“I knew then that I should die an old maid, I was only twenty years old”
May’s memoir is about her childhood and early adulthood growing up in a small country village near Macclesfield, at the end of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century. She writes mostly about her family and home life, her education and also work life. A rare glimpse into her early adult life is her “love story” (Jones, 41) through which she offers some reflections on World War I. May’s comments on the First World War are short and only tells us about the experience of her boyfriend at the time. Although it does provide an insight into a less talked about aspect of the war, conscientious objectors.
May’s ‘love story’ begins at age six when she became friends with a boy who stayed with his aunt for the summer holidays. He was “a quiet, studious boy and won his way to Cambridge by scholarship” (Jones, 41). His parents were “middle-class business people” (Jones, 43) who worked hard to give their son a university education. Inklings of romance began to happen one night when they were teenagers and “He stood talking for a few minutes longer and I saw him looking at me with a twinkle in his eye, and with a great shock I realized I was hugging his hat and stroking it like I did the cat” (Jones, 41). May was mortified and ran off until he had left her house. Feelings were mutual as he waited outside her workroom at the milliners the next night and they walked home together. May was both excited and nervous as “It was the first time I had walked home with him or any other boy and suddenly I felt some how top heavy, grown up and shy.” (Jones, 41).
Despite having a strong hold on May’s emotions she uses two names for her boyfriend in her memoir. Sometimes he’s Philip, sometimes he’s Isaac and she uses the name interchangeably. It seems she is talking about the same person. This is one of the examples of where May loses clarity in her memoir that contrasts the details in which she describes some places and memories.
As their relationship progressed they went on dates in the Cheshire plains as they both loved nature, sometimes he cycled twenty miles from Manchester just to see her. As May says it was “love’s young dream.” (Jones, 42). Her boyfriend also loved poetry and would recite it to her, her favourite was ““I could not love thee dear so much loved I not honour more.” (Jones, 43). This is a line from ‘To Lucasta, Going to the Wars’ by Richard Lovelace. This was an ironic poem to quote as the poem is about two lovers separated by the man going to war. The man breaks up with the woman as he wants to go to war as he finds the chaos of war more exciting than being with her. This is ironic for two reasons, firstly May and Philip/Isaac get separated when he has to go fight in WWI and secondly because he did not want to go to war as he was a Quaker.
Told through May’ memoir we get a glimpse into certain aspects of WWI. When war broke out in 1914 many people objected to it for religious or moral reasons. These people were known as conscientious objectors as they refused to fight. This led to many consequences from being branded a coward with a white feather to being imprisoned. Philip/Isaac was a Quaker who “believed and lived according to their teachings and principles of (one) of which was, Thou shalt not kill.” (Jones, 43). He registered as a pacifist but ended up in prison for defending his views. While he was there he learnt first aid skills and when was discharged he went to the front to care for injured soldiers. He did his active service in France and was a stretcher bearer. This was a dangerous job as it involved going out into no man’s land to rescue injured soldiers. May commented on his bravery by saying “He carried neither gun or gas mask, an officer wrote to his parents saying that he was an inspiration to the (?) who were in the trenches even the German snipers respected him for he saw neither British or German, friend or foe.” (Jones, 44). As stated on the Quaker website, volunteering for service in a medical capacity was common for many Quakers during the War as “some volunteered for the Friends Ambulance Unit or the Friends War Victims Relief Committee, providing relief from suffering at the front.”
May’s love story was tragically cut short when a letter, that every person with love ones fighting in the war dreaded, came to say that Philip/Isaac had been killed in action. May concludes her love story with the lines: “The shock and loss was terrible, I felt I had lost half of myself or was it my twin soul, I knew then that I should die an old maid, I was only twenty years old.” (Jones, 44).
May Jones in John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall (eds) The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography 1790-1945, 3 vols. (Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989): 1:401
Banks, Thomas Joseph; June Morning on the River Wharfe near Tadcaster; Pannett Art Gallery; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/june-morning-on-the-river-wharfe-near-tadcaster-10006