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Monday, November 22, 2010

A “lost life” available for discovery: Marjory Todd and her game of snakes and ladders

When I read Jonathan Rose’s landmark social history The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, I didn’t have either a blog or the words to say how good I thought it was. Amongst other achievements, he has trudged around otherwise unvisited accounts of working class life in the 20th century. A lady called Marjory Todd and her autobiography Snakes and Ladders are among his footnotes.

Marjory Todd was born in the 1900s. She was part of the generation for whom the First World War was a childhood memory; who grew to maturity in the late ‘20s and ‘30s and who were pretty hardened by the time the Second World War came along. She was one of five children born to a gentle former teacher and a hard drinking and maudlin cabinet maker. When their mother dies they are exposed to the caprices of their father who is as ridiculous as he is cruel. He is soon joined by a vulgar sailor’s wife whom his children label “the woman” in a domestic set up which is never quite clear to anyone.

Marjory is clever but she is poor and without her mother’s influence it rather shows. She meets snobbery at school and resentment at home and so jumps the education ship in favour of work at 14. There begins a catalogue of different jobs as lady’s maid, children’s nanny, civil servant, employment exchange operative during the 1926 General Strike, broadcaster and probation officer. Geographically, she treks up hill and down dale to earn a living and in pursuit of her dream – of going to university.

Snakes and Ladders is human and humorous and a staggering account of self reliance. Its voice is charming and self possessed. The book is also a splendid period piece. Being rather fashion conscious, I am drawn to the passages which touch on clothes. This (circa. 1925) is one of my favourites:

“I only had a jersey and a skirt; these were all my clothes. The jersey was a sort of Fair Isle I had knitted out of oddments, including, I remember, some unpicked brown woollen stockings. It was really rather gay. The skirt had been given my by a neighbour. I had no hat. I had had one; I had made it out of the raided cuffs of an old coat of my mother’s, but it had blown into the river a few weeks before. Since then, I had been going about feeling eccentric and rather brazen”.

Here is a woman of her age. A woman whose belongings can be packed into a single case; who earns her own money; and for whom “living in digs” was the final emancipation.

Her gift for giving a flavour is not the end of Todd’s historical value – for she finds herself on the spot at significant moments in history.

Firstly, this is an account of pre war labour politics, as viewed intelligently from the margins. Her account of the left wing in London in the ‘20s and ‘30s is philosophic and engaging. What is more – this is an account of the development of her ideas. Like many working class people she was educated voluntarily and in the evenings at the WEA (Workers’ Education Association) which hosted lectures and classes in chilly communal halls. She speaks for many when she writes: “we really did believe in perfectibility”. She is a thinking woman with an independent mind; idealistic but not blind to absurdities. I was particularly tickled by her brush with the Fabian Society: “The few I knew talked a lot about the working classes and seemed interested to hear that I lived in Limehouse”. She provides little further comment and I rather think she doesn’t need to.

Secondly, her life was touched by the great and the good (and the interesting). At Toynbee Hall, Todd was tutored by Cyril Joad, the intellectual and broadcaster who it seems to me, rather fancied her. He certainly provided her with mentoring and assistance in the world which few of her background could hope for. Nina Hamnett, the famously dissolute and rather interesting painter introduced Todd (whom she called “Blackie”) to C. K. Ogden, the eccentric philosopher who also became a great friend. Of all the strange and unexpected people to wander across the stage of a working class memoir; even Lady Ottoline Morrell, scary sight and patroness of all things bohemian, puts in an appearance.

What is probably most brilliant about Snakes and Ladders is that Todd deals with the business of being working class in the first half of the twentieth century. This is a voice which is not often heard and it is a voice that may sound strange to some. There is a constant need to deal with the snobberies of others; their misunderstanding of working class mores and their sense of entitlement. Todd is what my father in law would call “grafter”. She worked hard from girlhood onwards and she was given nothing. This created in her a kind of work mania and an interest in earning money which confounded her middle class friends. When she had to leave a boyfriend with whom she was in love because of work he challenged her “Why must you go? Why must you always be so working class?”

Snakes and Ladders is a kaleidoscope of the personal, the political and the historical – of those things within the mind and the most pressing needs of the body. It is not a “let it all hang out” sort of memoir. Todd hints at her personal life but she does not feel obliged to explain it. Snakes and Ladders certainly does not want for the lack of this; there is more than enough here, to be getting on with.

This is not the sort of book (more is the pity) that can be picked up in Waterstones – but I got mine inexpensively on amazon. I have included a picture of the book itself and to try to make up for the fact that I cannot find an image of Margory Todd – I have included some of the people with whom she was friends: Cyril Joad, C. K. Ogden, Nina Hamnett and Ottoline Morrell.


  1. Sounds absolutely fascinating. Thanks.

  2. This sounds like such a wonderful book! And I love the spine of your copy!

  3. How wonderful! Sounds like a Persephone reprint in the making?! I love unexpected discoveries like this. It makes me wonder how many fascinating stories lie untold on the shelves of dusty second hand bookshops. Thank you Hannah, I'll add this to my amazon wishlist!

  4. This sounds perfect. I do wish it was more readily available, but maybe I'll be lucky and find it on amazon from a seller who wants to send outside the US/UK..

  5. I really need to read this, totally up my lane! Have you seen the Olivia De Havilland film, "To Each His Own?" When I read this review I couldn't help but think of it, with the hardworking girl of the 1920's as it's star.

  6. Sounds very very fascinating reading.

  7. How do you come across such treasures??
    This is for my wish list, too. Thank you for the time and effort that have gone into this and all of your reviews, Hannah