”This being an autobiography I shall not attempt to portray the great lady who was my Mother, and whose biography I would write did I feel that my pen would not fail me”
Although Mabel hasn’t explained why she named her memoir ‘Fortune Grass’ the opening few pages offer the answer. In 1915 in the surrounding hills of their country home in County Cork, Ireland, Mabel and her two brothers played ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor’ , a fortune telling game. Mabel’s brothers Reggie and Leghe teased her as they plucked the fortune grass from the hill and guessed their future. Thirteen-year-old Reggie dreamed of being a sailor, sixteen year old Leghe wanted to fight in the war and Mabel dreamed of being a dancer. In the early part of the twentieth century, especially during the Great War of 1914-1918, these are typical gender roles within the social class system. Mabel’s grandfather and uncle were high ranking army officers and Baronets. The Lethbridge baronets of Westaway House and Winkley Court date back to 1804. Mabel’s grandfather was the 4th baronet and her uncle the 5th.Here
Mabel’s Grandfather (1831-1902) and Uncle (1863-1950)
Mabel, a descendant of landed gentry was living a very different life to many other working class memoirists, examined on this website. At Peake House, County Cork, servants waited on her and her brothers. Born into the aristocracy it is a source of wonder why Mabel’s driving force throughout her memoir was to gain her independence and join the workers of the world. Although she doesn’t voice her reasons, perhaps she was impatient with the more superficial realities of class and nationality. (Bourke)
Throughout the memoir Mabel mentions other siblings one being Tattie, a married pregnant sister, whose baby Mabel hopes might die, though she does qualify her wish as childish callousness. Mabel writes of her other sisters, Gwen and Rita , that she had nothing in common: ‘my brothers were my playmates and filled my every need’ (p.8). Although Mabel’s focus is on family life in childhood, in the aftermath of her accident in the munitions factory, her sisters showed her great love and support.
Photo courtesy of Suzy Carter, Mabel’s great granddaughter:
It is clear that Mabel and her brothers are living with only their mother, she tells us this in dialogue with Leghe, “I wonder what Daddy’s like now and whether he’s at the front. It’s over six years since we last saw him”(p.3). Reggie goes on to say that his father and mother don’t get on, giving the reader an indication that they are divorced. In 1907 the family had travelled to Mombasa to join their father but only stayed for seven months before leaving for Italy to visit her grandmother, Countess Sergardi. Here is the passenger list of the family leaving the UK on the ship Nidderdale. Although Mabel doesn’t tell us, I have pieced together the family chronology and it appears circumstances lead to the divorce of her parents.
In a chapter entitled ‘Memories’, Mabel recalls her devastation when in 1913 her mother fell sick with cancer. The wonderfully lyrical quote that I use to open this theme sums up Mabel’s love and respect she bestowed on her mother. Thankfully her mother survived and went on to live a further nineteen years when she died of heart disease. Much like any modern day teenager/mother relationship, in the ensuing years, Mabel would cause her mother a world of worry and heartache ‘my rebel spirit must have been a sore trial to her’ (p.116) From becoming a nurse at sixteen to pursuing her relationship with ‘Daddy’, an army officer, feisty exchanges with her mother would sadly lead to a period of estrangement.
It was now 1918 and Mabel’s mother put a stop to her correspondence with Daddy but Mabel chose him, a man she had never met, over her mother and on a dark November morning she stole out of her house in Ealing leaving a note for her mother.
“Darling, don’t worry about me. I will write to you at once and some day I shall turn up again. I hate leaving without telling you, but I’d hate telling you. Forgive my restlessness. Your loving Mabel” (p.118)
What Mabel didn’t know when she left the comfort of her family home to live in a hostel was that Daddy had married a fellow war veteran.
According to J M Strange ‘Autobiographers tend not to express their feelings directly rather signal their affectionate relationship with their father by talking about the things he did for them and the things he made them.’ This wasn’t the case for Mabel, perhaps something within her psyche craved a father figure, hence the nickname she gave to her secret love. David Vincent in his study of working class autobiography considers the treatment of family experience by autobiographers suggesting that what is not said is more prevalent than what is said.(Vincent.226)
Bourke, Joanna. Working-class Cultures in Britain 1890-1960 : Gender, Class and Ethnicity (1994). London: Routledge 1994
Lethbridge, Mabel. Fortune Grass, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection Library, Vol.4
Strange, Julie-Marie. Fatherhood and the British Working Class, 1865–1914. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2015. Web
Vincent, David. “Love and Death and the Nineteenth-Century Working Class.” Social History, vol. 5, no. 2, 1980, pp. 223–247. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4284976.