Histories of the British people, in their own words, 1945-85

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Collister, Nicolas 

This study explores the autobiographies of ordinary Britons, written in the middle and later decades of the twentieth century. It draws on a little fewer than 300 of these under-studied documents, reading them for their authors’ preoccupations as they sat, writing. Together the autobiographies reveal a wonderful variety of expression. They often take us closer to the people who wrote them. But they also hint at a deeper history. The way people described their lives related not simply to their individual proclivities, or the circumstances in which they wrote, but to their habits of oral storytelling, to their practical skills and routines, and to their knowledge of written genres. Surprisingly, remarkably, the autobiographers’ use of speech, practice, and written models suggests broadly comparable features – similar kinds of cultural resource that people used to find some meaning in their lives (Part I). Individual autobiographers drew on these in their own ways and for their own purposes. Yet their access to cultural resources was uneven. Many autobiographers, educated only to a minimum level of competence, found less significance in the written word than they did in oral and practical cultures (Part II). Conversely, authors who mastered written genres tended to see themselves as a cut above the rest, socially and intellectually (Part III). The consequence, especially of different kinds of schooling, was a marked divide in the way autobiographers thought about themselves and the world at large. In this, the autobiographies hint at a profound and lasting separation in British culture: a split in the way people made sense of life; a division persisting at least from the late-nineteenth to the late-twentieth century.

Szreter, Simon
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge
ESRC (2124005)
Economic and Social Research Council (2124005)