‘mother, peace-loving, with a quiet strength, was the force that held the situation on an even keel, welding these diverse units together into a family’ (Gomm, 11)
Family is an extremely important theme that runs throughout Amy’s memoir, with the majority of her discussions revolving around her loved ones. A memoir filled with complex family bonds, affection and realness, Amy really does sentimentally express what genuine family life for the working-class was like in the early twentieth century.
On the first page of her memoir, Amy introduces some of the traditional work her family were involved in: ‘Mother’s family were the blacksmiths. Her father first, before our time; then her eldest brother. We two would blow the bellows for Uncle Ned; watch the heart of the fire glow fiercely bright as we worked the big lever; pause to see the horseshoe uncle brought to it.’(Gomm, 1) Amy’s Uncle Ned was a widower, which led to her family taking in his two children. She expresses how she saw them as her own brothers: ‘Wat, called cousin Wat, to distinguish him from our brother; and Winnie. In those days, their dad-the blacksmith- lived with us too.’(Gomm, 2) Immediately from an audience point of view, unconditional family love really shines through.
Amy reveals that her mother’s side of the family also lived close by, showing the closeness and unity that is apparent with all parts of Amy’s family tree. Amy includes a picture of her family tree at the start of her memoir, which enables us to visualise the inner workings of her family. It is undeniable that this is something Amy wishes us to understand and consider when reading. She talks frequently about each individual family member and it is clear she had a good relationship with each of them. She discusses ‘Mother’s twin brothers, Wat and Will’ (Gomm, 2) who were the prosperous ones of the family because ‘Grandfathers assets went to the three boys, but Ned-the improvident one-had had and spent his share. There was no bad feeling about this. It was an accepted thing that the boys got what was to be had. Never mind that it was the girls the old folks looked to in their declining years.’ (Gomm, 2) Amy is revealing how rigid gender roles were in the late 19th century. Her ironic comment in the final part of the sentence is conveying that now she is older and living in a very different generation (1975), she is able to understand the misogyny and satirise ideology behind it.
Amy goes into detail when discussing how the housework was distributed, with the vast majority of it being assigned to the girls and women. However, she states that ‘Dad, or the big boys, would bear triumphantly home the clean-cloth-covered Sunday joint.’ (Gomm, 20) The younger boys but not the men were delegated household jobs. Granted, she goes on to reveal that they were the jobs that involved a great deal of ‘elbow grease.’ (Gomm, 26) ‘The big-boys could-and did- clean the family’s shoes; out in the yard.’(Gomm, 26) Girls were provided with perhaps the less physically tasking and more orderly job of washing the clothes. Amy hints that she did this quite regularly and she boasts of her knowledge of what soaps to use with each particular garment. It is not unreasonable to conclude that Amy took pride in the work she did for her family,
acknowledging that despite its hardship the work was a necessity. ‘This didn’t do the hands much good, but “beautiful hands are hands that toil” as the saying went.’ (Gomm, 20) Hard work was how these families survived. Real working-class people did not have beautifully preened hands. ‘Class is ‘a learned position, learned in childhood, and often through the exigencies of difficult and lonely lives.’(Carolyn Steedman)
Amy shows that women’s and men’s jobs were drastically different; with women staying at home and men having more academically revolved jobs. As Joanne Bourke argues ‘The full-time housewife reaped more of the benefits of increased leisure when compared with women working a double-shift in the factory and the home.’ (Bourke, 67) and Amy reflects on how this was changing by the 1970’s, when women were beginning to hold their own in the world of academia and business. Yet she also asks if some skills have been lost: ‘what do young girls give their parents for birthday presents, “made by own hands”, these days, when mothers didn’t need iron-holders and dads don’t use pen-wipers?’(Gomm, 21)
Amy shares with us the importance of Sundays, stating that ‘Sunday was the only day dad was around.’(Gomm, 26) Nobody worked on a Sunday and everything closed because it was designated family time: ‘Nobody touched needle and cotton on Sunday.’(Gomm, 26) Even the women saved Sundays for family time.
Amy does not directly state her feelings and emotions towards people but rather discusses her memories in a way that makes it certain for us as readers to be able to empathize and understand the emotions she felt. This is apparently a common occurrence for working class autobiographers from this time period, with them tending ‘not to express their feelings directly but rather signal their affectionate relationship with their father by talking about the things he did for them & the things he made them.’(JM Strange). However, Amy’s relationship with her dad is a topic which reoccurs throughout the memoir, signifying that it is something Amy wants to share comprehensively with us as readers.
Amy depicts her relationship with her father during her childhood as a positive one, talking often of the family as a unit. However, during her teens and the start of early adulthood it becomes apparent that the relationship begins to sour. Amy reveals her father’s alcoholism: ‘it was obvious that he was drinking more than was good for him – shorts, now: not beer’ (Gomm, 129). It is clear that the death of Amy’s mother hit her family hard and perhaps was the reason for the dissolution of her and her father’s relationship. Amy states that ‘for the first time: we were a family divided. If things seemed smooth on the surface, as they sometimes did, there was the undercurrent, always there. It was ‘him’ and ‘us’’ (Gomm, 130)
Bourke J, Prof JB, and Bourke PJ, Working class cultures in Britain, 1890-1960: Gender, class, and ethnicity (Routledge 1993)
(Landscape for a Goodwoman: A Story of Two Lives. London: Virago, 1986, p. 13)
JM Strange. Fatherhood and the British Working Class, 1865-1914. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014
324 GOMM, Amy Frances, ‘Water Under the Bridge’, TS, pp.163 (c.55,000 words). Brunel University Library.