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The ‘I’ of Autobiographical Narrative
The ‘autos’ is the ‘I’ that awakens to its own being. It determines the nature of the autobiography, as it half discovers, half creates itself. The ‘bios’ of an autobiography is what the ‘I’ makes of it. In the finished work, however, neither the ‘autos’ nor the ‘bios’ is there at the very beginning as a known ‘self’ or a history that can be resurrected. It is in the act of writing itself, the third element of autobiography, that the ‘self’ and the life, ‘complexly intertwined and entangled, take on a certain form, assume a particular shape and image, and endlessly reflect that image back and forth between themselves as between two mirrors’.iii

It is how the ‘I’ acts upon the text as well as in it that is in focus here, as Draycot’s texts are viewed from the perspective of process as well as product. As autobiographical scholars, we have access to different versions of the creator/subject. These may be termed the real ‘I’, the narrating ‘I’, the narrated ‘I’ and the ideological ‘I’.iv The real or historical ‘I’ is the soldier who signed up in 1914 and whose records are available from the Princess Patricia Canadian Light Infantry Regiment; he is the fifty-three-year-old author whose name appears on the front cover of the memoir, a respected member of the Lynn Valley community, and a war veteran. The real ‘I’ is of special interest to the historian and biographer. Here, on the other hand, the focus is on the narrating and narrated ‘I’ as producer and product of a fictional, as opposed to historically verifiable ‘self’.
Draycot at the front - click on image to enlarge
The narrating ‘I’ is the teller of the narrative, the agent of discourse, who ‘calls forth only that part of the experiential history linked to the story he is telling’.v The narrating ‘I’ of the textual media describes a variety of roles with distinct duties, possibilities and limitations: he is a private soldier, regimental barber, sniper, Sergeant, and Acting Intelligence Officer, among others. His voice bears the authority of experience. The narrating ‘I’ of the textual media is the one to whom things are done, a pawn on the chessboard of war. He has a number, 883, and thus an identity, but no real power. It is probable that his lack of control over his destiny increased his sense of fear. The absence of the latter in the textual representations is thus all the more remarkable, unless we view it as part of the fictional purpose of the teller of the narrative.vi

The narrating ‘I’ of the photographs, on the other hand, attempts to take charge of his destiny. He tells a story based more on myth than reality. His posture and facial expression give no indication of fear. He controls the characters that enter his story and what the viewer sees. He even provides annotations below and around the photographs to reinforce the image of the fearless hero who is in charge not only of himself but those around him.

Princess Patricia's Regiment Logo. Click here to see their website The narrated ‘I’, or subject of history, is ‘the version of the self that the narrating “I” chooses to constitute through recollection for the reader’.vii Take the example of Draycot’s sketches and topographical charts, the work of a trained, experienced and meticulous sketcher. Whenever the accuracy of his sketches was contested, Draycot was at pains to prove that they were faithful representations of reality. He was proud of his charts and sketches: they are important validations of the scope and importance of his intelligence work during the war, and excellent demonstrations of his rare sketching skill. They are also important indications of how he wished to be remembered: it was not only financial gain which led Draycot to sell his sketches to local and national museums; he wished to be seen as one of the great sketchers/topographers of the war.

While Draycot never believed that his memoir would be a significant source of income, he did hope that it would be published. A letter from the Regimental Adjutant of the Princess Patricia Canadian Light Infantry Regiment dated 18 June 1973 confirms that Draycot submitted his typewritten manuscript for publication in the Regiment’s journal, The Patrician (it appears that the application was subsequently rejected, as neither the complete memoir nor extracts from it were ever published). The different chapters create a picture of a soldier who always did his best, was not fully appreciated by others (especially, according to Draycot, by his commanding officers) and was denied the recognition he felt he so richly deserved.

A similar picture is presented in the diaries, which were the primary source of information for the memoir. Meanwhile, the different image of the narrated ‘I’ presented in the photographs is more readily accessible to the reader/viewer because it is more immediate and requires less effort to interpret. It is also more likely to be viewed as a faithful representation of the truth, as editing of photographs was in its infancy at the beginning of the twentieth century.

While the ideological ‘I’, namely the concept of ‘self’ culturally available to the narrator at the time of narration,viii is beyond the scope of the present study, it will be briefly mentioned here for the sake of clarity. There was a particular notion in 1914 and 1937 as to how a soldier (1914) and ex-soldier (1937) should act.ix However, with respect to the influence of the ideological ‘I’ on Draycot’s writing, the evidence is scanty: few letters written by Draycot survive as they were kept in his house, which burned down before all his belongings could be transferred to the North Vancouver Museum & Archives; and his diary entries for the post-war years are of a primarily practical and factual nature, dealing with everyday events rather than reflections on the nature of war and how to describe it (occasional references, on the other hand, are made to illnesses and nightmares, which Draycot relates to his experiences at the front, of which more later). Any discussion of the influence of the ideological ‘I’ on Draycot’s writings must therefore be highly speculative and of limited value to the present discussion.


iii James Olney, ‘Autobiography and the Cultural Moment’, in James Olney (ed.), Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), 3–28 at 22.
iv Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), 49–81.
v Ibid., 61.
vi World War One memoirs by private soldiers contain many references to fear. Guy Chapman’s A Passionate Prodigality: Fragments of Autobiography (London: MacGibbon & Kee, 1965; first published 1933) is a case in point. Chapman writes: ‘I was loath to go [to the front]. I had no romantic illusions. I was not eager, or even resigned to self-sacrifice, and my heart gave back no answering throb to the thoughts of England. In fact, I was very much afraid; and again, afraid of being afraid, anxious lest I should show it’ (13). Chapman’s memoir contains several references to fear of combat. W.H.A. Groom, another World War One memoirist, describes the soldiers’ fear as follows: ‘For most of the time in the front line under fire the soldier is a frightened man and the glossy stories of patient cheerful front line soldiers dying gaily must be refuted’ (Poor Bloody Infantry: A Memoir of the First World War (London: William Kimber, 1976), 20).
vii Smith and Watson, Reading Autobiography, 60.
viii Ibid., 61.
ix Much interesting scholarly work has been done on the cultural background of World War One memoirs, most notably by Jay Winter (with Antoine Prost, The Great War in History: Debates and Controversies, 1914 to the Present (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005) and Remembering War: The Great War Between Memory and History in the Twentieth Century (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006), and George Robb, British Culture and the First World War (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002).

Next: The ‘I’ of Websites
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