What a privilege it has been to be part of Writing Lives Collaborative Research Project on Working-Class autobiography. I have been on ‘a journey’ with Mabel Lethbridge, the more I read and learned about her the more complex and intriguing she became. Fortune Grass, Mabel’s autobiography, gripped me from the outset and introduced me to Homeward Bound her third and final memoir.
It has been humbling to learn so much about the life of a woman who was so severely injured in a munitions explosion during 1917 yet unselfishly went on to help others. No wonder Mabel was honoured with the medal of the Order of the British Empire and in 1962 appeared on BBC’s TV programme ‘This is Your Life.’ I was fortunate in researching my author Mabel, not only because of her fascinating story (stories) but because there is a fair amount of information already online.
John Burnett appeared on BBC 4’s Woman’s Hour in the 1980s requesting working-class autobiography. The memoirs donated are held in an archive in the University of Brunel. Mabel died in 1968 so I can only assume Fortune Grass was donated to the archives as a result of Burnett appeal.
I feel very proud to have contributed to a highly praised public history resource such as Writing Lives. The creative aspect of blogging interests me and lends itself perfectly for scholars and the public to engage with. I had already worked on the digital based module ‘Prison Voices’ so was fortunate to hone my blogging skills writing about Mabel. By engaging with secondary source material, I have learned the importance of working class autobiography and am keen to continue my studies as a masters of research student. It has been a fascinating insight to read about studies into trauma and memory which helped me to understand Mabel’s reasons for writing. When I compare her life to other memoirists Mabel is not a typical working class writer. She was borne into aristocracy and had the privilege of class but Mabel, a progressive woman, railed against her middle class status to join the working classes.
I feel I have contributed to public history by extending and enriching the archive for any future studies. As already expressed I was fortunate to have access to a Wikipedia page dedicated to Mabel which enabled me to trace her ancestors back to 1804. I had written to Hillingdon Heritage for assistance in tracing any known descendants of Mabel, they had no new information but signposted me to Wivenhoe history society. It was pure luck that the ‘Big red Book’ website held a guest list from the TV programme which included Mabel’s grandchildren Rebecca and Jacques. It took me some time on ‘findmypast’ website but eventually I found a name I trusted to be a relative of Mabel’s. I emailed the history society with as much information as I had and was overjoyed when Mabel’s great granddaughters, Suzy Carter and Karen Dunne emailed me. Suzy has sent me family photos of Mabel which I have included in my blog and Karen, who lives in Sydney Australia, is looking forward to reading them and spreading the word of our project afar.
Social media, especially Twitter, has been the source of new interest shown in Mabel’s life. Dr Louise Raw has invited me to speak about my research and the project on her BBC radio history slot. An offer I will be taking up during summer 2019. As well as reaching outside the classroom, social media also provides a platform of support and encouragement with fellow bloggers and researchers. Working in my small group has been exciting and inspiring, I have enjoyed reading their work as well as the work shared on Twitter. It is bittersweet in saying goodbye to the module and to Mabel but I have made new contacts including Mabel’s relatives who are now in my life as a reminder of the inspirational woman- Mabel Florence Lethbridge.
Lethbridge, Mabel. Fortune Grass, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection Library, Vol.4