Thursday, 20 May 2010

Shiny pennies and grubby pinafores (Foley)

I have always had a fascination with autobiographical writing; it fills in the background to the past and adds colour and interest that I didn't initially get when I studied history. Of course, the further into my history degree I got, the more I realised that autobiographies and memoirs were a hugely important part of studying the past, providing a basis for studying social history, revealing details about everyday life and experiences. Even though I no longer study history in any formal sense, I still frequently seek out stories of the past, particularly when they focus on the domestic sphere.

A long time ago, I read Winifred Foley's classic autobiography, A child in the forest, and its follow up, Back to the forest, and was hugely pleased to discover earlier this year, that thanks to Abacus Books (part of the Little, Brown group) they are now back in print. The first volume has been retitled Full hearts and empty bellies, and the second, Shiny Pennies and grubby pinafores. Initially written down in notebooks, which were then serialised on the BBC as part of woman's hour, the books were originally published in the 1970s. The first book is an absolutely engrossing account of Foley's upbringing in the now forgotten world of the Forest of Dean in the 1920s, growing up in a cottage lacking running water, electricity and rarely with enough to eat. At the age of 14, Foley left the forest to go into service, embarking on a fascinating career working in London, Cheltenham, as a kitchen maid at a ladies college and then as a "nippy" at a Lyon's corner house.

In the second volume of autobiography, Foley is now married to Syd, and living in a London tenement. She scrapes a living as a charwoman and dreams of returning to the Forest of Dean to be near her relatives and to give her children a better chance of life. Syd lands a job in the area, complete with a tied cottage and the family are able to return.

Life in the forest is easier than it was in her childhood but it is by no means an idyllic existence. Foley still struggled to make ends meet, but there was a far better quality of life.

One of the things that amused me was Winifred describing how shortly before they left London they had become a "two wardrobe family" which gave her a "real sense of affluence". This was reminiscent of the importance of having a piano to members of the working class in other memoirs that I have read of the period.

Victoria from Abacus kindly sent me the latter volume to have a look at; I was particularly interested in it as it also contained an extra portion of autobiography from a book of writings originally entitled called No pipe dreams for father. I hope that they may also republish her other volume of memoirs, In and out of the forest.

If you are at all interested in life in the early twentieth century, have enjoyed Cider with Rosie or Lark Rise to Candleford, then I do recommend these books, either in the lovely new editions, or you might be lucky enough to spot the older titles somewhere (I think mine came from a village fete!)


  1. Lovely review Verity thank you for sharing. Like you I am fascinated by the little "signposts" of wealth and poverty - like having a piano etc. this sounds like a veritable treasure trove!

  2. I didn't realise you had studied History (assumed English) I agree absolutly that books like these give a real insite into the past, and make it come alive in the way few lectures do.

  3. What a great cover! Sounds like a book I'd enjoy...

  4. I could happily pass hours and hours reading books such as these. Thanks, Verity!

  5. What an eloquent review. Your first paragraph sums up the role of autobiography as a vibrant historical tool so beautifully. I LOVE the sound of these titles - think I need to own them, dip in and out and absorb them at liesure without pressure of library return, thank you for flagging them up.

  6. Hannah - yes, I love those little details.

    Hayley - oooh no, definitely not English! Haven't you noticed how bad I am at analysing/reviewing?!

    JoAnn - it is pretty isn't it.

    Darlene - yes, another one for you.

    Merenia - thank you again for your kind words - I agree that there are some books that need to be owned without library return pressure!

  7. I so thoroughly enjoyed your review of Winifred Foley. She seemed so familiar to me as I read your words. Of course! Some years ago I took to books on tape, audiobooks, to keep me company on my ride back and forth to work. Our local library had an extensive collection and one day I picked up Foley's autobiography. Actually, as I "read" it, I at first thought it was a novel, then realized it was the author's own story. I enjoyed it so much I took to eating lunch in my car so I could hear more. I will need to put her works on my ever leaning to be read pile. Thank you for a delightful review.

  8. Lifeonthecutoff - eating lunch in the car to listen to more is the very sort of thing that I would do! Anything to maximise reading and listening pleasure :) Thanks for your lovely comments.

  9. This looks like fascinating book. Like you, studying history has made me realise how interesting these autobiographical accounts are.


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