‘Life-writing is intimately connected to the body and the passing of time’ (Rogers and Cuming; 2018, 185).
Ellen Cooper’s unpublished memoir is titled ‘The House Where I Grew Up’ and she handwrote it in 1993.
Ellen’s Cooper’s eight-page memoir does not fit the mould of the ‘conventional’ autobiographical form due to the nature of its brevity. This makes her memoir somewhat anomalous. However, it must be recognized that upon reading the memoir its shortness does not decrease its value.
Ellen’s memoir is tightly structured allowing her memories to flow coherently through the written word. Despite its brevity Ellen’s memoir is still as engaging and descriptive as other memoirs in The Burnett Collection. The uniqueness of Ellen’s memoir is seen her choice of developing a short narrative that traces a process of self-reflection.
One might view the form of autobiographies from The Burnett collection as fragmentary. The notion of fragmentary is used to ‘characterise writing that is considered to be incomplete, emergent and not yet accomplished’ (Rogers and Cuming; 2018, 184). Ellen’s unpublished contribution to the collection can be described as fragmented due to its brevity and its developing narrative. Ellen’s recollection of the past allows her story to flow ‘through formative moments of concentrated reality’ (Rogers and Cuming; 2018, 186). Each formative moment leads into the next as Ellen reminisces on aspects of her working-class life.
As autobiographies are personal, it is important that the author is comfortable expressing emotions. John Burnett argued that autobiographical writing is ‘the most common form of personal literary expression’ (Burnett; 1982, 1). Ellen focuses on detail and the re-telling of emotions. For example, she writes at one point that ‘quite a few tears were shed, but a good deal of laughter too’ (pg. 8). Her fragmented memoir traces her life from childhood to adulthood and concludes with a re-telling of when her family packed up their home selling most of their furniture to inhabit new homes of their own: ‘I will always remember it with great affection and sorrow too. It was the house I grew up.’ (pg. 8).
After discovering that Ellen passed away in 2000, 7 years after writing her memoir, I decided to read her work again with this in mind to discover who her intended readership was. Ellen’s reflective writing style encourages us to question if Ellen wrote her memoir with an awareness of her limited time left and therefore wrote with the purpose of recording her memoirs for the future. Perhaps Ellen wanted to put her stories and experiences into writing for her grandchildren and the future generations of her family.
Ellen tells her audience of the people who helped, loved and influenced her. She particularly focuses on her family, her husband John and her art teacher Mr Blakney. It is possible that Ellen wrote her memoir for these very people to inform them of the impact they had on her life and to express her gratitude to them.
The purpose of Ellen’s memoir is highlighted in the title ‘The House Where I Grew Up’. As stated in my Introduction post the title is mysterious as it alludes to the fact that Ellen’s family home was a fascinating place and had a huge impact on her as a person. The mysterious title prompts readers to question ‘what was so special about the house she grew up in?’
Authors of autobiographies have sometimes been viewed as self-absorbed and the genre of autobiographical writing considered egocentric. However, Gagnier states that ‘this mirror metaphor of self-absorption is a misplaced model for writers’ (Gagnier; 1987, 337). In the Burnett collection the authors’ aim is not to be egotistical but self-reflective. There is a tone of modesty throughout Ellen’s memoir reflected by her nostalgic writing style. Readers gain the sense that Ellen is glad to write her memoir and record her precious memories.
Gagnier also states that most working-class autobiographies begin ‘with an apology for their author’s ordinariness’ (Gagnier, 1987; pg. 338). But Ellen does not make an apology to her readers and her memoir begins exactly as the title implies – describing her family home.
Evidently, Ellen shares with her readers selected memories and stories which she holds dear to her. Nevertheless, despite the brevity of ‘The House Where I Grew Up’, readers can gain a sense of the loving, emotional and caring woman Ellen was.
Mrs. E. Cooper ‘The house where I grew up’, unpublished memoir, 1993, 8pp, Burnett Collection of Working Class Autobiography, Special Collections Library, Brunel University.
Burnett, John. Destiny Obscure: Autobiographies of Childhood. Allen Lane. 1982.
Gagnier, Regenia. ‘Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender.’ Victorian Studies 30.3 (1987): 335-363.
Rogers, Helen and Emily Cuming, ‘Revealing Fragments: Close and Distant reading of Working-Class Autobiography’, Family & Community History, 21:3 (2019): 180-201.