Rosa Bell (b.1902): Researching Writing Lives – Saying Goodbye to Rosa

Upon reading the very first line of Rosa’s memoir, I was hooked and new immediately that I had made the right decision in my choice of author.

“Can you imagine a wee fella just about 3ft tall and only 7 years old standing at the bedside of his dying mum when she put out her hand and stroked his wee head and told him to be a fine man. Grow up. And that is what he grew up to be. I know this so well because he was my Dad” (p.1).

I knew I was about to read a beautiful, but haunting, account of life in working class Britain. However, what I was not quite prepared for was the impression that Rosa’s words have left on me and how connected I now feel to a woman I never knew.

In my Introduction to Rosa’s memoir, I wrote that her chapters read more like individual stories than a focused or structured memoir. As a joint-honours creative writing student, I read a lot of stories that try to convey authentic voice and vivid characters. Rosa does this effortlessly with elegant details and memories of her life and of those who surrounded her in a way that no fiction writer could ever hope to imitate. Her writing, and I cannot express this enough, is beautiful and something I will certainly return to even though this module is over.

My Writing Lives research notes wall in my bedroom including a family tree, timeline and further reading sources.

I have learned a great deal from the life of Rosa Bell, and from reading blog posts by my peers on other authors, but I have learned nothing more significant than the importance of family and community that is presented in these blogs. Rosa in particular, despite the fact that R.M Remembers was intended as a memoir on her life, spent her pages remembering those who helped her, influenced her, believed in her and those whom she admired. I think I could, and have, learnt something from Rosa about having a positive outlook on life, even in the darkest of times, and to uplift oneself by those whom you choose to surround yourself with.

My much loved copy of R.M Remembers (Transcription) with colour coded notes for each blog post (and key.)

In terms of my contribution to public history and the Writing Lives Project, I take pride in knowing that other people will now be able to read Rosa’s memoir and hear her voice, as I have done, due to my transcription of R.M Remembers.

The transcribing process was long, and at times very trying, but also rewarding. Rosa’s handwritten memoir is 14,000 words in length and in places it was near impossible to decipher her handwriting. In the early stages of transcribing, I received help from people on twitter, both Writing Lives students and strangers who simply took an interest, by uploading screenshots of Rosa’s memoir and underlining the words I simply could not figure out. Each time I received helpful responses that seemed obvious once they were pointed out. However by the time I was halfway through transcribing Rosa’s memoir her handwriting became as easy to read as if it were my own as I got used to her cursive and messy style.

Evidence of Twitter collaboration. I found a word in Rosa’s memoir I could not decipher, Ike, which turned out to be a popular name for those in the 1880’s due to President Eisenhower. (Source: Twitter.)

Additionally, as for contributing to history, I repeatedly tagged the Children’s History Society (@histchild) when announcing my blog posts and alerted the Open University’s database for working class reading in the twentieth century The UK Red (@TheUKRED) when I uploaded Rosa’s Reading and Writing Blog Post.

Tweet in which The UK Red Database is tagged. (Source: Twitter.)

In regard to (attempting) to act as a historical researcher this semester, I have one regret which is that despite my best efforts I never managed to track down Rosa’s son or even discover his name. It would have been wonderful to share all that I had learned about Rosa Bell with someone who had loved her, and even better to learn more about the woman I have come to care for from reading her words. Despite this, I believe not being able to find Rosa’s son was part of her wishes. Rosa protected her son’s identity remarkably well and I think this was intentional to maintain his privacy. Rosa writes of her child rarely, never naming him, and even when she drew out her family tree to attach to her memoir she omitted his name.

Though I was not able to trace Rosa’s lineage forward, though the use of Ancestry.com I managed to follow Rosa’s family tree further backward, all the way back to the seventeenth century – uncovering documents such as marriage licenses and social consensus documents along the way. It is possible that even Rosa did not know about her heritage this far back as the family tree she drew at the end of her memoir began with her great-grandfather.

Section of Rosa Bell’s Family Tree. Created by myself via Ancestry.com

Before taking part on this module, I did have previous blogging experience from the Prison Voices module last year. I think since then my role as a historian, researcher and blogger has become significantly more developed and I believe that is due to the vested interest I had in Rosa’s memoir and the difference between exploring the first-hand experience of one specific person rather than examining a time period, institution or social class as a whole.

Although I am an avid social media user, or at least an avid user of twitter, I have never used social media in such a collaborative fashion before. Collaborating with other Writing Lives bloggers has been the most unique aspect about this module and reading peers work was interesting, inspiring and informative. I created a Facebook account specifically for this module and it took me a while to figure out how to make and join groups for proofreading and collaboration purposes.

Evidence of Collaboration (Source: Facebook)

Overall I thoroughly enjoyed being part of the Writing Lives module this semester. Reading Rosa’s memoir and getting to know her as a person was a rare and valuable experience. While I do plan on returning to Rosa’s memoir, I also plan on delving further into the Burnett Collection to read more memoirs from working-class Britain.

My full transcription of Rosa’s memoir is available here: http://www.writinglives.org/autobiography/rosa-bell-b-1902-r-m-remembers-full-transcription

Links to my other blogs are available here: http://www.writinglives.org/author/jenny-dalton

Twitter: @JennyLJMU

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


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