David Vincent writes that ‘there was a sense in which autobiographers found themselves unable to write easily about their family life, or felt that they ought not to refer to some aspects of it….’ (1980, 229). However, this is not the case where Martha’s memoir ‘The Ups and Downs of Life’ is concerned.
In the first page of her memoir, she states that she was the ‘eldest of ten children, 3 boys and 7 girls’ (the family was the result of her father’s second marriage).
It is interesting how Martha speaks about her parents. Regarding her mother, Martha suggests that ‘a more meek and lovable woman than her could not have been found’ and that (despite her troubles) ‘she never seemed to get worried or upset’ (p.1). In contrast, Martha describes her father as ‘hasty tempered’. These differing personalities meant that her parents’ relationship was sometimes under strain as her father would ‘speak sharp’ to her mother and Martha goes on to say, ‘But you would perhaps see a tear’. But Martha also notes, ‘then you would see a hugging match and it would be all over in a few minutes’ (p.2).
Though he was ‘hasty tempered’, Martha speaks highly of her father, as she says ‘And to me he always seemed perfect. And all us children loved him’ (p.2). The inclusion of ‘to me’ in her narrative, according to Julie-Marie Strange, is significant as ‘authors who introduced ‘to me’ meanings into acknowledgement of their father’s ordinariness conceded the unexceptional quality of working men but, simultaneously, asserted individual agency by suggesting the specificity of paternal ties’ (2015, 29). Though he may have possessed a temper, and treated her mother and half-brother Will terribly at times, Martha is incredibly close to her father and states that she ‘took after’ him in terms of her ‘independent’ and ‘proud spirit’ (p.4).
As I mentioned previously, Martha was the eldest of ten children and so she spent a lot of her time caring for her younger siblings, reflecting how working-class girls were expected to look after children whilst boys were able to go to school or seek paid employment. She describes caring for her siblings with humour in her memoir:
‘But I have never liked nursing kids. Often I would put them on the floor and run out of the House and so I guess that is why I have kept clear of them so much all my life’ (p.38-39).
Home and family is a prominent theme of Martha’s memoir and it is only when she turns 15 that she leaves these things behind. Whilst she has positive and, sometimes amusing times (for example, the incident where she and her brother assumed a drunk man was following them home), Martha’s family life is not without its hardships. Her family are poor and she experiences the death of three of her siblings; she recalls the death of her sister Hannah and Emma and writes about how school children came to see the body of her half-brother Will after he died.
In Part Two of my ‘Home and Family’ posts, I will talk about the various places where Martha lived and provide you with a glimpse into the Martin family’s lives. I hope you have started to feel ‘at home’ reading about Martha’s life…I know I have.
Martin, Martha. ‘The Ups and Downs of Life’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection Library 1:499
Strange, Julie M. Fatherhood and the British Working Class 1865-1914. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2014.
Vincent, David. “Love and Death and the Nineteenth Century Working Class” Social History, vol 5. no 2, 1980 www.jstor.org/stable/4284976.