Kathleen focuses solely on her childhood within her memoir. Not only is her childhood profoundly different to ours today in terms of the cultures and experiences she has had, it is also greatly different to her fellow Writing Lives auto biographers as she experienced a privileged upbringing involving servants. Despite not speaking about her own experiences of life and labour I felt it would be interesting to explore Kathleen’s first-hand experiences of living a life with servants in the twentieth century and the relationships between her family and their help.
Being a part of the army and successfully climbing through the ranks allowed Kathleen’s family to better their social position. This progression also came with great reward in terms of the experiences and privilege they could now become accustomed to. Mike Savage states, ‘Goldthorpe’s core argument was that from the middle decades of the twentieth century there was a considerable rise in upward mobility’ (p190). Supporting Savage’s argument is Kathleen’s family’s situation, in that they experienced this growth in upward mobility. Kathleen describes how the army provided its families with servants and big homes at each post to support them, and her father’s decision to stray from family tradition and join the army most definitely paid off as it allowed her family much greater experiences.
Kathleen shares her relationship with her first servant Amah in her opening chapter, this relationship is one of great fondness as Kathleen recalls some years later, ‘I can still recall the dry, rustly feel of Amah’s fingers on my cheeks’ (p1), Kathleen’s ability to still remember this touch suggests Amah played an important role in her early years. The relationship between Amah and Kathleen has the tender qualities of a family relationship as opposed to that of a servant and master, and this respect for Amah is further reinforced as Kathleen discusses her parents’ responses to Amah. ‘Amah lived in a tiny house just across the yard, we were not really supposed to go there, probably because my parents thought she was entitled to some privacy’ (p1), Kathleen’s parents demonstrate a respect for Amah through their wishes to allow her space and privacy something they wish their children to uphold.
The relationship with Amah suggests that although Kathleen’s family had the privilege of help, they do not abuse it as many would assume, the relationship is one of respect and fondness, however this relationship is contrasted by the servants Kathleen’s family later had in India. Kathleen’s parents responses and reactions to the servants they have in India is one of hostility and contempt as they question just how much they can trust their staff.
‘My mother could not get used to not trusting the servants. She thought it was unworthy to lock up everything like sugar, tea, groceries etc. At first she locked up nothing, thinking that her trust in them would be justified, but sadly the pilfering that went on was such that she was forced to put everything under lock and key.’ (p56)
Kathleen’s mother wanted desperately to experience once again the trusting, respectful and loving relationship her family had had with Amah in Hong Kong, but sadly in India this was unachievable as she struggled to trust the staff she acquired. Kathleen suggests that her mother’s good nature meant she constantly wanted to trust the servants in her home however their actions prevented this.
‘A time to be born’ provides a first-hand account of life with colonial servants and the relationships that developed, as a working-class family who had successfully climbed the social ladder, it appears Kathleen’s family were eager to remember their humble beginnings through their treatment of their staff. Choosing to respect and treat their staff as much as possible.
Lindley, Kathleen M: ‘A time to be born’ Typescript. 98pp 1976, Brunel University Library.
Savage, Mike: ‘Social Class in the 21st Century. Pelican, 2015.
; A Servant Serves Food from a Degchi (Pot), While Two Other Dishes Are Heated on the Fire; Wellcome Collection; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/a-servant-serves-food-from-a-degchi-pot-while-two-other-dishes-are-heated-on-the-fire-242461