Marion Owen (b. 1909): Purpose and Audience

‘It seems rather like the ship in the bottle, its in there, but how does one get it out?’

Map of tram routes, Brixton and south London, 1914

Marion Owen begins her memoir with a wonderful foreword including the quote used above. This quote refers to Marion’s attempts at writing a book and how she knows she has the ability to do so but just cannot seem to find the words. Thankfully, Marion was able to get the words out and write a beautiful memoir about her younger life.

Regina Gagnier argues that the majority of working-class autobiographies do not begin ‘with a family linage or birthdate but rather with an apology for their authors’ ordinariness’ (Gagnier, 1987, p. 338). The Writing Lives project is mainly focused on the lives of working-class writers but through her writing and my own research it could be suggested that Marion Owen was in fact lower middle-class. Born in 1909, she grew up in suburban Brixton, the daughter of an antique dealer, and went on to become a lampshade painter and then a commercial artist. Therefore, Marion does not conform to the expectations of working-class autobiographies as she grew up in a middle-class household.

Marion begins her memoir with an anecdote about her family. She jokes about how her father’s side have always had a ‘remarkable sense of smell’ (Owen, p.1) and this is why she has decided to divide her memoir into memories associated with specific smells. Marion also states that she believes that ‘everybody has the material inside them to write one book’ (Owen, p. 1) meaning that she does not feel like she is special for doing this, but she is not apologetic for it. Gagnier also argues that the working-class writers ‘reasons for writing are function rather than aesthetic’ (Gagnier, 1987, p. 342. But Marion does not claim any functionality to her writing such as to reflect or preserve memories. She believes that she has the ability to write a book and therefore has taken the ‘plunge’ (Owen, p. 1) to write. Marion also writes aesthetically especially in the literary devices she uses throughout, as in the ‘grass was like velvet’ (Owen, p. 35). From reading Marion’s memoir,  it seems there is no functional reason for her writing other than to appreciate the beauty within life.

I follow my nose: A potted autobiography by Marion Owen

Marion never mentions if her memoir is written for a specific person or reason. However, upon reading her writing it is clear that the narrative is shaped around her father (Owen, p. 1). Marion’s memoir begins with an anecdote about how he has helped to shape the content of the story and it ends with his death. Marion even reflects back with her present voice to admit that he was a ‘much wiser man than [she] gave him credit for’ (Owen, p. 26). This leads me to believe that the purpose of her writing was to honour her father in his death as they did not often see eye to eye during his life. Marion often states that she ‘can’t remember’ (Owen, p. 19) specific details of her memories which could suggest that she is an unreliable narrator. However, the fact that she admits to this shows that she is cautious about being as honest as possible throughout.

Phillip Lejeune argues that two reasons why somebody might choose to write a diary or autobiography is ‘to unload the weight of emotions and thoughts’ and ‘to freeze time’ (Lejeune, 2001, pp. 106-107). Owen never specifies her reasoning for writing this memoir and she also does not mention the age she is whilst writing. This is quite unusual especially considering her writing reads more like a novel than a diary or autobiography. This leads me to believe that she wanted her work to be published and read by an audience but by not mentioning her age it makes it harder for the reader to understand the purpose of her writing. Is she at the end of her life reflecting on her childhood? Or was this memoir written closely after the death of her father?

Adin, Charles Waldo; The Verandah; Manchester Art Gallery;
‘Lilac and cut grass’

Marion Owen’s narrative uses such vivid descriptions and continues the theme of smell throught the memoir. This means that her writing reads more like a novel than an autobiography as if she was intending to publish her work. Marion refers to it as a ‘book’ (Owen, p. 1) at the beginning and she divides her writing into chapters named after certain smells from her memory such as ‘Lilac and cut grass’ (Owen, p. 2) and ‘the smell of Reality’ (Owen, p. 17). It is extremely interesting that Marion chose to write about her own life given the fact that she dislikes ‘sentimental journeys’ (Owen, p. 37) as she thinks we often  ‘forget that not only do places change, we also change ourselves’ (Owen, p. 37) so it is safer to just avoid them. Despite her dislike of them, Marion went on the most significant ‘sentimental journey’ (Owen, p. 37) that a person can go on and that is writing a memoir about your life.

  • References      
  • Gagnier, Regeina. ‘Social Atoms: Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender’ Victorian Studies (Vol. 30, No. 2, 1987, pp. 335-363)  
  • Lejeune, Phillipe. ‘How Do Diaries End?’ Biography (Vol. 24, No. 1, 2001, pp. 99-112)
  • Owen, Marion. ‘I follow my nose: a potted autobiography’ Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library

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