Molly Keen's cover page of her memoir 'Childhood Memories'
Molly Keen’s cover page of her memoir ‘Childhood Memories’

‘Childhood Memories’, by Molly Keen, born in 1903 and one of five children of Charles and Helen Keen from the Bath Road, Hounslow, stays true to the title in recounting an entire childhood of events, depicting a life of great satisfaction yet endless hardships.  Inspired and influenced by her hard-working, honourable father who is a master Sign Writer and loving mother who unfortunately suffers much ill health, Molly’s memoir is both informative and personal, offering examples and insights into the daily struggles of working-class life in the early twentieth century.

With its emphasis on family values and familial relationships and experiences, as well as school, life before during and after the First World War, shopping, health, illness, career and ambition, Molly’s account enticed me due to the honest and open nature of the writing, combined with her impressive descriptive style which makes for enjoyable reading.

I was particularly drawn to Molly’s appreciation of the small things in life, and how her siblings and parents always made the most out of what limited resources or opportunities they had. From imaginative and creative make-believe games and playing in the “veritable fairy land” (p.22) and “paradise” (p.14) of her grandfather’s garden, to pleasurable outings with parents to places such as Kew Gardens and Burnham beeches, it makes me smile knowing how close-knit this family and entire community were, and how Molly did not appear to feel disadvantaged because of her working class background. She seems to have been a jubilant child with a very joyful and loving upbringing.

Kew Gardens
Postcard image of Kew Gardens, one of Molly Keen’s favourite places to visit with her family.
Another image of Kew Gardens, this image showing the pavillion area
Another image of Kew Gardens, this image showing the pavillion area.

Molly’s first-hand account of the effects of living through the First World War and the impact this had upon her family, community and country was another aspect which drew me to this autobiography. Detailing the many changes which the war brought, and how “England’s days of peace came to a rapid close” (p.25) with the commencement of the fighting and battling, a very vivid and real interpretation is given of this experience, and the worries and fears of having two brothers, Jack and Percy, away fighting.

A pivotal point in the memoir is the death of Molly’s beloved mother and her description of her own and her father’s responses to their loss gives us insights into the emotional lives and coping strategies of the working-class.  Almost always upbeat and optimistic, this tragic occurrence caused deep despair and grievance: “The days and nights that followed seemed like a nightmare” (p.33). However, further evidence of her remarkably thoughtful, caring and loving nature is demonstrated in her aim to be strong and exceptionally brave so as to support and aid her father, who struggled greatly with this heartache.

Although time does supposedly heal, Molly appears to have been severely wounded internally from this incident. Describing how “Time dragged” (p.34), she doesn’t write with the same zest and vivacious love and appreciation for life which before she had.

Very briefly mentioning her ambition to follow a nursing career, Molly applied and was accepted onto the course at the West Middlesex hospital. The beginning of her career brings the memoir to an abrupt end although Molly tells us she “found great satisfaction in the work” (p.35). I cannot help but wonder what her later years consisted of, and what great trials and tribulations her life entailed. Perhaps after the death of her mother she struggled to cope?

Despite failing to mention any love interests of her own, Molly does provide details of the love lives of her siblings, mentioning how Percy remained a bachelor for many years before he married; Jack became engaged to Mabel who was proud of being Jack’s one and only sweetheart, and Winifred set up home in Hounslow with her fiancée Edward Sheppard. (p.34). This information is key to deciphering when the memoir was written. Considering that Molly asserts how Jack and Mabel’s marriage “lasted until she (Mabel) died at the age of 75” (p.31), it is evident that Molly wrote this memoir towards the end of her life as she would have been a similar age  to Mabel, and was able to recount the memory of her death.

I am eager to delve more deeply into this memoir and see what can be unravelled.

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