My name is Maria Stebbing, a student and avid writer from the Wirral. From a young age I have been interested in history, inspired mostly by romanticism and a case of ‘Golden Age Thinking’ – the view that a different time period is better than the one we are currently living in. Although history is laden with great suffering and hardship, there is something appealing about what can appear to be a simpler life, with better morals and closer family units. Equally, my interest in history has extended to becoming focussed on my own working class ancestry (Austrian immigrants!). With this, and my passion for creative writing, much of my inspiration comes from the past. My English and Creative Writing course at Liverpool John Moores University has benefitted me with the disciplines of creative writing while expanding my knowledge of English, including much historic literature.
In researching my own ancestry, I wanted to bring a personality and voice to my ancestors. With the Writing Lives Collaborative Research Project, I could take the story of a member of the working classes and allow them to be fully published, preserving their crucial tale.
Margaret Perry was born in 1922 to a working class family in Nottingham. The brief extract about her in Destiny Obscure: Autobiographies of Childhood, Education and Family from the 1820s to the 1920s (London: Allen Lane, 1982) mentioned a few key aspects about her life, such as a violent school background, her working life, and the terrible experience of being raped. Perry was the third of four children, and her father, a chief engineer, was the breadwinner. Perry led a somewhat comfortable working class life, gaining geographical mobility and refined work through her pursuit of education. Her main work was as a clerk, and in her full autobiography, we see that she travelled with her husband during the 1950s/60s in his RAF career. She became a teacher and had two children.
In autobiographical writing, we look especially to the fascinating and sensational. Taboo subjects such as abortion, virginity, and rape, all feature in Perry’s 38-page typescript memoir, showing an unhibited, somewhat noncomformist writer. I felt that this made editing and publishing this writer all the more important as she is singular to many other writers of the era. It is intriguing, though, that Perry did not submit her memoir until the 1970s, perhaps due to the worry that these themes would be censored. Since beginning my research of Perry, I discovered that her memoir was actually an early fragment from her 2006 autobiography, Family Life in the Royal Air Force and Later (Serendipity Publishing). Modern readers of autobiographical texts always seem fascinated by taboo topics (such as in Memoirs of a Geisha, or The Secret Diary of a Call Girl), and other taboo subjects in Perry’s memoir include adultery, divorce, and alternative religions such as spiritualism.
One of my main motivations for choosing this writer was her wish to improve herself and her social position. Although this Research Project looks at working class writers, Margaret Perry represents many who would have sought to climb the social ladder. She had the belief that she could do this and overlooked obstacles and criticism to do it, even as a woman. Perry attended adult evening classes, corrected her accent and speech, and pursued older, intellectual lovers in order to learn from them and better herself. In looking at an aspirational member of the working class, we can learn varied viewpoints within this class. Perry acknowledges that there are different social levels within the working class. For example, working class colleagues mocked her improved accent, and with this, Perry recognised that she had risen slightly in her social position. Even in the writing of her memoir, Perry’s corrections to her language and the erasing of colloquialisms reflect her desire for self-improvement all the more, e.g. 'some got the strap, but to give her [added another 'her'] due, she confined this to the hands' (pp. 12). I wonder if Perry, in her determined self-improvement and perfectionism, waited until the 1970s to her write her memoir to acquire a better education first. Although I would like for all of the memoirs in the archive to be edited and published, preserving moments in working class history, I feel that Perry truly wrote for an audience and would have wanted her tale, so eloquently drafted, to be told.
Overall, with themes of family life, sexuality, and the Second World War, this memoir would appeal to many readers. The added theme of rising from a lower social position links to other nineteenth century working class memoirs such as Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes. Most importantly, the memoir is written with an engaging working class voice, making it an enjoyable and fascinating read (I couldn’t help but imagine it being in-line with a BBC period adaptation, such as Call the Midwife).
Perry, Margaret, Untitled, TS, pp.38 (c.13,000 words). Extract in J. Burnett (ed.), Destiny Obscure: Autobiographies of childhood, education and family from the 1820s to the 1920s (Allen Lane, London, 1982), pp.319-24 (2.606)
Perry, Margaret, Family Life in the Royal Air Force and Later (Serendipity Publishing, London, 2006)
McCourt, F, Angela’s Ashes (London: Harper Perennial, 2005)
Nottingham Map from http://nottstalgia.com/forums/
If you are interested in researching your own family history, take a look at the BBC Family History site to get you started:http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/familyhistory/
To look at area-specific newspapers with your searches, check out this handy site: http://airminded.org/bibliography/british-newspapers-online-1901-1950/
Here is the link to the original archive for the memoirs (along with the snippet of our writer’s lives with which we picked our memoir to study!) http://www.brunel.ac.uk/services/library/research/special-collections/collections/burnett-archive-of-working-class-autobiographies