Molly Keen Childhood Memories (1903-1921): Life Writing, Class and Identity

Regenia Gagnier identifies six different types of working-class autobiographies, the most appropriate of which in relation to Molly Keen’s ‘Childhood Memoire’ is the ‘Self-Examination’ working-class autobiography. This is due to the sadness that derives from her mother’s death, and how Molly will have written her memoire to seek closure, because throughout her childhood, unfortunately, her mother suffered from “ill health” (p.1), and thus her death seemed like it could have occurred randomly. Molly will not have been expecting her mother’s death, but will have known subconsciously that it was near, and thus will have struggled to accept it once it did occur. Molly stated, “the thing that we had dreaded in our hearts that had happened” (p.33) shows how the family had to endure the idea that it would actually occur at some point in the near future. This implies Molly will have had a constant fear throughout her childhood of her mother’s death, however she will have tried to place it in the back of her mind, as she still enjoyed her childhood and several days out with her family. Moll will have written this memoire because it will have been therapeutic for her to recount all of the good memories she will have shared with her mother and family in general, such as their days out the places such as Burnham Beeches and Kew Gardens. Molly ends her memoire as she begins her nursing career, which implies an acceptance of her mother’s death through her determination to try and prevent such suffering from affecting other families she will help to treat. Molly’s nursing career also shows her breaking away from the stereotypical working-class lifestyle of a woman during these years, which would usually involve becoming a housewife. Also, Molly exhibits the effects of the First World War on the women’s Suffragette Movement, whereby they had to take up masculine jobs in their community whilst the men fought, which provided women with an opportunity to show the government “their mettle and courage” (p.25). Maria DiBattista and Deborah Epstein Nord, believed that the suffragettes “found their trajectories toward emancipation interrupted and, as a result, many transferred their aspirations and feminist passions to the cause of national service” (p.112) which shows the effects of the war itself on Suffragette movement. However, the war did bring opportunity once it had ended, meaning Molly is thus a product of her time. Her nursing career was a common job for women who desired work, because of the injuries the war caused; whilst Molly had more incentive than others due to her beloved mother’s unfortunate death.

Kew Gardens during World War One

Also, Molly shows the self-scrutiny that Gagnier believed helps to depict the memoire as a self-examination autobiography. Molly stated, “time does heal […] it takes much longer for some than others” (p.33) which implies how she may yet have needed more time to seek closure, and how she will still have been hurting. This is similar to Gagnier’s self-examination autobiography type, as Gagnier believed there must be “unmitigated misery and hardship” (p.357) to become this type of working-class autobiography.

However, Molly’s memoire is also quite similar to the ‘Commemorative Storytellers’ type of autobiography as well, due to her descriptive detailing of her childhood involving family trips out and more joyful stories of her youth and adolescence. Whilst Molly’s life is altered by her brothers serving in the First World War, they did survive and thus did not drastically alter her life through their loss. This means Molly’s childhood and adolescence experienced little changes which provides her memoire with a nostalgic tone, leading up to the death of her mother. Her early adult life appears in line with Gagnier’s description of a commemorative storytelling autobiography, when as Molly’s memoire seems “unstructured, thematically arbitrary, [and to have] disconnected anecdotes” (p. 348) due to her fond childhood stories. Molly’s nostalgia includes stories surrounding her father’s hard-working ethic and, along with her mothers, loving manner. Molly enjoyed her childhood due to the family culture her “good, kind parents” (p.1) created. Molly mentions how she enjoys family days out, her religious upbringing and her schooling years, which enhance the idea that her memoire begins as a list of her nostalgic memories. This relates to Gagnier’s commemorative storytelling autobiography as she believed there needs to be “no distinctive autobiographical subjects apart from the continuous life of the village” (p.349), as Molly describes no real outstanding events prior to the outbreak of war, and her mother’s death. Prior to her mother’s unfortunate passing, Molly worked at a railway job which she described as “not finding work interesting or satisfying” (p.39) articulating her memory of her early adult life to be monotonous, further implying the “continuous life” (p.349) that Gagnier identifies. However, this type of working-class autobiography comes to an end with the death of her beloved mother, because it resulted in Molly starting her career as a nurse, and thus a new purpose to life.

Bibliography

Image 1 – https://www.kew.org/blogs/in-the-gardens/kew-gardens-first-world-war

DiBattista Maria, and Nord, Deborah Epstein, “At Home in the World Women Writers and Public Life, from Austen to the Present”, Princeton University Press, 2017

Gagnier, Regenia. ‘Social Atoms: Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender.’ Victorian Studies, 30. 3 (1987), 335-363

Keen, Molly, “Childhood Memories 1903-1921”, Brunel University, 1987

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