Mary Denison (1906 – 1997): War and Memory. – Writing Lives

Mary Denison (1906 – 1997): War and Memory.

‘What did you know about the Great War, as it was called – the background to four of your childhood years?’ (63)

Image of the propaganda leaflet.

Mary Denison’s memoir mentions the impact of the First World War at the end of the narrative as for her this was the turning point within her childhood. When the War began in 1914, Mary was no older than eight years of age and had little understanding of what was going on around her. Mary begins the discussion on the war by recalling the first time that she read about it.  Mary says that her first reading of the war was through the famous propaganda leaflet that proclaimed, ‘your country needs you’ (63). It was from this moment that Mary’s life changed as she witnessed the shift in atmosphere within the Vicarage, anxieties about the war grew and this was reflected within the family.

Images of the front cover of Punch magazine.

As noted in the purpose and audience blog post, Mary is writing her memoir as an adult and is reflecting back on her childhood. Mary reflects on how much she knew about the war as she says, ‘What did you know about the Great War, as it was called – the background to four of your childhood years?’ (63). As an adult who had lived through two wars, Mary questions how much she could really know about the events that surrounded her childhood. Mary does give credit to her childhood self for looking for more information about the war. For example, Mary remembers how she used to read Punch magazine in an attempt to familiarise herself with what was going on around her. She started to learn about the terminology such as ‘the sandbags, no – mans land, shells and bombardments’ (63). This terminology would have been used regularly by her parents and therefore Mary had to educate herself in an attempt to understand what was going on.

Mary also reflects back to a time when the war had developed further and ‘the Belgian refugees began to arrive’ (64). However, with the increase of refugees came an increase in tensions and conflict within the parish, especially in a highly religious community. Mary comments on how this conflict was sparked by the fact that ‘the refugees were foreigners, and Roman Catholics; they had strange ways, and their families didn’t always get on with each other’ (64). Mary builds the tension within her memoir to mirror the tensions that were growing within the community. For example, the community began to feel uneasy with the new faces within the parish and as a result hostility began to rise. However, the comments that Mary makes about the refugees is something that Mary would have overheard from the adults in her life. It is unlikely that Mary would have fully understood the conflict within the parish considering that she was only eight years old.

In addition to this, Mary reflects on how ‘the War came even nearer home when the training college beyond the church wood was turned into a Military hospital’ (64). Through the way that Mary structures her memoir we see how the war grew larger and closer to the Vicarage walls. Mary reflects on how she would watch the wounded soldiers who walked past the Vicarage with ‘crutches, bandaged heads or arms’ (65). Mary also remembers how herself and her siblings would laugh at the men who had suffered shell shock. She referred to them as ‘pathetic figures whose shaking hands and incoherent muttering reduced you to uneasy giggling’ (65). This quote could potentially highlight Mary’s age during the war as we see her immature or uncomprehending reaction to people who were suffering.

Furthermore, Mary commented on how roles changed within the household during the war. One example of this is Mary’s father whose ‘part in the war effort gave you a certain thrill of pride. He had of course, the soldiers in the Military hospital to care for, but besides this, he joined the special constables and the auxiliary fire brigade’ (66). This is only the second time that we hear of Mary’s father and this suggests that seeing a different side to her father brought a new-found respect to Mary. For the first time, she was able to develop a relationship with her father (a point that is interesting at a time of so much hostility).

Image of women working in the munition factories during WW1.

In addition to this, ‘a big change was coming over your life at the Vicarage; more than a change, in fact – almost a revolution. No more maids’ (68). As the War became bigger than anyone had anticipated, the need for help in other areas of work grew. The maids ‘disappeared into the munition factories’ (68) and this highlights how much change occurred during the war. As a result of the maids leaving the Vicarage, Mary had to begin domestic duties within the household, a role that she was privileged enough to avoid previously. Furthermore, Mary’s memoir exposes the ways that the gender and class roles changed during the War as women began to do the work of a man. As author Susan Grayzel stated, ‘by the time the fighting came to a halt on 11 November 1818, there was almost no work that women in the belligerent nations had not done to aid the war effort’ (2013, 3). This highlights how the war changed the ways that the workplace segregated gender roles. In the same way that gender roles shifted, so did class. The class boundaries that had previously been so engrained into Mary’s day to day life ceased to exist – everyone had to come together to aid the War effort.

Mary concludes her memoir with the end of the First World War: ‘on the morning of November 11th, father ran up the union Jack on the pole. The War was over – really over’ (69). Mary remembers how herself and her siblings celebrated in the garden by singing songs and dancing around. Mary admits that this was ‘a War that you had lived through, but scarcely comprehended’ (70). By being a child while the war progressed, Mary realises that she hardly suffered or even understood the suffering that was inflicted upon others. By living through the Second World War, Mary had the trauma of knowing just how blissfully unaware she was as a child. Despite accepting that she never fully understood the war, Mary does pinpoint it as being the event that ended her childhood.  Mary says ‘your nursery years running to a close. Your private school years, your childhood years. All running to a close, coming to their end’ (70). As the war drew to a close so did the childhood that Mary had spent the majority of her memoir remembering.

Works cited:

Denison, Mary. ‘Church Bells and Tram Cars; a Vicarage Childhood’. Burnett Archive of Working-Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection.

‘Mary Denison’ 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): 1:250

Grayzel, Susan. ‘Women and the First World War’. Routledge. 2013.

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