Mrs RM Downer (b.1884): Researching Writing Lives

Writing Lives has been a completely different experience to any other module I have completed at university. It introduced me to a new way of working and I surprised myself with how attached I became to RM Downer and her memoir. At this point, there are entire passages that I can recite by heart! I chose Downer’s memoir initially because of my own interest in dressmaking and I was interested to see the way she described her work and techniques, as opposed to modern methods. However, the insight I gained into her life and personality became important to me and it was an exciting, if surreal, experience to become so familiar with the life and thoughts of someone I never met.

Working with a factual source, rather than fiction, was exciting. It gave the work a sense of importance because I was researching a real account and a real life, giving a peripheral figure a voice. We were challenged to make the forgotten and personal into something central and public. However, this also had its challenges. Throughout the project I was aware of the dangers of misrepresenting RM Downer’s life and thoughts, and did not want my research to misinterpret or overshadow her words. This lead me to approach her memoir differently to any other source I have worked with, and to read differently.

One of my annotated copies of RM Downer’s memoir (bound with ribbon, which I hope she would appreciate!)

There were some frustrating moments when researching RM Downer’s memoir. She censored names and avoided giving too many details, protecting the privacy of the people she was associated with, which meant that it was challenging to find historical records. I was unable to learn much about her or the people in her life through research outside the memoir. This is partly due to her own censorship but also because, outside of the 1911 Census, there appear to be very few historical documents about her. At first I found this disappointing but, on the other hand, I think it may be for the best. RM Downer did not give this information within her memoir and so this mystery may have been her intention. She wrote her memoir wishing to maintain her privacy.

The process of researching RM Downer’s memoir was different to anything I had previously done. I did not have any experience of using archives and public records in this way before, and so I learned a lot. Researching as a part of a collaborative project was also new. This was exciting because I was able to use a foundation of research that is already in place as a part of the Writing Lives project. Taking part in a pre-established project gave me the opportunity to build on the work of others and to add new ideas that I hope will be used by future researchers. It is very exciting to me to think that my work is a part of something that will continue to grow.

My experience of writing for a blog as opposed to an academic essay is fairly limited so I was happy to have the opportunity to develop my writing skills to suit a different style for a public audience online. I have never been a part of a collaborative blog before, and I was aware that there would be a pre-existing audience that follows the project. I found that this created a different kind of pressure to writing independently. It also challenged me to match the tone of other writers of the project and, while being initially daunting, I found it very interesting and I think that it has helped me to develop my written expression.

Writing for a blog and working independently within a collaborative project is something that I really enjoyed. It helped me to develop my writing and research skills. Another aspect of Writing Lives that I found very valuable was working with social media. This give me the opportunity to promote my work to an audience that I did not know existed and showed me an academic space within social media that I had not been aware of before this project. Without an association with Writing Lives this is something I would not have been able to participate in as much. The project gave me a valuable platform to promote my work and that was an opportunity that I am very grateful for.

The entirety of Writing Lives has been very valuable for me and I believe that it is an important project. It is contributing to a way of understanding history that is very personal and provides a perspective that is often ignored. I am very glad that RM Downer and I could contribute to it.


Works cited
Downer, Mrs R., ‘A Bygone Age’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, West Sussex Record Office, 1:211, available at
‘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

Featured image taken from the first page of RM Downer’s memoir

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