account of being small in a lot of space with many supervisors.

Between these extremes, seven other men and women report on what one of them calls their ‘stations in life’. Some of what they say may be most revealing about what people remember and what they are prepared to say to interviewers – unhappiness tends to be disclaimed and mothers praised – and the characteristic intimacies of memoir-writing are notably absent: no one recalls their own appearance with loathing; no one delves into any unpleasant personal habits. Yet, though much could have been noted by an outside observer, not all their details are of the pinafore-and-button-boot variety. Annie Wilson, ninth child of Enoch and Elizabeth (‘Father should have more consideration,’ her sisters used to grumble), tells of bread from the Board of Guardians and second-hand shoes, of guiding her father’s hand to sign a letter asking for work, of a mother who was ‘a beautiful washer’ and who stitched ‘HRH’ on Princess Mary’s stockings. Geoffrey Brady, who read Wells and loved bicycling, remembers the collapse of his father’s business, which led to his leaving school at 14 – ‘off to Manchester in a hard bowler hat and a little grey suit’. From Esther Stokes there are memories of jigging to musical boxes and swinging Indian clubs – and of a private railway carriage to holidays in Cornwall, which offered the singular treat of seeing the maids with their caps off. Everyone has something to say about the Church, which, despite fictional accounts of its effect on children’s character, seems to have uplifted or squashed not one of these small souls: the Gospel Lighthouse taught Tommy Morgan string-knitting; the Church of England instructed Jock Yorke not to dash through hayfields on his pony. Teatime is remembered as often, but with more keenness: the occasion for manners (sometimes the only occasion, when elbows were allowed in other people’s eyes but not on the table) and for practising adult life in miniature. Bread comes to feature in these pages like a household ghost: stale for Tommy Morgan; home-made (by her father) for the dressmaker’s daughter; for the stockbroker’s son, resented buttered slices to be fought through before getting to the cake. The kitchen boy’s memory of the farmer’s daughter’s rebuke to her maid – ‘Never, never give him tea’ – is one of the bitterest in the book.

All these reports have interest; most of them meander. Thea Thompson’s policy in Edwardian Childhoods is not to tamper with her texts: contaminating editorial interpolations are sealed off in square brackets, bewilderingly demanding, often in the middle of a coherent flood of words: ‘[Sex Education?]’; ‘[Billiards?]’. In selecting from some five hundred tape-recordings (undertaken with the help of the Social Science Research Council), she has, she explains, concentrated on accounts that are ‘full of matter’, rather than on those from people ‘who communicate more readily with the language of gesture, eyes and body than with words’.

Editorial vigilance about the spoken word is, of course, essential if the orality of oral history is not to seem simply an optional extra. When, as here, the speakers are not chiefly providing news about national events, they could be expected to suggest not only what everyday life was like, but also how people talked. To some extent Edwardian Childhoods does this, catching the rush of Tommy Morgan’s speech – a tumble of dialogue and incident – and the stately, more self-aware progress of Joan Poynder’s, in which ‘one’ deflects the possibility of disagreement. As well as a fairly predictable clutch of Cockney ‘aint’s’ and ‘cor blimey’s’, the upper-class liking for capacious derogatory adjectives – ‘foul’ and ‘seedy’ can denote moral turpitude or a cold – is well displayed, as are their irrelevantly emphatic adverbs: ‘beastly uncomfortable’, ‘absolute stick’, ‘enjoy them madly’. And sometimes a colloquialism flashes out to point up a unique occasion: on holiday the little Vignes used to ‘fish violently’.

But talking isn’t just a matter of vocabulary. Robbed of hesitations and emphases, most speech is liable to seem peculiar in print. The mixture in these monologues of the arresting and the banal, the particular and the habitual, can achieve piquancy: a joyless encounter with a damp swimming-costume is accorded the same attentiveness as a first encounter with a future husband; a thoroughbred mare puts one contributor in mind of the dreadful accident his father had ‘spending a penny in the train’. But it can also achieve muddle. Too much protectiveness about the actual words spoken can defeat the re-creation of an individual voice.

Thea Thompson taxes herself with the question of whether these families are ‘typical’, and half-answers herself by saying that they are not meant ‘to speak for classes or categories’. We are told that Henry Vigne’s dealings with his stockbroker father were ‘typical of father-son relationships in many professional and business families’ (they hardly ever saw each other) and that the dressmaker’s daughter, Florence Atherton, belonged to a family ‘whose life-style and values were essentially lower middle-class’ – though Florence herself thought she was, presumably among other things, working-class. It begins to seem exasperating that Geoffrey Brady’s father lost his money: if he hadn’t, his son’s childhood ‘would have been typical of childhoods in the upper stratum of the provincial middle class’.

This concern may be proper for a researcher, but it is the least interesting aspect for the reader. Any book which sets out to display daily life runs the risk of seeming to celebrate ordinariness as if it were a talent, and at times in Edwardian Childhoods daily life seems to occupy the position of a great event in a historical novel: an act which its describers were lucky to be in on. The best parts of this book have to do, not with bringing ‘dead worlds’ to life, but with bringing people’s lives to life. Between the memories of bathtimes and brandysnaps, are recollections of a more urgent and personal kind, described with a glaring clarity. They are mostly moments of misery: Annie Wilson remembering her hat being thrown from the school cloakroom because she was one of ‘the dirty Bath Street lot’; Joan Poynder on the old governess and the new (ugly and fierce-faced) meeting in the dark passage at the top of the house: ‘there was me cowering, a little girl, these two women looking at each other.’ When the contributors are not specialising in their period but talking about themselves, the worlds they are describing become most accessible and their acts of memory most effortless and most engaging – like Joan Poynder ‘sitting at a table and doing invisible painting and Lord Roberts and Kitchener coming up and being visible’.