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

Norah Elliott (b.1903): Reading & Writing

“I was a great reader”

Although Norah Elliott became a dedicated school teacher, her dream was always to become a writer. Whilst her comments on reading do not frequently appear in her memoir, her rare comments on authors and fiction are telling of her working-class character. Norah’s own autobiography displays her aptitude for writing, which is why this topic is so poignant in the discussion of Norah Elliott and working-class, autobiographical literature.

The Birth Certificate of John Pilch (Norah’s Father)
Burial Documents of Henry Pilch (Norah’s Grandfather)

In her diaries on her Aunt Susan and her Grandfather Pilch, Norah talks a great deal about family bibles. In these entries, Norah tells us that her Aunt and Grandfather wrote in their bibles, giving details about their working lives and family history. Bibles such as these contain familial births, marriages, deaths, and other events, as well as detailed information about the individual. Other materials may also be kept inside a family bible, such as letters, postcards, newspaper clippings, funeral cards and other items considered special or important.[1] Images of items such as these are kept in Norah Elliott’s section of the Burnett, Vincent and Mayall’s collection of working-class, autobiographical writing.

However, Norah also owned a bible given to her by her Aunt Susan ‘which had been presented to [her] grandfather by his Bible class: it was unused and unscribed’. Norah’s mention of the Bible in all its forms suggests it played a role in her life, whether it was being read or written in, and her attendance at church also supports this suggestion.

But Norah also read fiction:

“Paula was much better read than I, an admirer of Conrad and Hardy, authors I scarcely knew. My reading was random. One day, during a holiday, I had the house to myself and read Spencer’s Fairy Queen solidly from morning to night.”

As Norah proceeded to become a teacher, you would think her reading would be va

st and varied, yet she admits her ‘reading was random’ and authors such as Joseph Conrad and Thomas Hardy she ‘scarcely knew’. Though, she does tell us she studied Geoffrey Chaucer’s tales during school and she must have also studied William Shakespeare as Norah performed “As You Like It”, playing Celia. Norah reveals that she ‘read Spencer’s Fairy Queen solidly from morning to night’, perhaps signifying a break away from her working-class character. However, her miss-spelling of both Edmund Spenser’s surname and the title of his epic poem “Faerie Queene”, entirely undermines this suspected attempt. Also, she regards authors such as Hardy and Conrad higher than others such as Spenser, establishing her awareness class-conscious literature.

Jonathan Rose states that ‘far from reconciling them to the status quo, the classics were more likely to stir up ambitions and dissatisfactions among common readers’ (49). However, Norah never gives an opinion on the work she reads, nor does it appear that this work affected her as an individual enough to involve it in her autobiography, yet the poems that Norah composed are very close to her heart.

 “I’ve always nursed the belief that I could write but I’ve never had anything published. Now realising that I could die at any time, living alone and having leisure I have no excuse for not writing.”

Whilst reading ‘often had no appreciable impact on the politics of the reader’ (Rose, 48), Norah Elliott’s memoir is filled with political poetry, written by herself. Norah tells us that her ‘forebears belong to the inarticulate multitude of the poor’, and follows this with a poem:

How many talents are unused, unknown?

Lacking nourishment, they fade and die,

Poverty their murderer.

Unwittingly we stand by

Blind to what is done,

So guiltless of the hidden crime.

Her poems, in addition to the rich, heart-felt prose throughout, reinforce Julia Swindells’s comments on Victorian Writing and Working Women in which she states that ‘women autobiographers frequently slip into romantic or melodramatic mode’. However, Norah’s voice seems to derive from her inarticulate ancestors: her father who was part of his local labour party and worked in the Annesley Pits, her brother who participated in Britain’s 1926 General Strike and her Grandfather who travelled across the country daily working two jobs to make ends meet. These political histories of her ancestors are established in her poems which was common throughout ‘nineteenth-century working-class poetry, [which] blended protest, reformist politics, self-assertion, and moral reflection in complex and deeply interesting ways.’ (Boos, 2001, 105)

Though Norah Elliott’s reading habits never seemed to affect her working-class character, her hopes of being published indicate a desire to climb the ladder of class. Sadly, her dreams never became a reality.

Works Cited:

Boos, Florence. ‘The Poetics of the Working Classes’. Victorian Poetry. Vol 39.2. (Summer 2001) 103-110.

[1] Morgan, George. G. How to do Everything With Your Genealogy. New York: Mc Graw Hill, 2004.

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

‘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

Rose, Jonthan. ‘Rereading the English Common Reader: A Preface to a History of Audiences’. Journal of the History of Ideas. Vol 53.1. (Jan-Mar 1992) 47-70.

Swindells, Julia. Victorian Writing and Working Women. Cambridge: Polity, 1985.

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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