Sheila Stewart is different to George Sturt and George Ewart Evans and Flora Thompson. Stewart’s books are not autobiographical or biographical, and not socio-historical reportage or accounts of her observations. Rather, each of her works is a single subject’s personal memoir delivered in her or his own dialect and local idiom. Stewart’s works are more creative, more literary, and more lyrical than those of either Sturt or Evans, and she does not employ Thompson’s novelistic techniques. Unlike Evans, Stewart purposefully set out to gather stories, and she did so without any plan other than to audio-record the oral account of some aged person who had experienced life in the rural England of the past for a book. Her sole avowed aim in interviewing was to use the interview transcripts to create a readable story that would appeal to her readers and add to their knowledge about lives that were not known or about which little was known, and she never interviewed for any other reason. Like Tony Parker (see my early posts), Stewart focused on her subjects’ thoughts and feelings in relation to their remembered experiences of life in a marginalised community.
Unlike Thompson, Stewart takes a sympathetic and subjective approach in her writing and does not closely examine human character, rather each of Stewart’s subjects speak for her- or him- self: like Parker yet somewhat differently, Stewart creates a literary space for the subjects to speak for themselves and tell their stories to the reader–a method which allows readers to form their own judgements and decide for themselves. Each of Stewart’s works is essentially the story of a living subject as told by that subject in first person narrative, and each of her narrating characters is in sympathy with the community in which they once lived, and any creative empathy in her works is written into her work as the empathy that her narrating subjects had with other persons in their one time communities.
Stewart’s portraits are gentle, and her books are charming paintings. Yet, in a way, similarly to Thompson, Stewart implicitly shows this process of transition in Lifting the Latch and Ramlin Rose through her narrating subjects’ stories and in the work as a whole, and in so doing makes a social point about vanishing worlds, and the need for preservation of culture and heritage. For one example, the appendix to Ramlin Rose is an essay written in 1959 by Jenny Littlemore—the living daughter of a traditional boatwoman—when she was fourteen years of age (Ramlin Rose … 1994, p.p. 219-21). Jenny notes the renewed interest in the waterways of England, and she refers to “those” modern-day people involved in the restoration and retention of England’s canal system (Ramlin Rose … 1994, p. 221). Jenny makes no mention of the writers who also play a part in ensuring that England’s heritage is not lost. But in writing Ramlin Rose Stewart assists by keeping such history alive. In 2005 the Roundham Lock Theatre staged a play titled “A Boat’s Yer Whole World” adapted from Ramlin Rose, and their 2006 review they maintain that traditional canal life is now almost “consigned to the history books” but not quite; there are still working boats and some traditions of community have passed down into modern times (Roundham Lock Theatre 2006, p. 1).
Like Parker, Stewart writes with the general reader in mind. After each session she took selections from the interview transcripts and moved them around to create a readable story. In her preface to Ramlin Rose Stewart writes, “Reading expands our knowledge of life far beyond the bounds of our own experience” (Ramlin Rose … 1994, p. ix). Stewart’s books, Lifting the Latch (2006) and Ramlin Rose (1994) are not solely works of local or social history. They are also works of creative nonfiction that straddle the memoir genre and the literary documentary. In fact, Stewart’s works meet the criteria for the literary (creative nonfiction docu-memoir) as I define it in my earlier blogs.
Roundham Lock Theatre: A Boat’s Yer Whole World. 2006. 1-3. Web. 17 Nov. 2010.http://www.roundhamlocktheatre.co.uk/byww.html
Stewart, Sheila. Country Kate. Kineton: Roundwood Press, 1971. Print.
—. Ramblin Rose: The Boatwoman’s Story. Oxford: Oxford U P, 1994. Print.
—. Lifting the Latch: A Life on the Land. Oxfordshire: Day Books, 2006. Print.