The main focus of Norah Fearon Knight’s memoir ‘Nostalgia’ is undoubtedly her family and home life during her childhood. ‘Our family counting mother & father’, she tells, ‘numbered thirteen. I was the proud possessor of six brothers & four sisters, all of whom I love most dearly’ and proud she was indeed (2-3). Whilst David Vincent argues that working-class autobiographers lack emotional vocabulary, this is certainly not true in Norah’s case (1980, 227). She sings the praises of her family throughout her memoir, not a bad word to say about any of them, and in the concluding paragraphs expresses ‘the sorrow and deep feeling of loss’ that came with the passing of her father and several siblings (70).
‘Without my brothers & sisters, I don’t think I would have had a childhood worth remembering’ (9)
Norah’s fondness of her ten siblings can be seen from her decision to offer a short biography of each of them in the opening pages of ‘Nostalgia’, which you can read in my transcription of the memoir (pages 2-9). These pages briefly outline significant events in each of her siblings’ lives such as: marriages, having children, jobs held and moving to different places, as well as discussing their personal qualities and attributes.
Norah’s decision to provide such details about each and every one of her siblings in her memoir highlights their importance to her and could be seen as her way of ensuring their lives, loves and losses are never forgotten and that there is a permanent, everlasting record of them in her writing. She explains how: ‘It is said that the older children always bully the younger ones but it was never so with us & we would turn on any stranger who might say anything detrimental of any one of us’ and through her siblings playing such a part in ‘Nostalgia’, that same family unity and togetherness is seen (39). More can be learnt about the lives of the Fearon siblings here, as I have created a family tree for Norah on Ancestry.co.uk.
Norah’s adoration for her family did not end at her siblings – in ‘Nostalgia’ she talks of both her parents with much love and warmth also. Her mother was born Amy Cawthorn in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne in 1869 and married Norah’s father, Joseph, in 1891. Norah presents her mother as ever present and caring, for example explaining how: ‘mother was always there to dry our tears’ (29) and demonstrates her mother’s selfless, generous nature, telling of how she ‘offered all the family’ her favourite sweet, meaning that by the time everyone had taken some, ‘there could not have been much for her’ (2).
In the copy of ‘Nostalgia’ held by Brunel’s Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, the first page is extremely faded and so illegible. However, I have been fortunate enough to get in touch with Norah’s son Gordon through Ancestry.co.uk and he kindly sent me a clear version of the first page of ‘Nostalgia’. On this opening page, Norah establishes her mother in the housewife role, carrying out domestic, unpaid labour. She pictures her: ‘standing over the kitchen fire, tasting the stew’ and ‘bending over the sewing machine, making dresses for Kathleen and me’ and remembers how ‘her table linen was always perfect’ (1). This traditional, highly gendered role was very typical of mothers during the 1910s, Sonya O. Rose explaining how: ‘the belief that individual women were responsible for social reproduction, by which I mean childbearing and caring for family members on a daily basis, was enshrined in law as well as in local custom’ (1992, 76), only 10% of married women in 1911 being in some form of paid work (1992, 80).
However, it was not just Norah’s mother and the female members of the Fearon household who found themselves participating in housework. Joanna Bourke talks of ‘masculine forms of housework’ being carried out by working class men during the early 20th century and we see this in ‘Nostalgia’ (1994, 81). For example, Norah explains how when it came to chores such as cleaning the silverware, ‘the boys had to do the knives, (it wasn’t considered a job for girls)’ (40) and ‘the boys took it in turns to clean dad’s boots & leggings’ (11).
Norah speaks of her father with just as much affection and admiration as she does her mother. Yet, this affection is presented through her recollections of games they played together and memories shared, rather than outright statements. She tells how ‘he used to put us through our own drill, we had imaginary rifles’ (11) and how ‘Dad was a great one at giving us nicknames’ (35). Julie-Marie Strange explains how working class autobiographers tend to ‘signal their affectionate relationship with their father by talking about the things he did for them’ and this is definitely the case with Norah, revealing her father’s playful and fun loving characteristics for these anecdotes (2015).
Norah’s father Joseph Fearon, born in 1855, ‘fifteen years older than mother’ as she states, had been a soldier and served in the Boer war (10). Through Ancestry.co.uk, I was able to find Joseph’s military documents, detailing information such as a physical description of him and religious details. After Joseph’s passing in 1922 of chronic bronchitis, Amy Fearon (Norah’s mother) went on to remarry John William Keenan. However, Norah’s son Gordon informed me that despite this, Amy and Joseph were buried together and he has since erected a headstone.
Norah’s talk of playing games is not just limited to those she played with her father. She offers many anecdotes throughout ‘Nostalgia’ of games played with different members of her family. For example, she reminisces about a personal favourite game played with her siblings, called “The Family Coach” (17). She also discusses occasions where practical jokes were played by her brothers causing the house to ‘always be full of chatter and laughter’ (33). It could be said that through sharing these anecdotal accounts of memorable pranks, jokes and games within her memoir, Norah demonstrates the close bond she had with her family, how much they enjoyed and valued each others’ company and just how well they all got along. Here is an example of just one of Norah’s accounts of beloved brother George making the family laugh:
‘One day we heard such a clatter at the front door, someone was doing a good imitation of a motor-bike revving up – next thing we knew, was, George coming along the lobby, pip-pipping & burr-burring & when he came into the kitchen, he had his cap turned round, so that the peak was at the back, he was crouching down, as if on a bike, & continuing to make the sound of the engine, he tipped his hand to his cap, in way of salute to us, turned his “bike” round in the kitchen & went out again! Mother laughed until her sides ached.’ p.32
Julie-Marie Strange’s argument that ‘the complex dynamics of laughing at or with others is integral to telling stories of who we are, what matters to us and how we relate to others’ (2015, 176) supports this idea that Norah uses anecdotes of laughter to show what mattered to her growing up – time spent with her family and having fun. In her own words, ‘Nostalgia’ tells the story of ‘one family who lived and loved and found a lot of joy in just belonging to each other’ (73)
Alike with her discussion of her family, Norah talks of the house she spent her childhood in with great pride. With this in mind, it would be doing Norah’s wonderful memoir a disservice to not give the home she grew up in and loved so very much a post of its own. Keep an eye out for the second of this two part ‘Home & Family’ installment: an insight into life at number 4 Grosvenor Road during the 1910’s!
2:457 KNIGHT, Norah Fearon, ‘Nostalgia’, MS, pp.73 (c. 10,000 words). BruneI University Library.
Fearon, Norah. Nostalgia. (1964) Unpublished Memoir: Brunel University Special Collection
Bourke, Joanna. Working-Class Cultures in Britain 1890-1960: Gender, Class and Ethnicity. London: Routledge, 1994.
Rose, Sonya O. Limited Livelihoods : Gender and Class in Nineteenth-century England. California: University of California Press, 1992.
Strange, Julie-Marie. Fatherhood and the British Working Class, 1865-1914. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 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)
Image 1 – Family portrait of youngest Fearon siblings. Retrieved from Ancestry.co.uk
Image 2 – Portrait of Kathleen Fearon, Norah’s sister. Retrieved from Ancestry.co.uk
Image 3 – Portrait of Joseph Fearon, Norah’s Father. Retrieved from Ancestry.co.uk
Image 4 – The gravestone of Amy and Joseph Fearon. Courtesy of Gordon Knight, Norah’s son.
Image 5 – Joseph Fearon’s Royal Northern Reserves Enlistment Description paper. Retrieved from Ancestry.co.uk
Image 6 – Photoraph of Amy Fearon and John William Keenan. Retrieved from Ancestry.co.uk
*Disclaimer: All images and photographs used with permission from either Norah’s son Gordon or Norah’s great nephew David. Thank you so much to both!*