Mary Denison (1906-1997): Purpose and Audience.

The old Vicarage – its bones and frame; every part of it was alive with its own special life and having its own special sounds. You knew them all – they were the background to your life.’ (7)

Mary Denison’s writing style complicates the ways we might think about a memoir’s purpose and audience. Throughout the memoir, Mary uses a second person narrative voice to tell her story. For example, ‘you know what every sound means’ (2). This is the only memoir that I have read from the Burnett Archive that uses this form and it therefore differentiates Mary’s memoir from some of the other Writing Lives autobiographies. Another example of how Mary uses the second person voice in her memoir can be seen in the quotation at the beginning of this blog. Mary uses pronouns such as ‘you’ and ‘your’ which makes her memoir inclusive and accessible to any reader, including a modern-day reader like myself. This literary device allows her memoir to reach a broad audience as each chapter grips the reader’s attention.

Mary also makes the decision to focus her memoir solely on her childhood. There is only one fleeting moment in the memoir in which Mary talks about her adult life and that is when she says, ‘Years later the boy in the back row with his cap on was to become your husband’ (36). This is the only passage in the entire memoir that we get a glimpse into an adult version of Mary and even this is a passing comment that leaves little detail for us to engage with. As mentioned, Mary uses the personal pronoun ‘you’, indicating that Mary wanted to create a more intimate tone to her memoir. It is arguable that Mary was producing this memoir for herself. However, by using this tone Mary, to some extent, becomes detached from her memoir. This raises several questions around Mary’s purpose for writing her memoir. Why did Mary limit herself to her childhood? Did Mary feel as though her childhood defined her? Or did Mary find that reflecting on her childhood allowed her to remain detached from the narrative and therefore create an almost fictional tone to her memoir? Unfortunately, these are questions I can never provide concrete answers to, but my research has allowed me to make the following assumptions.

Regenia Gagnier in her article, ‘Social Atoms: Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender’ looked at working-class autobiographies. One thing Gagnier said which helped me to understand Mary’s memoir was that ‘The autobiographers insisted upon their own histories, however difficult it was to write them. They unanimously state that their reasons for writing are functional rather than aesthetic: to record last experiences for future generations, to raise money or amuse themselves; to understand themselves’ (Gagnier, 342). This article could potentially offer an insight into why Mary chose to write a memoir. It is possible that Mary chose to focus solely on her childhood as a way of remembering this part of her life and having a memento to which she could look back on.

However, personal ‘amusement’ is only one of the avenues explored by Gagnier. Gagnier mentions how to sometimes the purpose was ‘functional’ and this can be applied to Mary’s memoir also. Mary’s autobiography has a confident narrative voice and this has allowed her to portray her experience of the past in an engaging way. However, having said this, Mary’s autobiography does not read like someone who wrote simply to remember. Having spent a significant amount of time reading and researching into the life of Mary it has become clear that her purpose for writing was more likely an attempt at getting published.

As briefly mentioned in the introduction, Mary had a fascination with literature and writing. This is evident in the quotation below:

Taken from Mary Denison’s Memoir ‘Church Bells and Tram Cars: A Vicarage Childhood’ (30

‘The door of books was opening rapidly for you, too. You could now read with ease, and with this came your first taste of the power of stories; you were carried into new worlds, your own mind and imagination were beginning to work’ (30).

Mary shows a love and a passion for literature through her list of the amount of novels that she read as a child from The Lamplighter to Alone in London (57). This allowed Mary to express an interest within her memoir for reading and producing literature from an early age. This small extract from her memoir has allowed me to assume that Mary’s main purpose for her memoir was for it to be published. This emphasises that Mary was not solely writing with the ‘functional’ act of recording the past that is often assumed of working-class autobiography. Instead, Mary is interested in the words and the narrative of her memoir and focuses on how her story is told. Mary intended for her memoir to be reached by an audience beyond just herself. I have the privilege of helping Mary do just that.

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. (1987). ‘Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender.’ Victorian Studies 30.3.

Images cited:

Featured image of generic 20th century audience taken from – https://www.randallreilly.com/a-segmentation-celebration.

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