Molly Keen’s memoir is similar to other working-class auto-biographers of this time period in that, regardless of distinctive motivations for writing their memoirs, Molly had a desire to record various personal events in her life, particularly those of her childhood and upbringing with her parents and siblings in Hounslow; her time spent at school and her various experiences during her years of education; the impact of the tragic death of her beloved mother; and her ambition to succeed and follow her chosen career as a nurse after having worked in a post office for many years.
Although there is an ambiguity as to why Molly has written her memoir, and it is unclear who she is writing for, I do believe that Molly Keen’s memoir was written for personal reasons rather than for publication. Despite not stating at any point what her motivation was for writing ‘Childhood memories’, given that her entire memoir is based on her childhood, teenage and early adult life and includes information both about her immediate and extended family and how she was influenced by them, I assume that her target audience was not the general public but her family.
Her autobiography highlights the good times and the bleaker times in her life. She gives an extremely detailed account of her early years in particular, and recalls events and experiences which involved family members and school friends.
Her memoir ends rather abruptly, with her stating the commencement of her nursing career in 1926, and this is the last that we hear of Molly Keen’s life.
Molly’s writing style is very descriptive, informative and insightful, providing an honest and real account of what life was like for a working class citizen living within this time period. We see the nature of her character expressed through her recollection of different events; her caring, thoughtful and ambitious nature shines through.
Although fortified with determination and ambition, yet devoted first and foremost to her family, we see how before the death of her mother, Molly sacrifices her desired career and opportunity of furthering herself so as to be with her family and help within the home. This reflects her strong familial bonds and demonstrates her humble, selfless nature. However, Molly doesn’t ever lose her motivation for fulfilling her aspiration to be a nurse, and the very final paragraph of her memoir is dedicated to this.
Molly does mention numerous significant historical events throughout her memoir.
Brief references are made to the sinking of Titanic (p.6); first airplane spotting (p.10); the emergence of what was known as the “Gay Twenties” (p.29), but she does not elaborate or explain in greater detail about any of them, except for World War 1, remarking how, “England’s days of peace came to a rapid close. Never again in the history of our land would life revert to what it had been.” (p.25) Perhaps this is because she was too young to fully comprehend what was occurring and how they impacted the world. However, a vivid perception is provided of the war according to Molly, as her two brothers were sent off to fight: “the time quickly arrived for Jack and Percy to join up…it was not long before they went to France. Percy was in trenches at the age of just eighteen.” (p.26) As with many similar working class families with relatives at war, the Keens not only endured the painful worry as to whether the two boys, Jack and Percy, would come home alive or not – “How we hated that awful moment of goodbye not knowing if we would see them again,” (p.27) -they also had to accept the introduction of food rationing in 1918 – “We at home were on strict rations for food” (p.27) – as well as facing the constant fear of air raid warnings. (p.27) Dedicating such a large part of her memoir to the First World War conveys the significance it had upon Molly’s life.
Molly’s memoir gives a very genuine account of the reality of living as a working class citizen living during the early twentieth century. From her writing, I do not think that she was under the impression, as were some other working class people, that autobiographies are egotistical. Rather I gather that she was a woman who had a desire for writing and simply wanted to note down part of her life story. In the 1840s, William Howitt said how the autobiographies, regardless of the reasons for why they were written, provide evidence of “the awakened mind of the common people”, demonstrating that they did have a voice and had stories to tell. I can’t help but think, however, why Molly Keen would have abruptly ended the memoir with no mention of why or how the remainder of her life was spent. There are various reasons that could explain this: perhaps her memoir became misplaced in her transition to a new place and new stage in her life; maybe her mother’s death upset and impacted her life to such an extent that she lost her desire to write anymore; or there is the possibility that this is only the first part of her life. Given the title ‘Childhood Memories’, Molly may have written a separate biography for her adult life which has not yet been found and linked to this first one. However, a vital detail is how Molly mentions that her brother Jack married Mabel, his childhood sweetheart, and their marriage lasted until she (Mabel) died at the age of 75” (p.31). This suggests that Molly was alive and witnessed this, given that she has included it within her memoir. Therefore it can be assumed that ‘Childhood Memories’ was written towards the end of her life. Whether or not she wrote a sequel to this one remains unknown.
William Howitt, Homes and Haunts of the British Poets (1847)