Family very obviously formed a huge part of Molly’s life. Her memoir attributes many experiences and memories informed by her family and she recalls precious time spent with them. The significant impact of family upon Molly’s comes as no surprise, given that she comes from a large family with numerous siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles. It was very common for early twentieth century families to be large, but mortality rates were also very high, particularly among infants.[1] Fortunately, Molly and her siblings: Jack, Percy, Winifred and Ivy, grew up with “good kind parents and a very happy home” (p.1), experiencing no premature deaths within the immediate family.

Back row, Albert Ray, unknown, Jack (John) Keen, Middle Row, Harry Chitty, Doll (Dorothy)Ray, Fred Ray, Sydney Ray, Percy Keen, front Row: Stanley Ray, Jessie Higgs ,Janet Chitty, Gordon Chitty, Kate Chitty, Winifred Keen. (It is possible Fred Ray and Winifred Keen should be reversed) . The photo is from the records of Molly Keen
Back row, Albert Ray, unknown, Jack (John) Keen, Middle Row, Harry Chitty, Doll (Dorothy)Ray, Fred Ray, Sydney Ray, Percy Keen, front Row: Stanley Ray, Jessie Higgs ,Janet Chitty, Gordon Chitty, Kate Chitty, Winifred Keen. (It is possible Fred Ray and Winifred Keen should be reversed) . The photo is from the records of Molly Keen.

Molly places her parents on an imaginary pedestal, evidenced by the way she talks of them and recounts the sacrifices they make for the children and how they aim to surprise and please them. Introducing her mother as a “dear gentle soul” (p. 1) whom  “everyone went to with their  problems”(p.2)  because she “always gave help and hospitality wherever possible”(p.2), we acknowledge that Molly’s mother was a very loving and caring lady whom all her children idealised and loved dearly. Moreover, Molly talks of how she “used to love going to the shops” (p.11) with her mum.  A favourite daily event was the thrill of excitedly meeting her mum when she came home from school. She would rush “out to meet as if she had been away for a week!” (p. 11) Therefore it is obvious the extent of the adoration Molly has for her mother. The same was true for her father, who shared many likes and interests with Molly and her siblings, including nature and creation. A large shed at the end of the garden was home to their father’s paint and brushes, where the children “would enjoy watching him” (p.4) Appreciating time with her parents, whether it be within the home or on a daytrip to Burnham Beeches or Kew Gardens where they sometimes went, it is obvious that Molly adored her parents.

Molly accounts many pleasurable memories she has of her siblings “playing hoops” (p.5), diabolo and “playing shops” (p.5) as well as various other games. Being close in age, they provided good company for each other when their father was off at work (he was a master Sign Writer), and their mother was busy with household tasks. Working class women in this time period were expected to be “angels of the home”[2]: balancing domestic chores and looking after the children. Molly talks of one occasion where Winifred, being older than Molly, had started going to school. Missing her sister, Molly followed her sister, scrambling over and gate and ending up with a broken arm. Although a mischievous act, this demonstrates how much Molly enjoys her sister’s company. Other instances she talks of throughout her memoir include her brothers buying her little gifts with the limited pocket money they had and as they grow up, helping each other and their mother in whatever way they can. Home and family were highly regarded and of vital importance in Molly’s life.

The “shattering news” (p.25) that Molly alludes to as the commencement of the First World War was a time of great upheaval for all classes living in Britain. Molly refers to the middle anticipating such an event: “some thinking adults had foreseen that this would happen” (p.25).  However, possessing a prior awareness or not, it did not change the fact that, for various reasons, “never again in the history of our land would life revert to what it had been” (p.25).

First World War Recruitment Poster.

Temporarily tearing apart the close-knit Keen family, Jack and Percy were commissioned to go and fight, despite being underage. Jack entered the newly formed Royal Flying Corps, while Percy joined the Essex Regiment in the Signals. The family left behind experienced the doubt and worry shared by thousands of people having to say goodbye to their loved ones, not knowing if this could be a more permanent goodbye. “How we hated that awful moment for goodbye not knowing if we would see them again” (p.27). However, Molly’s parents busied themselves doing all they could to help: “father volunteered for the Red Cross for local work” (p.26) and worked at West Middlesex hospital on top of own job, and Molly’s mother “had to take in soldiers sometimes” (p.25), caring “for them as if they were her own.” (p.26) As much as the war tore families apart, it also brought people and communities together, many doing what they could to help and show their support.

Wset Middlesex Hospital, where Charles Keen, Molly Keen's father, volunteered during the war
Wset Middlesex Hospital, where Charles Keen, Molly Keen’s father, volunteered during the war.

Molly declares how it was a “great day for us when the boys returned” (p.29), parents and siblings jubilant to be reunited once again. Moreover, Jack, upon discovering he had “inherited a natural talent for signwriting” (p.29), went to work with his father, thus keeping the family at close proximity therefore ensuring the close familial bonds which had always existed were maintained.

The most devastating event of the entire memoir, which appears to have damaging effects and a negative impact upon the Keen family, is the death of Molly’s beloved mother. Describing December 19th as “a night I will never forget” (p.33), Molly goes on to say, “I will not try to describe the feelings of Winifred and myself. We were overwhelmed and desolate. The night stretched before us long and dark” (p.33). No other incident within Molly’s memoir is recounted so extensively and with so much detail. Therefore, as she recalls how, “The days and nights that followed seemed like a nightmare” (p.33), the immensity of the grief felt by the rest of the family seems immeasurable. “The thing that we had all dreaded in our hearts had happened” (p.33). For this family who evidently had so much genuine love for each other; spent so much time together; aimed to please one another in whatever way they could and had such strong relationships, this death left them feeling hopeless and shattered. Molly affirms how she dreaded “the return to an empty house” (p.33). Yet what is striking is the fact that, amidst the pain and hurt, the remaining family members still looked out for each other and did whatever small action they could to help. Molly’s dad “had arranged with a friend of his to bring us both home in his car” (p.33), a luxury which was not normally enjoyed for the working classes. Moreover, Molly states how Jack, Percy, Winifred, Ivy and herself tried to be brave for their father, as he needed their support so much. “Most people would not understand this, but the wound went deep… Yes, time does heal, it takes much longer for some than others” (p.33). The impact of the death of Molly’s mother does not seem to have been eased nor were the family prepared for it, even though she had suffered with many illnesses throughout her lifetime. The National Insurance Act of 1911[3], aimed to provide better healthcare for working class people, although tackling so much widespread poverty and disease proved challenging and many still suffered. Molly’s strong family cohesion cannot be underestimated given that there were many working class families with close ties stemming from the peripheral economic existence and living lives of hardship. Therefore, comfort and entertainment was provided by family members.

It is interesting how Molly appears to prioritise her family throughout her life. Time spent with them, being influenced by them: her family members have had a significant impact upon her life. She takes time describing very extensively what they all do together as well as explaining details of each of their personal lives, including love interests: Percy remained a bachelor for many years before married; Jack became engaged to Mabel who was proud of being Jack’s one and only sweetheart , being a school girl when they met.  Their marriage lasted until she died at 75; Winifred was “a born home maker” (p.34) and set up home in Hounslow with fiancée Edward Sheppard.  Molly speaks of her siblings love lives yet fails to mention anything of her own. Nor does she mention any potential suitors or friends she has as she grows older. Molly Keen’s memoir details much about her childhood, as alluded to from the title, but I can’t help but wonder why she  focuses on accounting more information  about her family members and omitting further information about herself. Perhaps this simply reinforces how her family meant everything to her and she viewed them as having such an imminent influence upon her that she wanted to write this memoir as a tribute to them?

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[2]Angels of the workplace: women and the construction of gender relations in the Canadian clothing industry, 1890-1940, Mercedes Steedman, University of Toronto Press, 1997, p.2


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