MOLLY KEEN (B.1903): LIFE WRITING, CLASS & IDENTITY

Exploring Molly Keen’s narrative in terms of the six types of working class autobiographies as described by Regenia Gagnier, Molly, unlike the working-class auto-biographers whose memoirs are categorised as confessions, did not write in an attempt to sell or publish her work in return for recognition and a sum of money. Rather, ‘Childhood Memories’, an introspective memoir with more emphasis on Molly Keen as an individual as opposed to a collective identity, can be referred to as a memoir of self-examination: the memoir having been produced as an outward analysis of the events within Molly’s life as well as, helping ease any pain through the writing of the narrative. One particular example is the death of Molly’s mother. “Overwhelmed and desolate” (p.33), Molly elucidates the devastating effect this event had upon her and the rest of the Keen family as they attempted to come to terms with how “The thing that we had all dreaded in our hearts had happened” (p.33). In expressing her inner turmoil and struggle to overcome the tragedy and move forward with her life, Molly states that “Yes, time does heal,” (p.33) but “it takes much longer for some than others.” (p.33) In this way the act of Molly writing her autobiography can be viewed as therapeutic, with her memoir detailing her “unmitigated misery and hardship”[1], enlightening her with self-understanding. Many working class auto-biographers, whose memoirs fall into the category of self-examination, use their writing as a means of self-scrutiny, self-analysis and comprehension of themselves as individuals within a multi-class society.

 

Another narrative form which matches Molly Keen’s memoir is that of Commemorative Storytellers. Born and brought-up in the rural village of Hounslow, Molly’s episodic, anecdotal writing, informed by the events within her life at her own home as well as in the countryside dwellings of both her maternal and paternal grandparents, is underlined by a nostalgic tone. With fond memories of her pleasurable childhood, Molly describes how life for her siblings and she, at home and when they started school, was “on the whole happy and secure” (p.8). Despite being working class, Molly’s ambitious father who worked long hours as a master Sign Writer, and her loving and thoughtful mother, provided Molly and her siblings with as satisfying a life as possible within their means, enabling the entire family to enjoy “many pleasurable outings” (p.6) to Burnham Beeches and Kew Gardens, and trips to Hounslow High Street where the shops and pavements, on a Sunday, would be “crowded until very late in evening until 10pm” (p.12). Recounting numerous memories from her childhood which link together various stages within Molly’s life fits with Gagnier’s description of commemorative storytelling memoirs: ‘they present unstructured, thematically arbitrary, disconnected anecdotes’[2]

Hounslow High Street 1
Hounslow High Street

Although Molly’s imaginative mind creates fantasy places such as the “veritable fairy land” (p.22) where she and her siblings escape the mundaneness of everyday life; as is a common trait of commemorative storyteller memoirs, within ‘Childhood Memories’ there are no overly “distinctive autobiographical subjects apart from the continuous life of the village”[3]: There are no outstanding events which dramatically change the course of her common working-class life. Molly does make reference to the First World War, in which her two brothers Jack and Percy have to go and fight. Stating, “Never again in the history of our land would life revert to what it had been” (p.25), I assume Molly means this as a general statement for the entire country as opposed to dramatically changing the town of Hounslow. True, there were many post-war changes, such as what came to be known as the “Gay Twenties” (p.29) and “flapper” (p.29) girls but for many working class people, “mass unemployment and dissolution was rife.”  (p.29) Given that Molly simply “continued at the railway and was not finding work interesting or satisfying” (p.39), this suggests that there were no direct changes upon her life, again reinforcing the apparent tedium and flat continuity of her existence; aspects present in this commemorative storytelling style of memoir. Only mentioning at the end of the memoir that she began training to become a nurse and that she “commenced her nursing career in March 1926” (p.35), is there a suggestion that Molly is breaking away from the life which had been expected of a working-class woman, previous to the Suffragette movement. This relates to Gagnier’s depiction of Commemorative storytellers memoirs in saying, “no other but the future will end this way of life.”[4]

flappers_duo
An image of a flapper girl duo.

Image 1:http://www.hounslow.info/libraries/local-history-archives/discover-hounslow/#hou

Image 2: http://www.fashion-era.com/images/1920s_photos/flappers_duo.jpg


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[1]Gagnier, Regina, ‘Social Atoms: Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender.’ Victorian Studies, 30.3 (1987) 367.

[2] Gagnier, Regina, ‘Social Atoms: Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender.’ Victorian Studies, 30.3 (1987) 348-9.

[3] Gagnier, Regina, ‘Social Atoms: Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender.’ Victorian Studies, 30.3 (1987) 348-9.

[4]Gagnier, Regina, ‘Social Atoms: Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender.’ Victorian Studies, 30.3 (1987) 348-9.

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