At first glance, RM Downer’s autobiography seems to have been written out of a sense of nostalgia. The title, ‘A Bygone Age’, suggests that she was looking back fondly on a world that no longer exists. RM Downer says, ‘I am now nearly 88 years old and have lost my husband after 64 years of happy marriage’ (p30), meaning that the memoir was written circa 1972. This statement indicates that RM Downer is writing with the attitude of someone approaching the end of their life, wishing to look back on happy memories with loved ones. However, only a small portion of her memoir is dedicated to this theme, and so it appears that her intentions when writing were more complex.
It is common to see an apologetic undertone in working-class autobiography. As Regenia Gagnier observes in ‘Social Atoms: Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender’, many of these autobiographers include a passage that attempts to ‘justify themselves as writers worthy of the attention of others’ and ‘an apology for their authors’ ordinariness’ (Gagnier, p338). However, RM Downer does not follow this trend. In fact, she does not acknowledge the act of writing at all in her memoir, and gives the reader no insight into her reasons for doing so. This shows her confidence in her identity and self-expression.
RM Downer begins with the line, ‘I started my career as a Dressmaker after nearly three years Apprenticeship’ (p1). Beginning at the age of 17, rather than talking about her early childhood, shows that RM Downer’s priority in writing her memoir is to talk about her career and to give the reader insight into her role as a dressmaker, as opposed to her role as a mother or wife. This is reinforced by the final passage. RM Downer’s memoir is written on a typewriter but at the end she includes a handwritten note. It appears that it was something that only occurred to her after she finished writing, and she thought it was too important to not be included. In this note, she tells the reader about her working hours and pay, because it ‘might be of interest’ (p31). Clearly, she expected her audience to be reading her memoir in order to learn about her occupation, rather than her personal life.
It is difficult to say what kind of audience RM Downer was writing for. She frequently censors the names of her friends and employers. For example, she speaks about ‘Madame’ (p3), ‘The General’s wife’ (p4), and ‘Mrs K’ (p16). It is possible that she did not use names in order to protect her client’s privacy. RM Downer implies that many of the women she made dresses for were in the public eye. One of the first dresses RM Downer talks about was a wedding dress for a lady ‘who was to be married to a famous literary critic’ (p1). Later, another dress is made for the future wife of a millionaire (p7). This implies that RM Downer was writing for a public audience because in a private setting discretion would not be as important.
I think it is most likely that RM Downer was writing to preserve the techniques and traditions of being a dressmaker. By the time she was writing her memoir, dressmaking was a less common profession, and had become a part of a ‘bygone age’. This motivation for writing is consistent with Gagnier’s suggestion that working-class autobiographers ‘preserve memories of a way of life that is changing or has already ceased to be’ (Gagnier, p348). The structure of RM Downer’s memoir suggests that she is writing to provide information. The majority of her writing is devoted to describing the styles and fabrics used on individual dresses, occasionally going into greater detail about her methods. For example, she describes making a fringe ‘by covering “peas” with the georgette and that made a very attractive finish and was very light in weight. I don’t think anyone ever guessed how it was done’ (p19). RM Downer uses her memoir to share trade secrets and to preserve techniques that might otherwise have been lost.
RM Downer also provides details of how and where she worked. In the 1911 Census of England and Wales, RM Downer is documented as a dressmaker working from the home on her own accord, as opposed to having a specific workplace and employer. RM Downer tells the reader more about this way of working, mentioning various employers and explaining that she often worked in the homes of her clients, as well as working from her own home. She talks about working hours, fabric suppliers, wages, and other details that would have been unique to her profession. Nan Hackett writes in ‘A Different Form of “Self”’ that the ‘purpose [of working-class autobiography] was to document a way of life’ (Hackett, p210), and this is what RM Downer does through her writing.
Downer, Mrs R., ‘A Bygone Age’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, West Sussex Record Office, 1:211, available at http://bura.brunel.ac.uk/handle/2438/9516
‘Mrs R Downer’ in John Burnett, 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): 1:211
Gagnier, Regenia. ‘Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender.’ Victorian Studies 30.3 (1987): 335-363
Hackett, Nan. ‘A Different Form of “Self”: Narrative Style in British Nineteenth-Century Working-class Autobiography.’ Biography, 12.3 (1989): 208-226
1950s typewriter, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-12160155
Handwritten note, RM Downer, ‘A Bygone Age’, p31
Wedding dress, c.1905 made by Liberty and Co. Victoria and Albert Museum Textiles and Fashion collection, http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O167090/wedding-dress-liberty-co-ltd/
1911 Census page, property of the National Archives, London