Minnie Frisby (b. 1877): Purpose and Audience

Regenia Gagnier points out that many working-class writers begin their autobiographies with ‘an apology for their ordinariness’ (Gagnier, 338). However, Minnie’s Memories are unapologetic as she discusses her childhood, family life and adulthood with pride throughout her work.

Nevertheless Minnie’s desire for writing is fuelled by the lack of fulfilment she has due to her illness. In her writing, she regularly recalls how she is bedridden. The opening sentence clearly sums up her need to write,

I have been bedridden now nearly 5 years and although crippled with Arthritis and limbs and arms practically useless, my mind is very active …’ (Frisby, I:1)

Minnie writes her memoir at the age of 65, with her last written entry being December 28th 1951. There are then ‘Lines of Comfort’ added by Jean Morton. On researching Minnie further I have found that she passed away 27th December 1953 leaving £1690 15s 9d in her will, equivalent to nearly £40,000 in today’s money.

England and Wales, National Probate Calendar, (Index of Wills and Administrations, 1858-1966

It is possible that Minnie writes her memories down to consolidate them and keep them alive. It is also a distraction from the constraints of her arthritis.

Heavy reliance on childhood and early adulthood is common in working-class writing. However, Vincent argues in terms of family experience that ‘it is not what is said but rather what is not said’ (Vincent, 226). This idea lends itself to Minnie as she fails to discuss her husband or potential children. Although it is important that Minnie recognises how the ‘happy past’ is easier to live in than the ‘painful present’ (Frisby, I:1). Suggesting how she is comfortable living in the past.

The seventh child of ten, Minnie demonstrates throughout her autobiography a strong sense of family loyalty and support. She discusses how she lived with her sister after her sister was widowed. Minnie also worked in her sister’s shop to support her. She also recognises her strong relationship with her Granddad Quiney.

Rural Victorian family. Minnie had 9 other bothers and sisters.
Rural Victorian family. Minnie had 9 other bothers and sisters.

Having lived in Bromsgrove all of her life, Minnie conveys a sense of local pride and belonging through her narrative. She remembers many individuals from her childhood such as, the rivalry between her father and neighbour Mr Davenport. Her headmaster Mr Jeffs and how she was jealous of her school friend Sarah’s sportiness – something Minnie did not possess.

In the latter part of her memoir Minnie recalls the deaths of those she knew:

‘I was counting the other night those who I remembered and who have passed away since we have lived here, and counted between 90 and 100’. (Frisby, II:5)

The sheer volume of people she remembers highlights the impact they had on her life. Although Minnie does not allude to a definitive audience she regularly uses words such as ‘we’ and ‘us’ as if reverting back to herself as a child. This could be a coping mechanism as she is growing older. However, it is more likely that she is appealing to the readership of family members to keep her memories alive.

Memories is split into two books. Although she does not include chapter titles she dates her writing, allowing the reader to be aware of the nine year span of work.. The varying lengths of the instalments and periods in between the writing show how Minnie’s illness affected her daily life.

Due to Minnie’s variety of careers, Memories could appeal to many working women. She specifically discusses her dressmaking in her late teens addressing the change of fashion in her lifetime. She seems upset at the idea that fashion is losing the delicate quality she would have produced, ‘how different to some of the beautiful styles in sleeves that I used to work on’ (Frisby, II:14).

Silk Chiffon Sara Mayer Morhanger 1892. Minnie would have made dresses similar to this.
Silk Chiffon Sara Mayer Morhanger 1892. Minnie would have made dresses similar to this.

Although it is evident that Minnie is celebrating her own life, without realising Minnie celebrates the lives of many working women. By discussing her childhood and working life she recognises a range of jobs women completed.

Her mother was a housewife, farmhand, midwife and herbal healer. Minnie herself was a domestic servant, dressmaker, school teacher and shop worker. Therefore, Minnie shows the variety of jobs available in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and what was expected of them.

Gagnier recognises how working-class auto-biographers have individual reasons for writing but claims they all write for ‘functional rather than aesthetic’ purposes (Gagnier, 342). Writing her memoir allows Minnie to reflect on her life and appreciate her opportunities in terms of careers and family.

In weighing up the possible limitations of autobiography as a historical source, Vincent says, ‘What is to be feared is not so much the deterioration or misuse of memory, but a failure to make full use of its powers.’ (Vincent, 225) We cannot say this of Minnie. Although approaching the end of her life, her memory was still vibrant and alive. Through remembering her past she was able to control what she told. This was in comparison to the uncertainty of her future and the apprehension she must have felt.

 

References:

Frisby, Minnie. ‘Memories’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 1:250

Gagnier, Regenia. ‘Social Atoms: Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender.’ Victorian Studies, 30. 3 (1987), 335-363

Vincent, David, ‘Love and Death in the Nineteenth-Century Working Class’, Social History, 5:2 , (1980), pp. 223-247

Image references:

England and Wales, National Probate Calendar, (Index of Wills and Administrations, 1858-1966 (Accessed: 20/10/14)

Rural Victorian Family  (Accessed: 20/10/14)

Silk Chiffon Sara Mayer Morhanger 1892  (Accessed 20/10/14)

 

 

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *