In writing about my mother, it is now that I wish more than ever that I had been well educated and possessed a really good knowledge of the English language. I know of no word that is big enough to express my admiration of her courage, and strength of character, and the splendour of her most wonderful nature. Her deep and sincere love and her genuine affection she had for each and every one of her children’(Oates, 8:20).
Phoebe Amelia Mary Oates
Family life was essential to Guy, and though he maintained close relationships with all of his family during the course of his life, it was the relationship with his mother (Phoebe), which Guy repeatedly returns to throughout his memoir. In the opening paragraph of the chapter ‘Myself. 1905-‘ (1:101), Guy states that he is beginning his ‘storey at the age of five years, because [he does not] remember anything before this time. From now until [he] leave[s] school at the age of sixteen, are years of which [he is] rather ashamed. [He] deeply regret[s] the trouble and anguish [he] caused [his] dear mother, [his] greatest wish would be that [he] be given a second chance to redeem myself, but [he knew] that chance [would] never come. (You pass this way but once)’ (1:101). Of course, Guy is referring to his association with the Bond End Kids, and his continuous truancy from school, which had begun to get ‘most embarrassing for [his] mother’ (1:102), who was forced to struggle and drag Guy to school, during which she would ‘pass the very office where [her husband] worked and died’ (1:102). Having been a widow since 1909, Phoebe had little support when struggling to deal with Guy, a situation which Julie-Marie Strange insists could create ‘intense feelings of loneliness and added responsibility’ (2005, Pg. 205), and between this and having ‘her hands full looking after the house with seven others to feed and clothe,’ Guy’s continuous waywardness ‘was sapping her very strength and breaking her heart’ (1:102). Although, Guy is keen to point out that though ‘she would be pointing out his errors (. . .) she never laid a hand on [him]. This, he insists is an example of the type of mother she was, one whose ‘love for a child outweighed all else’ (1:102). Unfortunately, the death of her husband and Guy’s naughty behaviour were not the only hardships that Phoebe would have to endure during her lifetime, and as the memoir progresses, it becomes easier to understand Guy’s heartfelt admiration for his mother.
Adjusting to Life as a Widow
The death of her husband had left Phoebe alone, with eight young children to provide and care for. Fortunately, her husband had left her ‘£1435’ (8:20), which Percy, ‘the youngest son of [Guy’s] father’s first family (. . .) managed. Percy allowed Phoebe ‘£10 per month from the will (. . .) which at that rate would last for about twelve years, by which time most of the children would be grown up and working, he hoped’ (8: 20). However, while this meant that Phoebe had a continuous income, it did not mean that she was in a position to provide her family with anything other than basic food and clothes, and the occasional small treat. Her older children, who had been fortunate enough to receive a good education during their father’s lifetime, were now expected to help in the home or find paid work. While, the younger children were left with no option but to attend ‘the local council school’ (8:20), who provided ‘the bear necessity, just the three R’s’ (8:20). In addition to this, all domestic help was dismissed, meaning that Phoebe, with the help of her oldest daughter Marion, was now responsible for the upkeep of the home, all cooking, and ‘bringing up of the children’ (8:20). A change that Guy insists would have been quite a shock for his mother, ‘after marrying a man of wealth and standing, bearing him ten children with a nanny to help’ (8:20). However, rather than be overwhelmed by the sudden change in circumstance, Phoebe rose to the challenge and ‘using the skills she had received at her home when she was a child’ (8:20), she prevailed.
Sadly, just as his mother began to settle into her new life, she discovered that Percy had passed away, a mere two years after his father. The loss came as a blow to Phoebe, who was now at the mercy of Percy’s wife, Gertie, ‘who had always been jealous of [Guy’s] mother, and looked upon her as far beneath [Guy’s] father’s breeding and standing’ (8:21). Gertie went on to make it incredibly hard for Phoebe to gain access to her money, and even insisted that she travel ‘seven miles (. . .) instead of sending the cheque each month by post’ (8:21). A journey that Guy’s older brother Aubrey, aged 12, had to make on his mother’s behalf. Even when the money was almost all gone, Gertie continued with her torment, and told Phoebe that ‘the best thing she could do would be to take all of her children and go to the workhouse and apply for poor relief’ (8:21). Determined to overcome Gertie’s cruel suggestion, Phoebe declared that ‘she would rather see all her children dead than see that happen’ (8:21). Thankfully, the hard work of Phoebe and her older children meant that the family avoided the workhouse, (although, Guy spends a lot of time in the workhouse during his adult life. All will be revealed in the Life and Labour post).
Loss and Mourning
Having watched her two of her oldest sons, Aubrey and Russell, go off to fight in the First World War, Guy’s mother spent four years in a constant state of worry. Understandably, Phoebe, like many who had sent their young men off to war, dreaded any news that would confirm their worst fears. So when the post-man delivered a letter from the War Office, ‘she stood motionless afraid to open it for fear of what it might contain’ (8:30). Having no husband to support her, and only her younger children home with her, she ‘gathered [the] children around her as if to give her courage. With fingers trembling, fumbling at the flap she opened it. For a few seconds there was perfect silence while she read its contents to herself, then finding a seat she sat down and with a shaking voice, told [the] children that [their] brother, Aubrey, had been wounded during enemy action’ (8:30). This must have been incredibly hard for Phoebe, who was unable to tell the children any further information because ‘the telegram said no more. There it stopped, leaving [them] wondering as to how serious it was’ (8:30). In an emotional moment, Guy remembers how his mother ‘sat down and cried,’ and how the children were ‘too young to understand or giver her any comfort’ (8:30). As he has often done in his memoir, Guy seems to pause in his recollection and address his readers directly, telling them, ‘if you have never seen your own mother cry in deep sorrow, then I hope you never will’ (8:30). Phoebe was left to worry about Aubrey night after night, and it was not until ‘Aubrey had been taken to hospital and recovered and was able to write himself’ (8:30), that Phoebe was relived of her anxiety. After discovering that Aubrey had ‘been hit with a piece of shrapnel in the upper arm, whilst going over “the top,”’ and had ‘taken away part of his upper arm muscle’ (8:30). Finally, the family could relax, safe in the knowledge that Aubrey was safe and well.
Sadly, by the end of 1917, Phoebe had received yet another letter from the War Office, only this time, the letter concerned Russell, who had spent his 18th birthday in the trenches, fighting for his country. Once again, Guy’s mother ‘gathered [the] three children around her’ (8:31), as she tore open the letter. The words inside read, ‘we regret to inform you that your son, Private Russell Oates, is missing, believed killed’ (8:31), and at this moment, Guy states that ‘no words of [his] can express the deep sorrow, the anguish and the pain she suffered at that moment. Her grief was something [he never wanted] to see again. It was more than any human being, let alone a mother, could bear’ (8:31). At this moment, his mother did not know what she was doing, as ‘she flung out her arms, drawing [the] three children in (. . .) for the first time her spirit, her courage, her countenance, was broken’ (8:31). This trauma stayed with Phoebe for a long time, though she never gave up the hope that one day Russell would return to her. Eventually, this day arrived and once again, the Post-man handed Guy’s mother a letter, and after she had ‘fumbled trying to open the envelope’ (8:31), she read, ‘your son, Private Russell Oates is a prisoner of war, believed to be somewhere in Germany’ (8:31). At this point, she ‘did not get elated or shout with joy, she just sat down and rested, calmly, and without emotion. Her attitude to both joy and sadness had been very much the same (8:31). Eventually, as the shock wore off, she began to ask questions about Russell and his wellbeing, but sadly, even after all of her waiting, ‘all she could do now is wait. But for how long?’ (8:31). Realising his mother’s pain, Guy once more reflects and says that ‘It was the mothers of that war who suffered the mental tortures and agonies of waiting. The not knowing how their loved ones were, and those awful knocks on the door, and the tragic news they brought. They were the ones who were being hit and could not hit back, they were the ones who had to suffer the pains of waiting, the longer they waited the greater their worry’ (8:31).
With the war officially over on the 11th November 1918, the Oates family began to put their heartache behind them, and move forward together as a family. However, Guy goes on to say that, ‘just when the war clouds [had] passed away and the sun had begun to shine once more, darkness, [fell] again’ (8:35). What fell, nobody was prepared for, and though they had experienced loss before, none had affected the family, and especially Phoebe, as much as the loss of Septimus. In 1920, aged just 16, Sep was diagnosed with Tuberculosis, and despite the vigilant care of his mother and sister, the virus took him on the 29th May 1921. Unaware of the events that had unfolded at home, Guy carried on with his day-to-day life at Archbishop Holgates Grammar School (he would later discover the news in a truly cruel series of events, which are discussed, in part four of the ‘Education and Schooling’ blog). The death of Sep was ‘a terrible blow to the family, but to [Phoebe], it was almost the end. She was the one who felt his going the most, and became almost demented. She would argue with God as to why he was still tormenting her (. . .) why had he given back her three sons, only to take one now, and that one the most gentle’ (8:36). For Guy’s mother, ‘the loss was so great and the burden so heavy, she was anybody but herself’ (8:36), and though he was mourning himself, Guy wished that he had been able to console his mother, but once again, ‘[he] was unable to’ (8:36). When talking about Sep’s death, Guy is very honest and he affectionately states that while Sep alive, ‘[he] always had the feeling he was there and [he] could go to him. Now [he] got the feeling that [he] was alone’ (8:36). As his thoughts go on, he states that ‘death is final and though a terrible blow at the time, age mellows all things and one accepts and carries on’ (8:36). Although, for Phoebe, the loss was too much, and ‘to the end of her day, [she] never got over his death’ (8:36). For a family who had experienced so much loss and heartache, the death of Sep was traumatic for them. Not only was he quiet and gentle, but he was barely out of childhood, and just entering the world to make his mark and live his life. Throughout his memoir, whenever Guy talks of Sep, there is a clear tenderness to his tone, and while he insists that ‘one accepts and carries on’ (8:36), it is clear that like his mother, Guy never got over the loss of Septimus.
Guy and His Mother
While reading Guy’s memoir, it is evident that one of his biggest motivations to write, together with his successful Poor Law career, was his mother. When he talks of her bravery, her love, her pain and her loss, it is clear that Guy adored his mother, and wanted nothing more than to see her happy and proud. Through his memoir, he is able to express his remorse and affection for her, and although he was unable to do this while she was alive, he realised after her death that she was the ‘most perfect human being onto this earth’ (8:42). Expressing his regret, simply and beautifully, Guy states that ‘in life we love too little, in death we love too much’ (8:30).
If you would like to learn about Guy’s eccentric Grandfather and his Father, take a look at Home and Family – Part One.
If you have enjoyed reading about Guy’s life, you may like to explore the full collection of Guy Oates Posts.
If you would like to read some of our fellow Writing Lives students blogs, then look no further! Here are some of the posts Tasha and I enjoyed for this particular theme:
Joshua Emery: http://www.writinglives.org/uncategorized/william-wright-b-1846-home-and-family-part-1 this post is about William Wright and his relationships with his family and his hometown Alton.
http://www.writinglives.org/thomas-raymont-an-octogenarian/home-and-family-8 this blog was written by Mike Widdows about his chosen author Thomas Raymont and his fondness of his hometown.
If you are interested in reading a memoir quite different from Guys and his relationship with his family, then you should look at Danielle Hughes’ blog on John Sawyer: http://www.writinglives.org/home-and-family/john-sawyer-b-1914-home-and-family as John had a poor relationship with his family because of a combination of factors.
Oates, Guy. The Years That Are Gone.Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection Library, Vol. 1&2.
Gagnier, Regenia. ‘Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender.’ Victorian Studies 30.3 (1987): 335-363. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3828397
Rogers, Helen and Emily Cuming, ‘Revealing Fragments: Close and Distant reading of Working-Class Autobiography’, Family & Community History, 21:3 (2019): 180-201. https://doi.org/10.1080/14631180.2018.1555951
Rose, Jonathan, ‘Rereading the English Common Reader: A Preface to a History of Audiences.’ Journal of the History of Ideas. 1 (1992): 47- 70. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2709910
Savage, Mike. Social Class in the 21st Century. London: Penguin, 2015.
Vincent, David. ‘Love and Death and the Nineteenth-Century Working Class.’ Social History, 5.2 (1980): 223-247. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4284976
Strange, Julie-Marie, ‘“She Cried a Very Little”: Death, Grief and Mourning in Working-Class Culture, c. 1880-1914’, Social History, 27 2, 2002, 143-61.
Strange, Julie-Marie. Death, Grief and Poverty in Britain, c. 1870-1914. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005.
Vincent, David. ‘Love and Death and the Nineteenth-Century Working Class.’ Social History, 5.2 (1980): 223-247.
Klein, Yvonne M. 1997. Beyond the Home Front: Women’s Autobiographical Writing of the Two World Wars. New York, NY: New York UP, 1997.