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Posts Tagged ‘Isabella Clavering’

Since I moved to Sheffield in March, I’ve started to write a novel. It’s based on the life of my favourite ancestor, already mentioned several times on this blog – great-granny Isabella Clavering (1845-1906).

The facts about Bella that I’ve collected work well as a ready-made chapter list and there’s a consistent theme in her life that can be woven in : secrets and lies. She also experienced a dreadful amount of bereavement, so much it’s a challenge to think how I can introduce humour and positive notes. No-one will fight their way through to the end if it’s unceasing tragedy. We don’t relish death and melodrama in the way the Victorians did.

Now that I’m picturing her as a real person and not a set of dry facts, I see an incredibly resolute and strong woman, to have survived what she did.

But of course, she was not alone with these challenges in the late 19th century. At that time, the majority of people in Britain were in the ‘working classes’ or, even worse, among the destitute. The dividing line between those two states was fine and porous. A drop to the very bottom was easy for anyone. I can still remember how that felt in my own time, when my father was too ill to work, reliant on a ‘sick club’ that paid him a few shillings a week for only a short period. And how the older generation in the sixties, who’d grown up in the pre-welfare-state, worried mightily about how their children would pay for a burial. Many took out small insurance policies just for that, doing without essentials to cover the cost. It accompanied the terrible prospect of a ‘pauper’s grave’ if no provision was made during life.

So, in trying to picture great-granny Bella’s life in 1870s Manchester, I’m trying to see the ordinary details of every poor city-woman’s life back then, not just hers. I’ve discovered quickly how little I know. Questions fill my head. She had babies – were there nappies? How did baby poo get disposed of? Where was the nearest drinkable water? How was food prepared – was it just bought, as pies and fish-and-chips perhaps? Or was their only food bread? How did she do her hair? Did she have a mirror, or brush? What clothes did she possess? Maybe just one dress?

I haven’t considered a work-life for her yet because in the 1870s she appears to have helped out at her brother-in-law’s pub, the Crown and Anchor in Lever Street, Manchester. But it might be easier for me as a writer if she’d had occupations – servant, mill-worker, dressmaker, charwoman, etc. – because books have been written about 19th century female occupations, providing helpful details (though any or all could have been euphemisms for the oldest job in the world. It’s not beyond possibility that Isabella did as so many other women, turning to the street for income when she had no other option).

But, from a first look around, it doesn’t appear that many books have been written about the lives that most poor and working-class women had in their own domestic environments. Those mundane, ordinary details, even as basic as the location of a loo, or a sink, seem barely documented. Go up a step to middle-class and much more was written about women’s lives (or how they were supposed to live), both at the time and since. Newspapers at that period are full of stories and adverts we can use as guides, but not for writing the life of a poor woman, unless she got hauled before magistrates for soliciting, thieving, drunkenness or fighting.

I’ll gladly hear of suggestions from readers for books and articles that throw light on poor city-women’s lives during the full onslaught of industrialisation, in the last quarter of the 19th century up to the first war. Otherwise, I’ll have to rely on my own imagination to conjure up the missing details. But how can any of us know, from our present-day experience, how our ancestors lived 150 years ago? That question leads me to the sad thought that no matter how many ‘facts’ we dig up, we can never pay our foremothers the full respect they’re due, of really ‘knowing’ them.

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