“His Spirit lives on – in me” (Hutchinson 5)
Family and loss is perhaps the main theme of Eleanor Hutchinson’s memoir. Her early childhood was fraught with misfortune and tragedy. Her stable, all be it poor family was ripped apart at the age of seven after the death of her mother and the arrest of her father. Hutchinson’s attempt to suppress her feelings of grief throughout the memoir leaves many emotional threads left untied: “Hitherto, I have tried to forget the past and pretend that such things as happened to me never happened” (Hutchinson 6). This is an element of the autobiography that is explored in David Vincent’s ‘Love and Death and the Nineteenth – Century Working Class’: “At first glance the most striking of the autobiographies treatment of their family experience is not what is said but rather what is not said” (Vincent 226).
He then proceeds to deal with the treatment of grief in autobiographies: “You do not need words to feel grief, or even to give some experience to that grief” (Vincent 227). Grief for both her mother and father is an emotion that is omitted by Hutchinson: “My mother was taken to Millman Hospital in Chelsea where according to death certificate, my Grannie was in attendance until the end” (Hutchinson 63). Hutchinson marks her mother’s death through her death certificate rather than expressing the grief she felt for her loss. Suppression of emotional turmoil is a common coping mechanism when dealing with server loss: “As a young woman of 20 I had the future to look forward to and I could not afford to look into my near-murdered heart” (Hutchinson 6). As a twenty year old with no money or prospects, straight out of an orphanage, Hutchinson does not allow herself to dwell on the loss of her parents.
Eleanor’s mother’s death was primarily down to their life as a working class family. There was barely enough food to go around resulting in Hutchinson’s mother refusing meals to feed the children. By the time of her father’s arrest, her mother was too ill to seek relief from the parish: “She was – although I was not aware of it at the time – slowly dying of consumption, slowly dying from malnutrition” (Hutchinson 38). Malnutrition is uncovered by Stevenson and Cook in The Slump: Britain in the Great Depression: “The effects of malnutrition, nervous illness and the reduction of medical services accounted for over 3,000 deaths a year among young women” (Stevenson & Cook 93).
The death of her mother – all be it important – does not hold a candle to the arrest and later death of her father. When examining a working class family, we have come to expect a divide in gender roles. Most commonly the mother took care of the domestic sphere, leaving the father’s sole responsibility of putting food on the table and attending to the social sphere. “The wife was in charge of the household budget as well as emotional support” (Vincent 239), Vincent agrees with this expectation, suggesting also that the mother provides the emotional stability for the family.
However Eleanor’s recollection of the family unit subverts this. Although her mother was the domestic housewife expected of a working class family, Hutchinson’s father is at the forefront of her fondest memories. She idolises his temperament and political activism. Hutchinson portrays her father with more emotion, and expresses her feeling of loss through the celebration of his life: “His spirit lives on – in me” (Hutchinson 5).
‘Eleanor Hutchinson’, in John Burnett, David Mayall and David Vincent eds The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography Brighton: Harvester, 1984, vol. 2, no. 429
Hutchinson, Eleanor, ‘The Bells of St Mary’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography. University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 2:429
Stevenson John, Cook Chris, The Slump: Britain in the Great Depression. Routledge, London. 2013.
Vincent, David. ‘Love and Death and the Nineteenth-Century Working Class.’ Social History, 5.2 (1980): 223-247.
Images Cited – as they appear on the page
http://weheartit.com/entry/group/8149003 – Accessed on 08/11/15
https://libcom.org/gallery/national-unemployed-workers-movement – Accessed on 08/11/15