Alice Pidgeon (b.1898): Life Writing, Class & Identity – Writing Lives

Alice Pidgeon (b.1898): Life Writing, Class & Identity

‘With minimal self-consciousness, they preserve memories of a way of life that is changing or has already ceased to be.’[1]

Regenia Gagnier explains how writing that corresponds to the description above, fits into a category of writing known as, commemorative storytelling form.

Alice Pidgeon’s memoir shows no signs of censorship or ‘self-consciousness’. With humility and honesty Alice relays her tales of childhood, adolescence and adulthood. Her method of storytelling is anecdotal; small stories that correlate together to create a full picture. Her writing is somewhat erratic in parts, as she often flits backwards and forwards to random memories, as though she was writing things as they came into her mind. She acknowledges her digressions, however, stating at the beginning of paragraphs, ‘Well, to return to Arthur…’ (Memoir, 17) or ‘but to get back to the orphanage…’ (Memoir, 6)

This style relates to Gagnier’s description of commemorative storytelling, as she explains ‘they present unstructured, thematically arbitrary, disconnected anecdotes’ (Gagnier 348-9).

Alice’s portrayal of her younger self, speaks of someone incredibly naïve and innocent to the ways of the world. Although she became wise to the manners of society with age and she hardened through her struggles in adulthood, Alice retained her youthful humour and warm-hearted ways. Her writing reflects these aspects of her personality, as she remembers the significant moments in her history, moments that made her laugh and left an impression on her or else times that shocked or contradicted her open and accepting character.

The interesting fact about Alice’s writing style is, however, that it also corresponds to another writing form. If we consider the memoir as a whole, we see that it also fits precisely into the self-examination form.

As has been discussed through writing about the different themes in Alice’s memoir, she came upon many challenges throughout her life. From being orphaned at a young age to living through the depression of the 30’s, Alice faced some troublesome times, often without much hope or any sign that things were going to improve. As Gagnier states, the self-examination form is written by ‘people with lives of unmitigated misery and hardship’. (Gagnier 357) Alice faced poverty, desperation and death numerous times and her recounting of them in her memoir supports the notion that self-examination writing is produced by people who write ‘as a tool of self-understanding.’ (Gagnier 357) This kind of writing has a therapeutic edge for the person producing it, a way of self-examining and reflecting on your behaviours.

Looking further at Gagnier’s description of self-examination writing, questions that were raised through writing about Alice’s memoir can be answered.

For example, Gagnier writes, ‘unlike the authors of the confessions, they are not trying to sell their work so much as to analyze and alleviate their pain,’ (Gagnier 357). In my blog ‘Purpose & Audience’, I explain how Alice doesn’t appear to be writing for any particular audience, and that her writing shows signs that she didn’t expect people to read her memoir at all. Whereas in other memoirs, the authors open their writing with some sort of explanation or apology as to why they are writing their life tales, Alice simply begins to write. She does not intend her writing to be sold or admired, she writes predominantly for her own personal closure and self-understanding.

There is a strong focus on parent/child relationships in Alice’s memoir, mainly due to the fact that she missed out on a lot of traditional family experiences. Alice and her younger sister Doris were deprived of the parent/child relationship from a young age, and the development of their family life was stumped after their parents died in quick succession of one another.

Toward the concluding parts of Gagnier’s essay, she describes how ‘in nineteenth century Britain, working class people began to include their occupations in titles of their work’ in a bid to ‘compete historically with the bourgeoisie’ (Gagnier 361). The title of Alice’s memoir is ‘Looking Over My Shoulder to Childhood Days and Later’, which does not identify any particular occupation. Alice does talk a great deal about employment throughout her memoir, but her emphasis, as shown in her chosen title, was on her personal past and marred childhood. This emphasizes further that she did not intend her memoir to be viewed by others, and was not written for any other purpose than her own therapeutic pastime. Had she wanted to create a historically significant memoir, one that marked her out to a particular class or occupation, she would have chosen a more revealing title.

[1] Gagnier, Regenia. ‘Social Atoms: Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender.’ Victorian Studies, 30. 3 (1987) p.348


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