Mary Howitt (1888-1983): Purpose and Audience – Writing Lives

Mary Howitt (1888-1983): Purpose and Audience

…the public will recognize that experiences LIVED, and written down however poorly are of more real value and interest than imaginary fictions beautifully disguised” (Gagnier, 341)

In an article celebrating Woman’s Hour 70th anniversary on air (a BBC radio show), Jenni Murray writes, ‘When Woman’s Hour was commissioned in 1946 by Norman Collins, its brief was to provide companionship and advice to the millions of housewives who had been forced back to the kitchen as men returned..’ (N.pag) This was the show that Mary Howitt was invited to come onto and talk about the current state of women in the 1950’s. Although I do not have an exact date to when this happened, I know that Mary was in her mid to late 60’s. It was this radio show that she specifically wrote her memoir for.

With Woman’s Hour having an audience primarily of women, it makes sense that it was women who Mary directed her memoir towards. We see it all the way through as everything she talks about is an achievement in her life. The main frustration for women in post-war Britain was the workplace, the sudden loss of their job, the old expectations of going back to pre-war roles. Mary’s memoir therefore stood as a shining piece of evidence of what women could achieve, despite the expectations and prejudices women faced every day.

The purpose of her memoir was not just to stand as evidence, but demonstrate success in a ‘Man’s World’. Mary was born and raised in a time when the majority of women could not vote, when they could not divorce, when marriage meant the end of work. Despite these facts, Mary still worked, still travelled and still became independent and successful on her own means. There is no anger in her memoir, despite the judgements she might have faced being an unmarried woman who chose work, the term ‘Old maid’ and ‘Spinster’ were still in use by the time she had written her memoir.

Jean Metcalfe, who presented Woman’s Hour from 1947-1958.

Her memoir is also very nostalgic in the way she writes about her past experiences. She reflects back on all that she has done, giving anecdotes here and there of memorable people in her life, one in particular, Greta Yeal, who she described to be a ‘firm friend’ and who was ‘a former Durham student and for years we travelled together in Italy’ (8). From the very beginning she lets us know that two of her brothers have passed by the time she has written this, which is perhaps what makes her account so positive, looking to best times of her life. Mary’s memoir does not read like a diary, which is expected having written it for a professional interview of sorts, but it is clear that she spent time and thought to what she was writing. The fact she was presenting it on a national radio show might prove to be a negative, how readily would she have shared so much had the memoir been private, as some of the other writing lives authors are?

Many working-class authors considered it egotistical to write about themselves only, they believed it was only necessary if their writing served a specific function. Although Mary never belittled herself in her memoir, never pointed out that her life was so mundane or insignificant, would she still have written it without the invitation to Woman’s Hour? Or would she had thought, like so many other working-class at that time, why bother?

Even so, her memoir is unique in its celebration of her achievements, and makes no move to apologize for ‘bragging’ about her success, instead it marks the fundamental change that happened in the early 20th century, when the working-class finally began to have a voice, each an individual voice, not just to the workers, but also to the women.

Works cited:

‘Mary Howitt’ 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): 1:355

Gagnier, Regenia. ‘Social Atoms: Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender’.  Victorian Studies Vol. 30, No. 3 (Spring, 1987), pp. 335-363. Indiana University Press.

Murray, Jenni. ‘There’s been a genderquake – and women are winning’. 2016.

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