There are specific moments and events in Maud Matilda Clarke’s (née Mills, 1887-1982) memoir that she remembers very well, describing them in colourful detail. However, equally intriguing are the memories which she chooses to omit from her autobiography. Using records available to me on findmypast.co.uk and considering the historical events that Maud lived through, I have pieced together external evidence with the information that Maud has given us to discover even more about her.
Memory is, of course, selective. Maud appears to have made a choice when writing her autobiography to stick to those memories which were the most pleasant and dear to her. As Jonathan Rose says, autobiographers are liable to forget, misremember, embellish, invent or rearrange events to make for a more interesting story; it is a mixture of human error and creativity that makes the memoir; although I am confident that Maud was not one to falsify stories, I often feel some information is missing from certain chapters.
Despite Maud’s style becoming fragmented and episodic (Rogers, Cuming) after the first half of the autobiography, at no point does she go beyond the years following her marriage in 1913 or the devastating wars that were to come. As mentioned, her primary focuses are her fondest memories so it could be that she simply had no desire to revisit some of the more traumatic points in her life. The only inclusion of anything World War-related are 2 photographs of family (pictured left and below right).
The wars, of course, affected everyone in Europe who lived at the time. More specific to Maud, however, was a zeppelin raid in 1916 on her home town of Tipton. Maud does not mention this at all and I am left wondering how much it affected her and if she knew any of the victims personally.
My research has also brought to light some things that Maud either skimmed over or did not say at all. Such as the tragic chapter on the death of her youngest brother Howard Mills, who only survived for 8 months. Howard was born in April 1895 and baptised in May of the same year. He was the first of the Mill’s children to be baptised. 4 days later, Maud and her siblings, Samuel Herbert, Clara and Dora were all baptised together. I think this suggests that baby Howard was quite ill and that Samuel Mills (1854-1930) and Maria Mills (née Hughes, 1859-1937) turned to the Christian faith in hopes of saving their new-born. Baptising the other children (all bar her younger brother John Arthur, I can’t figure out why), ranging in ages from 2 to 10 years old, was perhaps a security if another should fall ill.
Maud’s own viewpoint on this is difficult to pinpoint, but she does say this of her brother’s funeral, recalling it from when she was only six, “Why”? I asked, had baby been put into a hole in the ground if, (as mother told me) he had gone to Heaven” (30). This is one of the only things Maud says in relation to religion.
“I was again awakened by mother’s cry of anguish “My child – my child” as she witnessed the death of this loved baby.
(Again I suffered 28 years after when my six year old daughter died.)” (Clarke, 30)
On the same page as the birth and death of her brother, Maud mentions the passing of her eldest daughter, Janet M Clarke, in 1921 at just six-years-old. This is heart-breaking to read as if follows on from an almost comedic explanation of her mother giving birth and all the curiosity of a young child.
It was not simply deliberate omissions or forgetfulness that shaped the rhythm of Maud’s memoir, but also age. In her early 90s when she wrote it, she has a tendency to repeat stories or elaborate on points she has already made; it’s as if she is in conversation and writes in a flow of consciousness. It also affected her consistency, such as in the quotation above, it was actually only 26 years after Howard died that she tragically lost Janet, or when she claims to have taken sixpence to pay for Dame school on one page and then threepence on another.
It is only by checking particular points against external evidence (Vincent) that I have been able to follow clues and support Maud’s story with historical records, therefore making much of what was unknown clear, and giving clarity to certain aspects of her autobiography.
Clarke, Maud. ‘Untitled’. Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 156, available at http://bura.brunel.ac.uk/handle/2438/9479
‘Maud Clarke’ in John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall (eds) The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography1790-1945, 3 vols. (Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989): 156
Rogers, Helen and Emily Cuming, ‘Revealing Fragments: Close and Distant reading of Working-Class Autobiography’, Family & Community History, 21:3 (2019): 180-201. https://doi.org/10.1080/14631180.2018.1555951 (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.
Rose, Jonathan, ‘Rereading the English Common Reader: A Preface to a History of Audiences.’ Journal of the History of Ideas. 1 (1992): 47-70. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2709910 (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.
Vincent, David. ‘Love and Death and the Nineteenth-Century Working Class.’ Social History, 5.2 (1980): 223-247. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4284976 (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.