Norah Brain (1907-1987): Purpose & Audience – Writing Lives

Norah Brain (1907-1987): Purpose & Audience

It appears that Norah wrote her memoir to reflect upon her harsh childhood. She makes explicit that she wouldn’t want any of her children to experience the same sort of childhood: ‘I swore no child of mine would ever suffer as I suffered’. (1) It is unclear whether she hoped the manuscript would be published but most likely it was written for her own children and grandchildren for whom she seeks to recapture her childlike adventures.

Norah’s memoir does not contain specific dates as it flows more like a story than an autobiography. Norah begins the memoir with her father going off to fight in the First World War, which, she ironically notes ‘was the war that was to end all wars.’(5) However, Norah provides no further detail about how her life was affected by the war, suggesting that it made little impact on her as a child.She only expresses her sadness about missing her father who is away at war rather than the war’s political impact.  Similarly she refers only in passing to the ‘troubles’ in Ireland, focusing instead on her childhood experience.fountain pen

In his essay ‘Love and Death and the Nineteenth-Century Working Class’, David Vincent has argued that many autobiographers lacked a vocabulary to describe their emotional lives. Rather than using their own words, he argues that some working-class autobiographers quoted from popular songs, religious and moral sayings to convey their feeling. Norah clearly expresses her anger, however, over what she saw as her parents’ lack of affection towards her as a child: ‘ You would think being the only girl I would be petted and pampered, in fact I was resented, if anything was wrong it was my fault even if I had no idea what had happened & often punished & not knowing why.’ (4) She also conveys the emotions she seems to have felt while writing the memoir through the poem she uses at the end. Here, nostalgia perhaps helps her express the feelings of fondness and regret that run through her autobiography.

If,in my youth, oh Lord, you had

given me the wisdom of age,

with good deeds I may have filled

this page.

The words would flow like water,

Insted – they stop & like my footsteps


If on the way, I had heeded words

then spoken,

There would be no sorrow in the

hearts so broken,

The tears that flow will not heal the


For foolish deeds can never be recalled,

nor unkind words forgotten,

Pain weaves the heart & clouds the crow.

Where has our great strength gone

& the brightness of the mind,

Somewhere along lifes road we left

It all behind.

The legs that once could run for

Miles or dance the night away,

The hands that worked from dawn till


now idle lay, the will is there but the

Limbs will not obey,

The eyes that once could read a book

now scarseely sees the page,

And this, my friend is age,

Theres not much joy in age my friend,

no matter what folds say & I

would gladly change with youth, if

I had my way.

( Poem exactly copied from Norah’s memoir)

Picture Reference:

Further Reading:

Vincent, David. ‘Love and Death and the Nineteenth-Century Working Class.’ Social History, 5.2 (1980): 223-247 .

Useful  Websites:

(Useful link of English and Irish labouring- class poetry)

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