Mary Denison (1906 -1997): Habit, Culture and Belief.

‘Sunday coats, Sunday hats, best shoes; felt hats in winter, straw ones with ribbons or flower trimmings in summer.’ (33)

In last week’s blog post, I spoke about how one of the main leisure activities that Mary indulged in was reading. Reading became a habit within Mary’s day to day life, it opened her up to a world beyond her own understanding. Both Mary’s class and her gender had an influence on her habits. It was typical during this time for middle-class children to play with toys in the home whereas working-class children played in the streets. Mary’s love for literature was shaped through her class identity, and she was encouraged from a young age to read rather than to play outside. Mary’s habits are partly a result of her class status, and she pursued her habits in the security of the home. Regenia Gagnier comments that ‘everyday life is inevitably gendered and classed, life means that gender will impact upon history’ (1991,14). Gagnier argues that gender and class will ultimately dominate a person’s every day life, in particular their habits and beliefs.

However, Mary’s memoir captures a change within society – a change that also shaped her personal habits. Mary grew up during both industrialisation and an increase in mass entertainment which meant that her leisure activities began to change. Last week I spoke about how the Empire theatre became a dominant figure within her childhood as it brought ‘story book heroes and heroines to larger than life before your eyes’ (28). This fascination with the theatre was a revelation during the early 20th century. As the surroundings began to change, Mary noticed how her cultural habits also developed. Despite still loving literature, Mary began to look towards the theatre rather then reaching for a book showing a clear shift within her habits. However, it is also possible that Mary’s fascination with the outside world came from her sheltered middle-class upbringing. Mary was encouraged to stay within the Vicarage and pursued activities within the grounds of her home. However, when education ‘opened up the doors of the street’ (27) Mary began to see the possibilities outside of the Vicarage. This is another potential reason for Mary’s change of habits within the memoir.

Image of the Bell ringers at St Chads Vicarage. Obtained from

Despite engaging with a range of leisure activities, Mary’s childhood was dominated by the culture and belief of religion. For example, Mary was expected to attend Sunday school without fail and therefore this became a habit within Mary’s childhood. As mentioned in the home and family blog post, Mary’s father Charles Marshall was a vicar at St Chad’s which meant that the family’s presence was mandatory during Sunday service. Mary reflects back to the clothing that she had to wear in church ‘Sunday coats, Sunday hats, best shoes; felt hats in winter, straw ones with ribbons or flower trimmings in summer’ (34). This quotation highlights the routine and familiarity that Sunday service had on Mary, as it was the predominant culture that she grew up around. In addition to this, Mary also reflects on how the ringing of the church bells became symbolic with Sunday service as they signified the end of another week. Mary remembers a time that she was nearly late to the service and how the church bells signified this. As she raced to the church, Mary comments on how she went ‘up the steps and in through the big porch. ‘The last bell was final, it was your last chance, you must be in before it stopped’ (34). As we can see by reading analysing Mary’s memoir, Sunday service became a culture and a habit that dominated Mary’s childhood.

However, Mary also remembers a time that her mother was disapproving of the service. Mary says that ‘it began with a series of sighs, each one deeper and more audible than the last … other marks of disapproval might follow. A fan would be brought out from her handbag and used vigorously’ (35). This suggests that Mary’s mother Ethelred also had to attend church as a matter of habit and routine rather than enjoyment. By being the vicar’s wife, Ethelred had a responsibility to attend the Sunday service. As we know from previous blog posts, Mary’s mother came from India which suggests that her religious background was ultimately different to that of her husband’s. However, both her class and her marriage meant that Ethelred had to pursue a culture that was not her own.

Charles C Marshall with second wife. Obtained from

Regenia Gagnier also argues that ‘it is a commonplace of literary criticism that in their writings workers often appear to lack what Jerome Buckley calls the “significant selfhood” that organises traditional autobiography: they do not exhibit flair and personality’ (139). However, this is not the case for Mary’s memoir. Mary demonstrates how her class had a significant influence over her habits, and that she was encouraged to pursue recreation that was deemed respectable. These habits were only tested when Mary began to experience the outside world away from the Vicarage. Mary also comments on how the rise in mass entertainment shaped her habits – she began to fall in love with the theatre and the worlds that it brought to life. The memoir also talks about the culture and the beliefs that Mary was born into by being the vicar’s daughter. Overall, it is evident to see that Mary’s memoir exhibits flair in its diversity and its reflection on how habits, culture and belief can all be influenced by gender, religion and class.

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

Gagnier, Regenia. ‘Subjectivities: A History of Self – Representation in Britain, 1832 – 1920’. 1st ed. Oxford University Press. 1991.

Images cited: 

Both images obtained from: St Chads Church, Leeds.

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