Katherine Henderson (B.1908): Purpose and Audience – Writing Lives

Katherine Henderson (B.1908): Purpose and Audience

had i but known

At the start of her autobiography, Katherine Henderson clearly sets out the reasons for documenting her life. She began her memoir when she retired in 1974 and was looking for a new challenge. At the end of the memoir she reveals that s cheque of £1,000 – ‘a glorious surprise’(81) – from her employers, the MacDonald family, had enabled her to give up the world of work. She had always regretted having to leave school at fourteen and she confides that writing about working days brought out the best in her abilities.

Katherine’s memoir is a personal account and the concealment of her name implies she does not want exposure; therefore respectfully I will not delve in to uncovering her family by their genuine names. Katherine’s memoir is a reflection of her life, and the task of writing her memoir was to occupy her new life. Katherine’s retirement was a time in her life she ‘dreaded’ (81) as she felt she would be ‘bored to tears with nothing to do. (82) Consequently her memoir is a reflection of her life, and an activity to occupy the void of her old life.

Katherine also seems to have wanted to provide a portrait of working- class life earlier in the century. She presents her life as one of struggle: ‘Life was hard in those days’ (8) yet her autobiography is also a story of personal progress. Although she does not have much family left, she has the luxury of being able to afford to read and the challenger of telling her history.

Katherine, who was named Dudley at the time, signed her autobiography under the pseudonym Katherine Henderson. When talking of her working life the account is very ordinary, her life is typical of a working class citizen. I have not yet discovered why she called herself ‘Henderson’ but most likely it relates to the brutal murder of her son Colin by her husband John, with whom she longer wished to be connected. What appears perplexing about this account is, I have not yet been able to find any documentation about this murder or her marriage to a man named John Dudley. It is possible that Katherine changed the names in the memoir in order to protect the identity of the surviving family.

There is a puzzle surrounding Katherine’s memoir that I am trying to solve. The memoir appears to have been written for Katherine’s personal documentation rather than for publication or for others as her motives are blurred with no concise audience. Why would Katherine need to change her name if she had no intention for publication? Why did she need to preserve her identity? – As she does not state why I can only conclude that she saw writing as a way of relief, once her husband murdered her son, she never visited her husband’s trial or came to terms with the death, was this was counselling for Katherine, perhaps her grieving process?

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