”We were kept practically entirely on a diet of porridge, bread and margarine, boiled rabbit and potatoes. The dormitories were unheated and I would lie awake through the nights numb with cold and desperately homesick”
Lethbridge – p.16
In 1909 when Mabel and her family first arrived in Ireland she was recuperating from a wasting disease. While her brothers Reggie and Leghe were at school Mabel was allowed to acquaint herself with the villagers. From these ‘peasants’ she learned the importance of love and friendship. Up to this point in her life it is not clear what schooling Mabel had already had. She had travelled with the family to Mombassa in 1907 to see her father and then on to Italy. Because the memoir begins at this point perhaps Mabel didn’t consider it relevant to speak about education.
Her first mention of her own schooling begins in 1911 when she was strong enough to undertake lessons from the village schoolmaster. There is no time element given only an indication that as she grew strong she was allowed to take the train into Cork where she attended St. Angela’s Convent. The school had a catholic ethos under the trusteeship of the Ursuline sisters and Mabel learned ‘with rapidity and ease’ (p.9). In 1913 her mother fell sick and Mabel was forced to attend boarding school. The night before leaving and desperate to spend time with her mother she was disappointed to be sent to bed early. The Victorian attitudes of her mother upset Mabel dreadfully and dramatically she writes of ‘the cold slate that was my heart’ (p.15)
On arrival at boarding school which Mabel doesn’t name, she made friends but noted the existence of ‘the “days” and the “boarders”’ (p.16). She goes on to say that if the boarders mixed with the days they were seen to be lowering themselves. It is at this point in the memoir that Mabel shifts her thought process back to the near future. In an almost stream of consciousness, she considered how many times in her life she had lowered herself (Savage). Her mind then jumped back to a more childlike preoccupation as she considered the dreadful food presented to them in school and how she was teased for her flat chest and unruly hair.
Reggie, her younger brother who was a boarder in a boy’s school in Cork, was allowed to visit on a Saturday and they would buy sweets together. Mabel looked forward to his visits very much ‘the dreadful loneliness was broken on Saturday’s’ (p.17). Unlike other memoirists, namely Maud Clarke and Kathleen M Lindley, Mabel’s focus was not on education – her determination from a young age was to work.
Mabel hated Sunday at the school. She tells us that they weren’t allowed to read or sew only to write letters home which would be checked by the teachers. Mabel writes nostalgically of the countryside of Ireland and how she missed the donkey and the peasants.
Ever resourceful and desperate to leave the school, Mabel sneaked letters home via the daygirls. So, when called to the headmistress’s office she was filled with terror. Mabel had stood before the head once before when she was confined to the grounds for drinking a bottle of ink. See Introduction here. As a result of Mabel’s letters home, she was taken out of boarding school and joined her mother in Ealing, London. Here she attended ‘the day school’ which she doesn’t name but on further enquiry was Haberdashers’ Aske’s School for Girls where Mabel is listed in their alumni.
- “Mabel Lethbridge, writer and the youngest person to be awarded an O.B.E. for her services in the Great War (Class of 1914)”
Autobiography is a field of literature that has undergone extensive research and while at times Mabel’s memories read like a work of fiction, Jonathan Rose considers that we must bear in mind that an auto biographer (like any other “nonfiction” writer) is liable to forget, misremember, remember selectively, embellish, invent and rearrange events in the interest of creating an engaging story. (Rose.52)
Autobiographies are the written record of the lives of working men and women. David Vincent primarily concentrates on studies undertaken between 1790 – 1850, however his observations apply to much of Mabel’s writing. More than any other forms of source material, for example historical records, autobiography has the potential to tell us not merely what happened, but the impact of an event or situation upon an actor in the past. (Vincent. P226)
Lethbridge, Mabel. Fortune Grass, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection Library, Vol.4
Rose, Jonathan. “Rereading the English Common Reader: A Preface to a History of Audiences.” Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 53, no. 1, 1992, pp. 47–70. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2709910.
Savage, Michael. Social Class in the 21st Century London: Pelican 2015
Vincent, David. “Love and Death and the Nineteenth-Century Working Class.” Social History, vol. 5, no. 2, 1980, pp. 223–247. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4284976.