Mabel Florence Lethbridge (1900-1968): Purpose and Audience

To My MOTHER IN EXPLANATION

‘The years of war had left their mark on Mother. My accident had nearly broken her heart and my rebel spirit must have been a sore trial to her’(116).

In 1933 Mabel befriended publisher Geoffrey Bles who persuaded her to recount her life in autobiography. In 1934 Fortune Grass, which is dedicated ‘To my mother in explanation’, was published. The book was generally well received with good reviews leading to a follow on autobiography published two years later entitled Against The Tide.

The Observer 12th July ,1936

Fortune Grass tells the story of Mabel’s struggle to obtain her independence from middle-class society and, despite catastrophic injuries, retain her independence during the immediate post war years. The title of her follow up autobiography that begins in 1925, indicates that Mabel continued to come up against adversity. On 6th August 1936, a newspaper article in the Western Mail, Perth. Australia, reviews Against The Tide here.

Fortune Grass begins in 1915. Given that it is impossible to recall conversations verbatim, Mabel uses an intensely sincere and expressive first person voice to record reimagined dialogue. The narrative explores her fragile relationship with her mother and how she lied to her when taking the job at the munitions factory. Immediately after the terrible accident she has a profound sense of regret and implores, ‘Doctor, promise me you won’t tell mother I have lost my leg. She didn’t know I was on munitions, and she will be so angry’ (90).

Interior of Shrubland Park Hospital, Barham, Suffolk, Showing Staff and a Patient- post WW1


Mabel’s motivation to write was obviously as an explanation to her mother about the terrible accident. The aim of the memoir is to talk about the accident at the munitions factory. Sixty pages of the narrative are dedicated to the events on that terrible July day in 1917.

 Autobiography is a specific type of writing that purports to speak from the heart and is a contemplation of the self yet the resounding concern throughout Mabel’s memoir is that of her mother’s feelings. The opening quote sums up Mabel’s strength of character during her young life and the affects her rebellious spirit had on her mother. Mabel’s strong-will and progressive ideas greatly challenged her mother’s upper-class identity and during one of their many contretemps Mabel writes of her mother’s exasperation: ‘you ought to have been the boy of the family’ (42). This statement sums up the dominant attitudes towards gender in the post-war period which Mabel so forcefully railed against.

 There is no reason to believe that Mabel intended her purpose to write as a political platform. Written with sentimentality rather than didactically, she describes the circumstances leading up to the explosion in the munitions factory. She explains that due to the poor quality of the machines, many of the shells were rejected and because of this the munitions’ workers productivity bonus was effected. She writes, ‘The monkey machines had been condemned some time ago by the Ministry of Munitions’ (76). After witnessing an accident many refused to continue working in the danger zone but despite warnings and somewhat fatalistically, Mabel stubbornly continued with her work.

A Munitions Factory. Imperial War Museum.

  From upper-class boarding school to busking on the streets, her story is so sensational it almost has a fictional element to it. During her battles against the horrific injuries she suffered as a result of the munitions explosion, perhaps by writing about them she had found a way to detach herself from the awful truth of what had happened. In other words, by documenting and sharing her personal social history it is possible Mabel wrote for cathartic reasons.

Writing of working-class autobiographies, Nan Hackett comments, ‘One  can understand why literary critics have ignored these autobiographies; they appear to be simple, straightforward accounts, written by people with minimal understanding of literary devices’(Hackett.208) .The argument put forward by Hackett certainly does not apply to Mabel’s writing. It is an astonishingly open story with only the identity of Daddy, her lover, kept anonymous. At times the retelling is overly lyrical but perhaps this is due to her middle-class upbringing. Mabel is never apologetic or modest and writes a true representation of the author’s real voice.

Regenia Gagnier argues that autobiographical writing during 1880-1900s, ‘includes political activists and outcasts who were no longer concerned with impressing middle-class morality upon readers’ (Gagnier.337). It may be assumed that Mabel wrote her autobiography to explain how she defied her roots to join the working classes yet feels a sense of guilt at the worry she caused her mother.

 During the 1930s Mabel had become a prolific writer contributing to the Daily Sketch along with other popular journals and periodicals (url). Fortune Grass published in 1934 would soon be followed by Against the Tide published in 1936.Mabel’s confidence and success as an auto biographer may have helped her develop a semi-professional life as a writer. In an article written for the Daily Mail on May 17th 1938 here, four famous women give Mabel their recipe for good health. Gracie Fields, star of cinema and music hall, says cycling and swimming keeps her looking the picture of health. With the outbreak of World War 2, Gracie and Mabel went on to serve their country.


Mabel Lethbridge. “How I Keep Fit . .” Daily Mail [London, England] 17 May 1938

Bibliography:

Display Ad 10 — No Title – ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Guardian and The Observer – ProQuest Anonymous 1936, Jul 12. Display Ad 10 — No Title. The Observer (1901- 2003), 4. ISSN 00297712.

Hackett, Nan. ‘A Different Form of “Self”: Narrative Style in British Nineteenth-Century Working-class Autobiography’. 12.3 (1989): 208-226, 210)

Lethbridge, Mabel. Fortune Grass, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection Library, Vol.4

Lethbridge, Mabel. “How I Keep Fit . .” Daily Mail [London, England] 17 May 1938: 19. Daily Mail Historical Archive. Web. 12 Mar. 2019.

Regenia Gagnier Social Atoms: Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender Author(s): Source: Victorian Studies, Vol. 30, No. 3 (Spring, 1987), pp. 335-363 Published by: Indiana University Press Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/3828397 Accessed: 28-02-2019 10:33 UTC

Featured Image:

https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/mother-and-child-201586/search/keyword:mother-and-child/page/3

Images cited:

https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/a-munitions-factory-6820/view_as/grid/search/works:a-munitions-factory/page/1

https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/interior-of-shrubland-park-hospital-barham-suffolk-showing-staff-and-a-patient-133685/search/keyword:mother-and-daughter/page/7

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