Whether she wrote in one sitting or piecemeal, in the daytime or at night, upon a desk or on her daily tram-ride to work, readers can never quite know the exact circumstances under which Hilda Swettenham chose to collect her memories within her autobiographical writing. What they can know for certain, however, is the author’s desire to communicate the shared experiences of her class and gender, contributing to a ‘social history’ (Hackett, 1989, 211) which reflects the culture of working-class women. The memoir addresses female readers and incorporates depictions of femininity using anecdotal evidence in order to represent people like herself, an example of working-class women writing for working-class women.
A standard question which arises when reading any piece of autobiographical writing is: what is the purpose? Many working-class memoirs were ‘functional rather than aesthetic’ (Gagnier, 1987, 342), acting as a time capsule of her experiences, being ‘primarily “testimonial”; [their] purpose was to document a way of life’ (Hackett, 1989, 209). While these intentions certainly would have contributed to Hilda’s decision to record her memories in written form, it is notable to consider her memoir as a representation of the lives of working-class women, like herself.
Readers are given an insight into Hilda’s intended readership through her use of form, constructing her memoir through a series of letters, each subsequently titled, ‘Early Working Life from 1921 [to] 1936’ (2), ‘“Outdoor Worker in the Home”’ (9), ‘Smells [G]ood
and [B]ad’ (13), ‘“Bad Smells”’ (16), and ‘Every[-]day Noises’ (20). These letters, rich with personal and unique recollections, are directly addressed to a mysterious ‘Mary’ (1). The importance of her female confidant is significant, as working-class women are so often excluded from works of literature, and by defying this ‘obvious underrepresentation […] by gender’ (Gagnier, 1987, 335), Hilda is able to represent and empower her readers. Whether Mary is a close friend, a distant relative or a total stranger, Hilda’s intention to impart a vivid and intimate account of her experiences as a working-class woman is clear from the beginning.
As well as exploring women’s work and gender roles in general, Hilda’s memoir conveys to her audience the authentic and intimate experiences of a working-class woman’s life through her inclusion of anecdotal evidence. The author recalls that ‘if a woman had a family, or was unable to go to work, she worked in her own home, [and] at this time [were] also [b]adly paid’ (9), and how ‘nearly all the corner shops were managed by women with families […] everyone tried hard to earn a living and to do their best for their children’ (11). Through her inclusion of these people in her narrative, Hilda voices the experiences of working-class women, challenging the ‘subordinate position of women in the family and the absence of the self-confidence required to undertake the unusual act of writing an autobiography’ (Vincent, 1980, 226). It is interesting to think about these anecdotes as opportunities for Hilda ‘to record [the] lost experiences’ (Gagnier, 1987, 342) of other working-class women for them, allowing their memories to survive through autobiographical writing, even if they were unable to do it themselves.
Hilda’s memoir is an accurate reflection, not only of her own life and memories, but of what many working-class women encountered in the early-twentieth century. Her account is an accumulation of ‘simultaneously social as well as individual’ (Jones, 2012, 8) memories, allowing the author to share an affinity with her readership as she uses her literary platform to represent the experiences of the underrepresented.
Swettenham, Hilda. ”Early Working Life from 1921 to 1936′, and other autobiographical fragments’. The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography, 1790-1945 (3 volumes). John Burnett, David Vincent, David Mayall (eds.). Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989. 2:0750. Available: http://www.writinglives.org/uncategorized/hilda-swettenham-b-1907-biographical-entry
Gagnier, Regenia. ‘Social Atoms: Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender’. Victorian Studies 30:3 (Spring 1987), 335-363. Available: https://www.jstor.org/stable/3828397?sid=primo&seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents
Hackett, Nan. ‘A Different Form of “Self”: Narrative Style in British Nineteenth-Century Working-Class Autobiography’. Biography 12.3 (Summer 1989), 208-226. Available: https://www.jstor.org/stable/23539418?sid=primo&seq=1
Jones, Ben. The Working Class in Mid-Twentieth-Century England: Community, Identity and Social Memory. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012. Available: https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv5nphkc
Vincent, David. ‘Love and Death and the Nineteenth Century Working Class’. Social History 5:2 (May 1980), 223-247. Available: https://www.jstor.org/stable/4284976?sid=primo&seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents
Fig. 1: Marshall, Bishop. (1936). Leaving a Salford mill, 1936, Bishop Marshall. Available: https://blog.scienceandindustrymuseum.org.uk/cottonopolis-daily-herald-archive/
Fig. 2: Hicklin, Roland. (1951). Children of mill workers at Marlborough Mill, Droylsden, at play in the mill, Roland Hicklin, 1951. Available: https://blog.scienceandindustrymuseum.org.uk/cottonopolis-daily-herald-archive/
If you enjoyed this, you might be interested in Anais Brady’s blog post about Purpose and Audience in Ada Marion Jefferis’ enthralling memoir, where she demonstrates why the central reason for autobiographical writing is to keep memories alive for future generations. Available: http://www.writinglives.org/purpose-and-audience/ada-marion-jefferis-1884-1981-purpose-and-audience