Norah Brain (1907-1987): Habits, Culture & Belief – Writing Lives

Norah Brain (1907-1987): Habits, Culture & Belief

In Norah’s memoir cultural activities are almost mentioned in passing as the memoir mainly emphasizes the importance of family life and work. However Norah expresses her love of dancing at a dance hall. ‘ Sunday evenings Londons had a bit of a dance [..] I would stand outside & listen to the music & wished to dance.’ (58) However for Norah her cultural activities are always associated with her family, as whenever she has any free time for leisure; she spends with her family. ‘ [..] each Sunday evening I was given a few hours off & went home.’ (58) It is essential to point out that although from the 1870s onwards there was a rise of mass entertainment and leisure time, for Norah her habits, culture and beliefs are all connected to her family life and working-class nature.

Throughout the memoir there are no real changing patterns of recreation perhaps due to the fact that Norah’s memoir reflects back on her childhood and the fact that Norah’s family was very large and poor, therefore not having the money to take part in recreational activities. One main cultural activity which is prevalent throughout the memoir is going to church.  Norah writes about her excitement of the Easter celebrations:

 ‘ Easter Sunday there was excitement we were to have the “stations” the priest was to perform a service, [..] the best table cloth covered the table & brass candle sticks placed each end everywhere was epic [..]’(46)


Visiting Church within Norah’s memoir is a shared social space in which both genders can be part of. However in the memoir there are a number of cultural activities which are gendered. Firstly Norah’s mother sews for soldiers. ‘ Ma took sewing in, & sew she did until she could not see it.’ (5) woman sewing 1918

Also Norah often helps with chores and bakes bread.  Hunting is expressed as a masculine activity in the memoir as Norah states:

 ‘ [..] cousin Jim borrowed my fathers ferret &  a bag of nets to go rabbitting- when they set off I followed them, I only wanted to see what happened, they told me to go home. I promised that as soon as a rabbit came out I would do so [..]’(35)

However later in the memoir Norah takes part in hunting and even rears piglets which were going to be killed. ‘ [..] in two weeks they were drinking without help [..] later they were sold as 8 [ one word illegible] pigs.’ (54-55) From Norah’s description of masculine activity it is made clear in the memoir that she does not want to be confined to take part in specific gendered activities.  In addition Melanie Tebbutt’s  Women’s Talk ? A Social History of ‘ Gossip’ in Working-Class Neighbourhoods, 1880-1960 can be a useful text in correspondence with Norah’s memoir. In relation to Tebbutt’s text Norah’s memoir expresses the lack of space for women through the description of street gossiping and calling round at other women’s houses:‘ [..] whenever Babby met someone she would stop for a gossip [..]’(28)

In general Norah’s experience of cultural activities is one that was most definitely gendered. However it is vital to point out that these activities, habits and beliefs are always connected to Norah’s working-class and her family life. In particular activities such as baking bread and hunting serve a purpose of survival to the family, hence from the memoir it can be seen that although cultural activities and leisure time were becoming more widespread in the Twentieth Century for Norah and her working-class family, cultural activities were mostly connected to work and family life.

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Further Reading: Melanie Tebbutt.  Women’s Talk ? A Social History of ‘ Gossip’ in Working-Class Neighbourhoods, 1880-1960  (Aldershot, 1995)

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