Norah Brain (1907-1987): Home & Family

From the very beginning of Norah’s memoir (1914) we are told that she is from a very large family. ‘My first crime was being born too soon after my brother, the second, was to be born a girl, followed too soon by other brothers in rapid succession.’ (2) Family can be seen to be important in the memoir evidenced by the fact Norah has so many siblings and within the memoir more are born! However, Norah cannot understand why her mother wants so many children:

‘my first sister had arrived by now & she was five months old. I was eleven & could not understand why my mother wanted so many children- she was a very sweet baby & always attracted people & they made a great of her, I had no feeling much one way or another it was just another baby to look after.’ (7-8)

From  Norah’s comment we can interpret that having siblings meant more work for Norah and that money was  scarce.  Norah expresses the lack of love given to her by her mother: ‘ I can never remember her taking me in her arms and kissing me- she kept us clean & fed & that was that.’ (3) Norah’s memoir explores  gender relations. We get the feeling that Norah’s father was at the very head of the family and  when he went to war the family structure  fell apart. ‘ [..] the older children watched over the younger ones. Life was reasonable – that was until a letter came from somewhere in France.’ (4) Norah explains that when her father was away at war they had money for the bare minimum. ‘ [..] life was never the same again, money was short- the away allowance left nothing for luxuries in fact, it was not adequate for living on.’ (5) From reading Norah’s memoir the emphasis is without a doubt put on the father being the head of the family.

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Norah’s family life was extremely different from family life today. Norah left school aged eleven in 1918 and left her family in order to work. ‘ I was only 11 & should be at school but [ one word illegible] was doing a womans work.’ (55)  In relation to her home life Norah was a cost and had to earn her keep and grow up quick, as throughout the memoir she often potato picks and hunts.

Norah’s life in her own home is unsettling. Firstly the family uproots from England to the Irish village of Kilkishen where her father is from. Norah expresses this move as undesirable:’ [..] that was where the nightmare began.'(9)  Throughout Norah’s time in Ireland she is  shifted between homes and is not always staying with her mother , father and siblings. When the family first arrive to Kilkishen they do not have a house and have to stay with Norah’s Grandma. Unfortunately Norah cannot stay there due to the size of her family and has to move in with a family friend.  Norah writes:

‘ A few days after our arrival at the farm Grandma told Pa to send me to Delia as there was no room for me there & Delia had two girls, she not only had 2 girls & five boys of her own but a stepson & a boy from an orphanage.’ (31)

Reading this is quite shocking to think that Norah was only eleven , being separated from her family living with a woman that she doesn’t know. However Norah only expresses the fun that she had at ‘Mam’s’ (Delia’s) house and we sense a real loving relationship between Mam and Norah.  Throughout the memoir Norah is sent away from her family when she leaves for work, which is often looking after children for other families. It is only later in the memoir that Norah’s father gets a house. However the way he got the house is quite brutal, as Norah states:

‘ My father had acquired a house, the “jac” has died, uncle Mick had gone with him the night of his death, they took a hatchet with them smashed a window & taken possession.’ (48)

Norah’s family and life to the reader can be seen as unsettling and sad. Norah never really expresses her sadness, she just  describes events that happened.  Norah does not tell us  her siblings names which could suggest that she took note of writing conventions at the time she wrote her memoir, as David Vincent suggests in ‘Love and Death and the Nineteenth-Century Working Class’ (223-247). However she does put her mother and father at the top of the family hierarchy, suggesting that the home and family was an important aspect of Norah’s life.

Picture Reference: http://www.bl.uk/learning/timeline/item107535.html

Further Reading:  Burnett, John ed. Destiny Obscure: Autobiographies of Childhood, Education, and Family
from the1820s to the 1920s.
London:
Alan Lane, 1982.

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