Gagnier states that ‘‘Most working-class autobiographies begin not with a family lineage or a birthdate but rather with an apology for their authors’ ordinariness…’ (Gagnier, 338)
I find this statement relevant to May Rainer’s autobiography. The memoir is titled ‘Emma’s Daughter’, which shows how difficult it was for Rainer to write the memoir as a working class woman due to the fear of egotism. Although she is Emma’s daughter, and this is her story, she did not feel significant enough to write her own name, as she only lived an ordinary life. The memoir might also be titled ‘Emma’s Daughter’ due to her pride in her mother, which we see throughout the memoir.
From the beginning of May Rainer’s memoir, it is clear that she wants her family’s history to be told. She begins the memoir by introducing her Grandfather and writing about his time during the war, often describing him as a ‘hero’. She wants his story to be heard, as he had done something extraordinary during the war and survived when not many men had done.
Her pride in her Grandfather and her ancestry is evident, and plays a significant part in her writing the memoir. ‘Because of the history I have learned over the course of my life about these relations a generation ago, about which the future descendants may never hear, I made up my mind to write as much of it down as I could gather’ (Rainer, 1) Many of the details of her ancestors’ lives had been forgotten, so she wanted to make sure that her descendants would hear about their ancestors.
Rainer claimed that she started to write the memoir so her Grandfather’s story was told. As I read the memoir it became clear that that was not true. Her Grandfather’s story plays only a very minor part in the lengthy 66,000 words memoir. The main focus of the memoir is her life from growing up in a working-class family, being unable to afford an education, to becoming a grandmother and losing her sight. She is also keen on writing about the changes she has seen happening during her lifetime with women’s rights and technology and entertainment.
Although Rainer states that she was writing so her future descendants could learn about their heritage, she admits that she had started writing the memoir as a form of therapy due to losing her sight. ‘I finally started it as occupational therapy…’ (Rainer, 7). She was no longer able to continue with her usual interests, so she wanted to do something worthwhile and write down her story, as well as her family’s. She needed to do something worthwhile and found that writing her memoir was the answer.
A recurring theme in the memoir is feminism and what it was like to be a woman living in the early 20th century. This made me think that Rainer wanted her story to be heard by more than just her family. She saw the changes that were happening for women over time, and she wanted people to understand how difficult it was to be a woman. A personal account of a woman’s life during the early 20th century offers a more vivid account of their lives. Rainer writes not only for her family, but for herself and for women during this time.
Gagnier, Regenia. ‘Social Atoms: Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender.’ Victorian Studies, 30. 3 (1987), 335-363
Rainer, May, Emma’s Daughter, May 20th 1977, Brunel University, July 1977, Vol 2. 0644
Rose, Jonathan, ‘Rereading the English Common Reader: A Preface to a History of Audiences.’ Journal of the History of Ideas. 53. 1 (1992): 47-70
Vincent, David. ‘Love and Death and the Nineteenth-Century Working Class.’ Social History, 5.2 (1980): 223-247.
Emily Pankhurst, Suffragettes Leader – http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/the-role-of-british-women-in-the-twentieth-century/suffragettes/ (02/11/2015)