Rosa Bell (b.1902): Reading and Writing

As we have already learned from Rosa’s Education and Schooling, Rosa was an extremely talented academic in her formative childhood years once remembering that a school inspector said of her “that Girl with the frizzy hair is the sharpest of them all” (p.136). Rosa’s education was halted early due to a lack of available funding for a grammar school education, yet reading and writing still remains prominent throughout the rest of her life. 

The earliest explicit mention of literacy, reading and writing, in Rosa’s memoir is in a chapter named ‘My Grandmother.’ Rosa writes that her grandmother, Elizabeth Cheetam, could neither read nor write, but that “the Doctor never missed calling to see her when in the village he said with her knowledge she saved him many journeys” (p.23). Rosa’s grandmother is representative of the old ways of preserving knowledge, before education was widely available for the working classes (see Education and Schooling), and knowledge was passed down through the generations.

Bargaining by Francis W. Edmonds (1858)

Jacques Rancière in Proletarian Nights discusses the importance of “night time” among the working class of the twentieth century. “Night time” was most often the only time of day when “free time” and freedom to choose one’s own activities was available due to the large part of the day being dedicated to work and labour [1] (see Life and Labour). In Rosa’s memoir, a large part of her free time is dedicated to religious studies and scripture and as a result of this, so is the majority of her reading (see Habits and Beliefs: Religion).

The first piece of literature Rosa mentions is the Sunday Companion. The Sunday Companion refers to a largely distributed book containing religious hymns. However, from 1894 to 1971 the Sunday Companion took the form of a popular weekly magazine published by Fleetway Publications containing serials and short stories that conveyed strong moral and religious tones. Remembering her childhood years, Rosa writes that “I could sit and listen for hours to my mother reading the stories from the Sunday Companion” (p.11).

Preserved Edition of the Sunday Companion from Hawthorn Books, Bristol

The second book that Rosa writes about in her memoir is Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel Jane Eyre: “I have here a prize given to me in 1914 – the Book I found little interest in until now – it is called Jane Eyre” (p,134). Jane Eyre was originally published with the title Jane Eyre: An Autobiography under the pseudonym of Currer Bell. Not only is this an interesting coincidence, that Rosa and Brontë’s pseudonym share the same name, but could also be considered as a possible influence on Rosa’s style of writing in her memoir.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Daniel S. Burt in The Literature 100 states that Jane is an unconventional heroine who is “forced to earn her living in a society of limited possibilities. Her hard fought reward of the heart is played out against her struggle toward independence and emotional equilibrium.” [2] The story of Jane Eyre somewhat echoes the struggles Rosa documents in her own autobiography. For example, her struggle for independence from the dole, emotional turmoil with her husband and siblings and other hard times that befell her family (see Home and Family 2).

In terms of writing, Rosa’s handwritten one hundred and sixty three page memoir is a testament to her education and passion for writing. When discussing her work, Rosa writes that her one true goal in life had to become a writer: “I have always wanted to do one thing & that was to become a writer and would you who may read these lines – say I just became a Drifter” (p.149).

Now Rosa may not be the next Charlotte Brontë but her writing certainly does leave an impression on those who read it.

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

Citations:

[1] Rancière, Jacques. (2012)  Proletarian Nights: The Workers Dream in Nineteenth Century France. London: Verso Publishing.

[2] Burt, Daniel S. (2009) The Literature 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Novelists, Playwrights, and Poets of all Time. New York: Infobase Publishing. (Page 224)

Images:

[1] Bargaining (1858) by Francis W. Edmonds – fristartmuseum.org/calendar/detail/telling-tales-stories-and-legends-in-19th-century-american-art

[2] The Sunday Companion – abebooks.co.uk/servlet/BookDetailsPL?bi=6458427160&searchurl=sortby%3D20%26an%3Dthe%2Bsunday%2Bcompanion&cm_sp=snippet-_-srp1-_-image1

[3] Jane Eyre Book Cover – bookriot.com/2016/09/27/16-beautiful-jane-eyre-book-covers/

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