Amy Frances Gomm was born in the Oxfordshire village of Charlbury in 1899, making her the sixth out of her eight siblings. After living a long and happy life of a typical working- class girl, she sadly passed away in 1984. Although Regenia Gagnier argues that ‘working-class autobiographies… have been lacking in self-revelation’ (336) Amy’s memoir completely proves otherwise. The story that she tells and the sights and the smells that she describes takes the reader back to the early nineteenth century where her tale began. Falke’s study, Literature by the Working Class, supports this argument claiming that working-class autobiographies “are themselves fruitful objects of literary analysis and singular texts of literary worth.” Amy’s memoir Water Under the Bridge is a beautiful account of her village and family life, with reoccurring themes of tradition and customs that show the gender inequalities of the twentieth century.
To begin her memoir, Amy goes into great detail about her beloved birthplace Charlbury which she and her fellow neighbours refer to as ‘our village’. (Gomm, 1) Using her descriptive knowledge, she is able to let the reader into the olde worlde life of Charlbury as she tells us about how ‘The smell of burning hoof was always with us’(1) and how ‘Horses hooves clip-clopped noisily over them. Tradesmen carts (…) were all fully orchestrated, with metal wheel rims.’ (Gomm, 17) She makes it clear that although it may not have been the most modern of villages, this authenticity actually made it what it was for her.
The memoir focuses mainly on family life. Amy shares with us her and her sister, Laurie’s, most precious memories. By using ironic subheadings such as ‘Healthy? Wealthy? Wise?’ she is able to make light of the hardships her family endured and the difficulties working class people faced during the beginning of the 20th century. Amy’s dry and ironic humour is present throughout. She jokes about how the king, Edward VII ‘had his own problems, his subjects in rural areas had their worries too.’ (Gomm, 12) ‘He was likeable, sociable and outgoing but became known as a playboy interested in horse racing, shooting, eating, drinking and
other men’s wives.’
Talking not only of her opinions on important figures but also recalling the problems Britain faced generally as a country, such as food scarcity, low wages, unemployment and inequality, Amy expresses in an unequivocally candid yet resilient manner the struggle that the majority of the working-class people endured. She talks about being unable to ‘see beyond their next meal.’ (Gomm, 12) Because of the typically larger sized families back then, they had further to spread their resources. Amy explains that children left school around aged fourteen and were expected to get a job, however she speaks remorsefully about how ‘there was little hope there’(Gomm, 12). The small glove factory, that held less than a couple dozen of staff was the prime source for employment for those seeking work. ‘The people who were lucky enough to have such jobs, clung to them.’ (Gomm, 12)
One of the reasons that Amy was my author of choice is the interest that I have in exploring gender identity and inequality, which is something that I found Amy discusses frequently when she is reminiscing upon her life. She had made it clear that she had grown up with these ideologies of how the ‘Home was our focal point’ (Gomm, 89) and how ‘women considered themselves lucky to get the work’ (Gomm,13) so had merely accepted it. She uses the memoir as a way of discussing the patriarchal society she grew up in. She was also around for the anti-vaccination riots which then formed ‘The Anti Vaccination League and the Anti-Compulsory Vaccination League in response to the mandatory laws’
Amy’s education was clearly a major part of her life but she reveals that she did most of her learning outside of school, like many other working-class autobiographers. She openly admits that she excelled when it came to the subject of reading and enjoyed being a bit of a ‘show-off’ (Gomm, 38) It appears that Amy saw herself as a shy girl who never really had much confidence in speaking and meeting new people, like a wallflower. I feel her memoir was her way of finding the voice she always knew she had and taking us on a journey back to country and city life in the early twentieth century. ‘For too long’, Falke asserts, ‘working-class autobiographies have been either ignored or viewed as simply historical background information.’ Amy’s words illustrate an image in your head that tell a story in simply the best way possible.
Gagnier, Regenia. Social Atoms: Working Class Autobiography, Subjectivity and Gender. Indiana University Press. 1987.
Literature by the Working Class: English Autobiographies, 1820–1848 by Cassandra Falke, pg. 178
Wolfe RM, Sharpe LK. Anti-vaccinationists past and present. BMJ. 2002d;325:430-432.
Literature by the Working Class: English Autobiographies, 1820–1848 by Cassandra Falke – A review by Taryn Hakala <https://muse.jhu.edu/article/622160>
324 GOMM, Amy Frances, ‘Water Under the Bridge’, TS, pp.163 (c.55,000 words). Brunel University Library.