This is an unusual autobiography. It is in two parts; the first the fragmented memories of early childhood, the second a memoir of growing up an orphan and being transported from one side of the world to the other. The overriding quality of this book is its harrowing honesty. Lionel Pearce recounts painful memories of loss and abuse; and it is his willingness to lay his soul bare and face his demons that distinguish this work from more conventional memoirs.
The book begins with glimpses of the infant Pearce and his experiences while living with his mother, his grandmother, a fierce matriarch, and his aunts. At this point in the text it is the women, strong and disapproving, who hold the power in baby Lionel's world. The men are peripheral figures who occasionally intrude into the women's world. Lionel's father is a tall stranger in a dark coat who occasionally takes his family or his son on outings, Lionel's uncle a secret ally with little power in his marginal place as his wife's husband. It becomes apparent that Lionel was an illegitimate child born in a time when such transgressions were not easily forgiven. Although tolerated in the family home, his mother is treated as a servant by her family, his father is not allowed to live with them, denied more than occasional access. The writing in this early part of the book is exquisite. Pearce's use of language is poetic and emotive; he interlaces imagery and emotion with such skill that through shards of memory several worlds are evoked, that of matriarchal domesticity, of the working class, aspects of postwar (WW1) England headed for the Depression and, most eloquently, the world of the very young child struggling towards awareness of himself and his place in life.
It is in part one of the book that Pearce describes his mother's death and the sorrow and confusion of a child too young to understand that he will never see her again. The prologue also sets up images and themes that can be followed throughout the work as a whole. For example, his ambivalence towards women is reflected in the iconic status of the angel. There is the snow angel, metaphoricising his grief and desire for his mother, perfect in her death, and there are the avenging angels - the powerful, authoritarian aunts and grandmother. Throughout his life Lionel searches for the ideal mother-angel, yet time and again he comes into the terrible shadow of the avengers' wings. Whether this vacillation between worship and loathing was a later construct through which Lionel viewed his early life will make a fruitful topic for discussion. Some other issues that can be seen in embryo in the prologue are Pearce's class consciousness, his obsession with death and loss, and the blanket of grief and misery that seems to have wrapped about every aspect of his life.
The second part of the book continues these themes and more in the telling of the events that made up Lionel's life after his mother's death, his rejection by her family and his institutionalisation at the age of five. He is adopted by a family in London and lives with them for several years. Unfortunately, although this began promisingly, his new 'mother' metamorphosed from snow to avenging angel and Lionel was subjected to severe physical and sexual abuse before being 'encouraged' to go to Fairbridge Farm, in Western Australia, at the age of twelve. This move to the other side of the world does not provide any release or independence for Lionel; he becomes part of an orphanage system that effectively controls him, body and soul, for several years to come.
The loss of his mother and home so early in his life and the terrible treatment that he underwent throughout his later childhood obviously had a profound effect on the man he was to become. His experience of life seems to have been washed in grey; his pessimism, resentment and inability to relate to joy certainly don't afford this memoir many light moments. However, it is his willingness to relate his misery with such honesty that sets this book apart. Perhaps it is the juxtaposition of this tale of hardship and woe with such beautiful and poetic language that creates the spark, that holds the reader's interest to the very end.
1) There are claims that children brought to Australia as child migrants - like Lionel - represent an equivalent to the Stolen Generations of Aboriginal children. What perspective on this issue is offered by Lionel's experience?
2) Lionel Pearce shows a great deal of awareness into his psychological state and the causes of it at the very end of his life, still stating that 'through all the years I could never forget the sorrows of my early life. I think people always saw me as unhappy, and I think that fundamentally I was, all my life. I am still grieving for my mother.' Yet memoirs can also reveal blind spots in a person's self-awareness. What other reasons do you find in the text for his general unhappiness? Do you believe he was as unhappy as he thinks he was? Are there any inconsistencies in his self-doubt?
3) Pearce's consciousness of his working class origins can be seen as a significant factor in his development as an individual. Discuss this in relation to his statement that 'No one can see an individual's birthright, and the way he has been oppressed since birth.'
4) The obvious and consciously acknowledged loss and lack of a mother seems to have had a severe effect on Pearce's life. However Pearce also lacked a father. To what extent do you think this lack affected his life? What was Pearce's attitude towards possible father figures in his childhood?
5) Throughout the text there are many references to death and dying. Discuss Pearce's attitude to death - was it an obsession? How significant was his attempt at suicide?
6) Discuss Pearce's use of angels as metaphors. How did this affect his relationships with women?
7) Discuss the implications of being an illegitimate child in the early part of the 20th century. Does this have any bearing on Lionel's character?
8) The concept of 'childhood' as we know it is a fairly recent one and it could be argued that it only applies to certain sections of society. Discuss this in relation to Lionel Pearce's childhood experience.
9) Discuss Pearce's memoir in relation to other childhood narratives you may have read. Is his experience similar or different to other British 'orphans', or to other working class children?
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