When Alice Maud Chase wrote her down to earth, honest, autobiography for her grandchildren, in particular Cynthia Hayden, the second eldest of her daughter Christine’s three children, did she expect it to be published fifty-four years later? Probably not. Her roller-coaster memoir (due to its peaks and troughs of happiness and sadness) was completed on January 20th 1961, seven years prior to her death in 1968. Was the nearing of the end of her life a possible motive for her sudden desire to write her autobiography? Most probably – and who can blame her!
Alice Maud Chase, was not dissimilar to other working-class autobiographers of the period. She wanted to modestly record her life, her children’s life, and the significant events of her life for her grandchildren. Why Cynthia Hayden in particular? She never explains, – Maybe Cynthia showed more interest in her life than her other grandchildren, maybe she was the eldest of all her grandchildren or perhaps she just wanted a reason to write her life story? Nevertheless Alice’s writing style suggests that she wanted to teach her grandchildren to be grateful for the social reforms implemented by the liberals after The Great War of 1914-18. It is here that, as readers, we gain a sense of her persuasive, independent, strong minded persona.
Mrs Chase is without a doubt, a strict liberalist and Christian who implies that her grandchildren should follow in her footsteps. ‘Of that great Liberal Government and all the good it did there is no room to tell… Now I have said enough to prove to you that loud-mouthed Socialists are only building their flimsy reputations on the solid, good foundations laid down by good Liberals’ (p.54). You would not want to argue otherwise with such a determined lady! She also seems to have feared that the younger generation were ignorant of religion, exclaiming; ‘instead of our Lord’s command to “do unto others as you would like them to do to you” there is a general tendency to “do or you will be done”…The young parents of today are fearfully ignorant of the “Moral Law”’ (p.54-55). Mrs Chase appears to be aware that with old age on her side she is able to get away with saying what she and others are thinking!
However, while her audience is made clear her purpose is somewhat blurred. It is implied that her grandchildren should follow suit in terms of Christianity and political persuasion, and she preaches on the key to happiness and boredom: ‘in all my eighty years, I have never been bored. I have always found something interesting to see, to hear, to say and to do. Boredom comes from within a person and is a sign of a listless and unenterprising mind’ (p.47). Alice Chase, equipped with wisdom and determination, forces her moral homilies upon her grandchildren. And what harm can it do – it actually appears to be a very wise and sensible way of looking at life!
Alice’s target audience – being her grandchildren – possibly reflects her easy, simple, narrative reading style and comical tone throughout. However, she also explains how she could always read and recite better than she could write; ‘[I] could have taken an oral examination with ease, but I could not have written it down’ (p.21). Mrs Chase appears to write honestly and accurately. The only issue she appears to skirt around is World War II, but this is possibly because it does not directly affect her and her husband in the same way The Great War did. Rather the Second World War annoys her, as her husband is made to work an extra five years, postponing their retirement plans. Maybe a further note should be added here regarding her three children. Alice somewhat oddly omits her daughter Christine and her only son James from her memoir but, talks in depth about May, her youngest child and auntie to Cynthia. Her reason for Christine’s exclusion is explained as follows; ‘she can tell you a lot more about herself and her childhood than I can. So ask her’ (p.41). Probably we will never know if she was being ironic. Her exclusion of James is never brought up. While her desire to omit Christine seems fairly plausible, her silence surrounding her only son James possibly has deeper roots – maybe a family feud, a disliking of his wife Florence Stacy? One can only ponder!
Alice’s motivations are not dissimilar to many working class autobiographers. She modestly states towards the end of her memoir; ‘this little account of a dull life of an insignificant person will perhaps keep my memory green, for as long as there is one person interested enough to read it’ (p.47). Does she, like many working class people of the Victorian era, see autobiographical writing as egotistical? Does she attempt to divert her own memoir from this charge by modestly announcing this? Interestingly, this announcement is at the end of her memoir, implying Alice did want people to read it and furthermore, having read it not to view her as an ‘insignificant person’ (p.47). It is a very ordinary account, of a very ordinary life, of a very ordinary woman, which underpins the values of her working-class background, her political persuasion, her loyalty to Christianity and the necessity to work, but remain content. What else can you ask for other than a contented life?
Image: Title of Alice Maud Chase’s Memoir, her memoir can be found at – http://www.brunel.ac.uk/services/library/research/special-collections/collections/burnett-archive-of-working-class-autobiographies