Rosa Bell (b.1902): Purpose and Audience

Rosa Bell began writing her memoir, ‘R.M. Remembers,’ as she was nearing the age of 80 in approximately 1981 to 1982 between the months of September and March.

An Extract of the Opening Page to R.M Remembers [1]

It is possible that Rosa began writing at this particular time for two reasons. The first was to record her memories for future generations as she neared the end of her life. As the life expectancy in the UK around this time was estimated to be around 77 years of age (see figure below), Rosa may have been writing to preserve her memories and family history for the future generations of her family, including her son whom she frequently mentions throughout the memoir.

[2]

The second reason Rosa may also have begun writing her memoirs at this time could be due to the social historian John Burnett. Burnett (1925-2006) was a professor at Brunel University London who researched the lives of the British working class and compiled The Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography, which is currently house at Brunel University Library’s Special Collections. Burnett was “convinced that ordinary people were historically more literate than previously thought, and as they grew older many had recorded the facts of their lives in memoirs.”[1] Between 1974 and 1982, Burnett put a call out out on Radio 4’s ‘Woman’s Hour’ “asking for listeners to write him about their memories of the early life of the working class.”[2] He received many responses, letters and memoirs, and it is possible one of these listeners was Rosa Bell. Due to Burnett’s research timeframe, the Radio 4 broadcast, and Rosa’s subsequent publication within the Archive it is possible that she was writing specifically for this purpose.

Whilst the timing of Rosa’s memoir is interesting, the motivations and intentions she had when writing her memoir are even more so. Because throughout the memoir, even though Rosa is telling the story of her life – she barely talks about herself! Instead, she writes about the people around her, the people who shaped who she was as a person, those who helped her through her struggles and without whom she would not have survived some of the hardest times in her life. From family members to neighbours to the members of the local community, Rosa remembers and records every kind deed toward her: “The Milkman when she moved to another town who gave her a dozen eggs when she could not afford them. The Fishmonger who’d call on his way back so that he could find a small plaice for her wee lad.” (p.86). (See my note below on Rosa’s use of the third-person voice.)

However, despite the fact Rosa mainly writes about other people, she does not make any generalisations about the struggles of working-class life or claims to know other people’s experiences. Rosa’s memoir is strictly evaluative of her own experience and only of those she knew intimately. Even when she discusses the struggles she faced, she does so with an overwhelmingly positive attitude at her ability to overcome them.

While the memoir may have been intended for Burnett, I think on some level Rosa was also writing for her son (his name at this point is currently unknown.) The reason I suspect Rosa also may have expected her son to read her memoir is due to the level of self-censorship in some chapters, specifically chapters regarding her less than happy marriage to her husband, Ken. When writing about her marriage, which she called “53 years [of] Hell” (p.88), she uses the third person and not the first, and pretends she was describing someone else. This is clearly a decision made after initially writing the chapter, as she originally wrote using first person pronouns and, as you can see from the image included below, she has added these third person changes at a later stage.

In Reading Autobiography, Smith and Watson recount the story of Madame de Sévigné who wrote her autobiography in the form of letters, many of which were addressed to her daughter. De Sévigné often “sustains her identity” by writing “mother” instead of “I.”[3] Smith and Watson suggest that de Sévigné used this technique to maintain a connection to her daughter. I think in the case of Rosa Bell, writing for her son, she uses the third person for the exact opposite reason. Rather than to maintain her identity, she wishes to distance herself from the experiences she discusses and provide the same distance for her son so as to not corrupt his view of his parents.

Page 88 – Where “I” is turned to “She” and “Myself” to “Herself.”

I believe that Rosa wrote her memoir for two very simple purposes: to remember and to tell her truth. Numerous paragraphs begin nostalgically with “I remember when…” and as the memoirs go on the chapter titles begin to reveal a great deal about Rosa’s intentions. For example, the chapter discussed above about her unhappy marriage written in the third person is entitled “Let the Truth be told at almost 80 I want someone to Know” (p.78).


Memoir:

Bell, Rosa. “R.M Remembers.” Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collections, 2:59, available at: http://bura.brunel.ac.uk/handle/2438/10895

Images:

[1] Bell, Rosa. “R.M. Remembers.” Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collections, 2:59. Page 0

[2]Available at: https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/lifeexpectancies/bulletins/nationallifetablesunitedkingdom/20132015

[3] Bell, Rosa. “R.M. Remembers.” Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collections, 2:59. Page 88

Citations


[1] Oddy, Derek. (2006) John Burnett: Obituary. The Guardian. Accessed: 03/04/2019 Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2006/nov/29/guardianobituaries.mainsection

[2] Rogers, Helen. Cuming, Emily. (2019) ‘Revealing Fragments: Close and Distant Reading of Working-Class Autobiography.’ Family and Community History. Volume 21/3. London: Taylor and Francis. p.180

[3] Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson. (2001) Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press. p. 95

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