‘I remember well seeing the first aeroplane to fly over Beeston. What an awe inspiring sight…My mother stood silently…and said “My, my what will England come to’.
Lottie Martin’s memoir Never Let Anyone Draw the Blinds covers the first three decades of the author’s life: 1899-1920. From an engaging autobiographical account, Martin delves into her childhood and relates such key historical moments as World War One and the Coronation of Edward VII.
One of the main aims in the Writing Lives project is to bring life and acknowledgement to ordinary, working-class autobiographies. With this in mind, it can be said that most memoirs were not written for a public audience.[i] As there are two copies of Martin’s memoir – the Burnett Archive edition ‘My Life as I Remember it: 1899-1920’ (Lottie Barker) and Never Let Anyone Draw the Blinds (published by Barker’s granddaughter who uses Barker’s maiden name, Martin) – it is important to see the difference between each text in terms of purpose and audience.
In the postscript of Never Let Anyone Draw the Blinds Martin’s granddaughter, Paula Hill, writes that: ‘After my grandmother’s death in 1976, the family discovered that unbeknown to us, she had spent some time in her last years writing down her early memories’. This raises questions in relation to the purpose and audience of Martin’s memoir. As it was ‘unbeknown’ to her family, we can see how the autobiography can be read as a therapeutic personal journey to the past; a way of recalling childhood innocence in Martin’s ‘last years’.
Indeed, Martin’s memoir may well be a document intended for her personal benefit; a way for the author to communicate with her own past. Throughout Martin’s account there is a sense of a lost pastoral. To illustrate, Martin writes: ‘This beautiful country lane had now been swallowed up by Nottingham University’. Through this almost antagonistic phrase, Martin provides the reader with antonymic word-play. ‘Beautiful’ and ‘swallowed up’ are employed to emphasis the sense of loss within the landscape. The theme of a Paradise lost reverberates throughout Martin’s memoir as we can see when she continues: ‘The Derby Road side was nothing more than a one man track…it is hard to believe…that wide dual road with a …huge traffic control at the north [that] runs on this very lane’.
In ‘My Life as I Remember it: 1899-1920’, however, Martin entitles the first chapter of her autobiography: ‘For My Children’. Undoubtedly, this heading demonstrates how this section of the memoir is intended for her family. ‘For My Children’ explores Martin’s family history which subsequently aims to provide her children with information on family ancestry.
It must also not be ignored that this memoir was published, giving a broader scope to the purpose and audience of the autobiography. Indeed, Lottie has framed her own life story within a wider patriotic history of the nation: ‘there was a great patriotic feeling sweeping the country. We children were taught songs of our greatness in both military as well as naval power and our love of our country was second to none’. Though the celebratory and nostalgic language, we gain a greater understanding of the patriotism of England.
In terms of purpose and audience we can see how Martin’s autobiography is a way of recollecting and documenting key historical moments. Martin recollects how ‘the Coronation of Edward the Seventh and the victory of our troops in South Africa over the Boers […] was reason enough for the whole nation to rejoice’. From recalling such historical events Martin evidently wishes to educate future generations. Not only is this invaluable to historians, it is a way of providing general readers with a first-hand primary source.
Indeed, nostalgia and memory are general characteristics of Martin’s memoir:
‘I remember well seeing the first aeroplane to fly over Beeston. What an awe inspiring sight…we had previously seen the balloons up there but this was something so different we could scarcely believe our eyes…My mother stood silently…and said “My, my what will England come to’.
Again, Martin is documenting key moments in history to her readers. Yet simultaneously we are given important insights into how popular memory/memoir works. Martin’s view of the aircraft – ‘what an awe inspiring sight’ – is celebratory and she is able to remember moments as they are embedded into her memory. Alternatively Martin’s mother represents the traditional patriarch who is worried about the future of England. She is not welcoming of new innovations and subsequently expresses a loss of innocence; a point that reverberates throughout Lottie’s autobiography.
After reading Fergus Walsh’s blog ‘John Castle (1819 – 1888): An Introduction’ it is interesting to explore the differences in documenting the life of the working-classes. Where Lottie Martin’s autobiography is nostalgic and patriotic, Castle is writing from a radical perspective, expressing his indignation towards politics. Walsh writes: ‘What struck me instantly upon reading it was the sheer hardship this extraordinary man has suffered throughout his life’[ii]. Through Castle’s passionate account of life amongst the working-classes it is evident how his memoir is more explicitly political and connected to activist politics.
Indeed, through reading Martin’s autobiography we are paying attention to the more ordinary and mundane forms of writing. Unlike the autodidacts and activists studied by Rose, we are given a different account of working-class life[iii]. Martin – through a nostalgic and patriotic tone – traps her audience into the specific time zone of her adolescence as she wants to recreate her lost innocence of childhood; a key period for anyone interested in the history surrounding World War One.
[i] See Helen Rogers’ paper: ‘Bringing Life Writing to Life: Creating an Online Resource for Working-Class Autobiography’ Research Seminar, English Department, University of Edinburgh, 25 October 2013.
[iii] Rose, Jonathan. The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001)
Barker, Lottie, ‘My Life as I Remember It, 1899-1920’, TS, pp.70 (c.31,000 words). Brunel University Library
Burnett, John, David Vincent, David Mayall (eds) The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography (Brighton: Harvester, 1987) vol.2 no.37.
Hill, Paula Never Let Anyone Draw the Blinds by Lottie Martin (Nottingham: 125 Bramcote Lane, 1985)
Rogers, Helen ‘Bringing Life Writing to Life: Creating an Online Resource for Working-Class Autobiography’ Research Seminar, English Department, University of Edinburgh, 25 October 2013.
Rose, Jonathan. The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001)