In 1974, social historian John Burnett appealed to the working-class authors of the nation on BBC’s Woman’s Hour to send him their memoirs for his study on a form of literature that had not been widely researched before. It is this broadcast that I believe first prompted Maud Matilda Clarke (née Mills, 1887-1982) to pen the dearest moments of her own life. Although Maud never explicitly expresses her reasons for writing her autobiography, her delivery and tone suggest to me that it was meant primarily for her grandsons and any other future descendants of hers.
I suspect Maud never intended for her memoir to be published at all as she never gave her work a name. It simply goes by the heading ‘Untitled’ in John Burnett’s collection. She was writing in 1978, 4 years before the end of her life. Her husband, Nehemiah Clarke (1882-c.1965) had died over a decade previously, so she had likely been living alone for several years when she finally decided to share the story of her early life in an old exercise book.
Quite simply, Maud might have been using her unusually articulate skills (Rose) to go on a journey of self-understanding (Gagnier) and reflection.
It is unclear at times who she is addressing, she rarely mentions the names of members of her family, as if she expects the reader to know them, or perhaps because she doesn’t see it as being as important as the stories she is telling.
There is a particular focus on her childhood and early working life, probably because she knows that her experiences have become lost with time. This is why she puts particular emphasis on describing tasks such as washing clothes in such detail: “Early in the morning the huge copper boiler is filled with water, and a coal fire is built in the furnace underneath. When the water is hot enough it is taken by bucket, and put into the mading tub Soap-powder (no detergent then) is added. The dirty linen is either punched with a made or swivelled with a dolly” (45).
The absence of most traumatic events, such as World War One and Two, lends itself to the theory that Maud wished to reflect only on the events that had shaped her early life. (See my post on War and Memory for more detail on what else Maud omits from her memoir.) The happiest period of her life appears to be her school days and when she first began teaching as a teenager. (See my Education and Schooling posts on Childhood and Teaching.) She would have been aware of how different the systems in place were as she grew older; her daughter, Phyllis Clarke (b. 1920) had taken after her and was a headteacher in 1978 which Maud mentions proudly.
Particularly intriguing to me is Maud’s inclusion of photographs, newspaper clippings and a fabric swatch (above). Her scrapbook style memoir is extremely creative, showing artistic flair (Hewitt), and, although most images do not appear to be placed alongside relevant parts of the narrative, there are stories behind each scrap she includes. This photograph for example (left), is of her little sister Dora Mills (b. 1893) at about 18. Since Maud does not include any pictures of herself and I have not been able to accurately trace any living relatives, as of yet, who might have early photographs of her, this is the closest representation we have of what Maud might have looked like as a young woman.
Ellen Gruber Garvey suggests that scrapbooks display material in a deliberate arrangement, so perhaps like her stream of consciousness style of writing, Maud included the images she chose wherever she deemed them most suitable. However, since I do not believe that Maud created her memoir for a public audience, she might not have minded where the images went, so long as they were there.
It is a shame that the quality of the images has been compromised somewhat with the photocopied version that we have; I hope somewhere the original copy still shows all the colour and glory of her parent’s bed material and the scratchings of her sketches.
Clarke, Maud. ‘Untitled’. Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 156, available at http://bura.brunel.ac.uk/handle/2438/9479
‘Maud Clarke’ in John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall (eds) The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography1790-1945, 3 vols. (Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989): 156
Gagnier, Regenia. ‘Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender.’ Victorian Studies. 30.3 (1987): 335-363. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3828397 (Links to an external site.)
Garvey, Ellen Gruber. ‘Scrapbook as Archive, Scrapbooks in Archives’. Writing with Scissors: American Scrapbooks from the Civil War to the Harlem Renaissance. (2013), 1-34. file:///C:/Users/Invate/Downloads/Gruber%20Garvey%20-%20Scrapbooks.pdf
Hewitt, Martin. ‘Diary, Autobiography and the Practice of Life History’. Life Writing and Victorian Culture. Ed. David Amigoni. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006. 21-39.
Rose, Jonathan, ‘Rereading the English Common Reader: A Preface to a History of Audiences.’ Journal of the History of Ideas. 1 (1992): 47-70. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2709910 (Links to an external site.)