‘PS. please forgive an old woman just having a little talk with you’ (pg. 22)
Mary’s memoir is in the style of autobiographical letters. The recipient was Dr John Burnett of the University of Brunel. After appearing on Radio 4’s Woman’s hour in the late 1970’s, Dr Burnett appealed for working-class experiences and stories to which Mary responded. This is shown as Mary writes, ‘Dear Sir, after hearing your talk on Saturday June 7th on W Hour at 8 o’clock & asking for history of the early life of the working class. I wondered if my story would be the sort of material you are wanting?’(pg. 26). I found this extremely interesting that Mary wrote her memoir not as a dedication to a family member, but instead as a response to a radio appeal, and a way to help Dr Burnett with his book on the working class. This is mentioned a few times within Mary’s letters as she talks about the progress and publication of Burnett’s book: ‘hope the book will be a great success & that I shall still be around when it is finished’ (pg. 21). Unfortunately, Mary died before the book was published, but Mary’s memoir is included and has allowed people like myself to understand the experiences of the working class better.
Whilst Mary wrote to Dr Burnett as a way of supplying him with evidence of working class life in the early twentieth century, there are often times within her letters where Mary doubts her story’s worth and apologises for her writing. Mary writes, ‘Forgive me if I am being a bit of a nuisance’ (pg.30) and also at the end of one her letters says, ‘please forgive an old woman just having a talk with you’ (pg.21). As Regina Gagnier notes, ‘Most working-class autobiographies begin not with a family lineage or a birthdate but rather with an apology for their authors’ ordinariness’ (Gagnier, 1987, 338). This is evident in Mary’s writing as her letters to Dr Burnett begin with her saying her story may be of ‘no use’ (pg.26).
It becomes clear through the amount of letters exchanged between the two however, that Burnett was very interested in her story and wanted her to expand on these tales of her family and own life. This is particularly clear as Mary writes, ‘Thank you for your very kind letter & I’ll try and write a bit more of my own experiences & my family’ (pg. 5). I have been researching and trying to find Dr Burnett’s letters to Mary but as to date, have had no luck. However through the above quote I believe Burnett was extremely interested in Mary’s life and wanted her to write about her family life, work life and her personal response to being part of a working class generation.
Mary’s memoir may have been prompted by Dr Burnett’s appeal, however as I read further into her letters, it becomes clear that Mary’s writing becomes a way in which she can both reconnect with her past and the family members she has lost. Whilst Mary does not dedicate her memoir to any particular family member, she does say that writing has allowed her to ‘to pay tribute to my mother for all she did to find the rest of my grandfather’s family’ (pg.32). Mary also describes her joy in being able to tell the stories of her family that otherwise may be lost or forgotten, particularly the stories of her grandfather and father. Mary writes, ‘Id often wished I could tell the story of my grandfather and my father’s wonderful conversion’ (pg.32). Writing to Dr Burnett, it becomes clear that Mary was able to use this opportunity in order to tell these stories. By writing down these stories of her family, Mary uses her memoir as a way to bring her family back to life in a way, and show that their experiences and memories are far from forgotten, reinforced as she says that her letters allow her to feel, ‘almost as if the family were here with me’ (pg. 27).
In some respects, the letters could be seen as diary entries. This is down to the nature of Mary’s writing as it shows a stream of consciousness as opposed to an ordered version of events. This is shown through both the jumbled order of the letter entries and also through Mary’s writing style. She uses long sentences and continually uses
'&‘ which suggests that she is writing down the idea as soon as it pops into her head. The long sentences reflect this stream of consciousness and show that Mary’s writing style was quite informal: ‘Thank you very much for your very nice letter in answer to mine & the talk of my furniture being made in Nottingham & your family connection with Lawrence’s, it made me take another look at my home & especially the dining table’ (pg. 19). As Burnett notes in his book, ‘Authors write as they spoke, punctuation is disregarded, syntax is owed nothing to the grammar books, and spelling is determined by the accents in which the author conversed with his family and neighbours’ (Burnett, 1987, 14). This is particularly evident within Mary’s writing. She spells the word ‘through’ as ‘thro’ (pg.30) and often disregards punctuation in favour of ‘&’, meaning ‘etc’. As Mary writes in a conversational tone, the memoir really speaks to the reader and we are able to get a sense of Mary’s true character.
The way in which Mary’s memoir struck me the most was its purpose in order to combat her loneliness. Mary writes, ‘I have never tried to do anything like this before, but I feel I have just been talking to someone & as I live alone even this has been like having company’ (pg.27). Through the exchanged letters, Mary was able to make a friend out of Burnett, even gifting him a rug and describing them as possible relatives. She connects with Burnett in particular through their mutual knowledge of Nottingham, noted as she tells him about her old furniture.
Mary ends her memoir by saying, ‘it is very strange but altho we have never met I feel I know you very well. so if you should care to come this way anytime there would always be a cup of tea’ (pg. 35), This final message to Dr Burnett not only reiterates how her memoir allowed her to create a new friendship and feel less lonely, but also provides a sense of Mary’s welcoming character. I hope to soon find Dr Burnett’s letters to Mary in order to fully gage their relationship and put the full picture together of the letters that gave Mary such comfort and joy.
Burnett, John, David Vincent and David Mayall, eds. The Autobiography of The Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography 1790-1945, 3 vols. Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989
Gagnier, Regenia. ‘Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender’ Victorian Studies, Vol. 30, No. 3 (spring, 1987), pp. 335-363
1: 719 TRIGGLE, Mary Laura, Series of autobiographical letters, MS, pp.25 (c.4,000 words). BruneI University Library.