Mary Denison (1906-1997): An Introduction.

‘Church was like home – familiar, accepted, and unconsciously loved.’ (40)

Born on the 8th September 1906 in Far Headingley, Leeds, Mary Denison was the oldest of four siblings who were raised in the St Chad’s Vicarage. Mary’s father Charles Marshall, whom Mary describes as having ‘something resembling two identities’ (9), was the vicar at St Chad’s church and who due to a busy work schedule was almost an absent figure in Mary’s memoir. However, Mary’s mother Ethelred Marshall who was ‘animated, adorable, but always a little unpredictable’ (11) is a figure to which Mary looks up to and aspires to be like. My first impression of Mary is that of fascination. Mary recognises her privilege and her status within her community and within her family and does not shy away from her past but instead embraces it.

Mary’s unpublished 70-page memoir Church Bells and Tram Cars. A Vicarage Childhood looks retrospectively back at her childhood and in particular what it was like to grow up in a vicarage and within a religious community. The memoir follows Mary from her earliest memory of lying in bed listening to the trams pull into the nearby station and follows Mary as she grows older and is witness to the first world war. Mary however narrates her story in a unique way as she tells the story as though it is the reader who is living it. One example of this is when she says ‘you pull the bedclothes up round your shoulders and shudder’ (2). Mary engages the readers with her story in a way that leads me to believe that she was a highly literate and talented writer. Mary talks about her love for literature and writing throughout the memoir and it is through the way in which she structures this memoir that we are able to see what talent she had for writing.

Title page of Mary’s memoir.

The memoir is broken down into nine chapters each with a different focus and each progressing further into Mary’s life. This is incredibly pleasing for not only myself but for other readers of Mary’s memoir who are able to walk into a new aspect of Mary’s life through every chapter. One example of this is when Mary talks about becoming sick with scarlet fever in chapter three but then shifts the narrative entirely to starting school in chapter four. This shift in narrative can be representative of Mary separating the memoir into significant memories and moments from her childhood. It is possible that Mary has used a new theme for each chapter as a way of distinguishing between each memory and moment that she felt relevant to share with us.

As the quote at the start of this blog post suggests, Mary was incredibly religious and dedicated a lot of her childhood to attending church and Sunday school.  Religion is a theme which dominates the memoir and that can be seen clearly from the title ‘A Vicarage Childhood’. This differentiates Mary’s memoir from other working-class children explored at Writing Lives as Mary’s middle-class childhood allowed her to experience things other children did not. Mary is particularly interesting as an autobiographer as by being a vicar’s daughter she came into contact with poorer members of the parish. In addition to this, Mary talks about the servants who worked in the vicarage and says how ‘there were the separate worlds of grown – ups and children and the equally separate world of the maids’ (11). Mary’s memoir is alert to the class distinctions of the time. One example of this is when Mary comments on how she was able to stay in school whereas working class girls at the age of 13 were made to go into service.

Mary’s memoir (pg.68)

This memoir concludes with Mary addressing a change within the social structure when the first world war began. Mary witnessed a shift in domestic roles and comments on how the beginning of the war caused herself and her family to have to start looking after themselves as the maids were called to work in factories. Mary mentions how class boundaries ceased to exist during this period. Mary doesn’t just look at the change in roles within the household but also with regards to gender. This is an element which interests me hugely within Mary’s memoir as it holds strong historical content. However, throughout the course of this research project I also want to look at to what extent retrospection has influenced and enabled Mary to make these comments on social class, comments that could potentially have been influenced by the adult Mary rather than the childhood version that she is remembering.

One academic who looked at the form of autobiographical writing was Simon Dentith. Dentith commented on how ‘it is a common experience when reading the biography of a selected individual, in a given time and place, to see not only their time and place but a more general development’ (1988, 13). This quotation mirrors the experience that the reader can expect from Mary’s memoir. Mary comments not only upon her own development but also upon how the society that she was a part of has developed. Mary opens up a world in which a modern reader can engage and learn about a time that was previously inaccessible to them.

Works Cited:

Denison, Mary. ‘Church Bells and Tram Cars; a Vicarage Childhood’. Burnett Archive of Working-Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection.

Mary Denison’ 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): 1:250

Dentith, Simon. ‘The Uses of Autobiography’. Philip Literature and History; Spring 1988; 14, 1; Periodicals Archive Online pg. 4


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