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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 496

Family Memories has a very strong feminist theme. From the outset West makes it clear that she has many grievances against men. In nineteenth century Scotland, men were given privileges largely because they were men, not because they were inherently superior to women. Her uncle Alexander Mackenzie, for example, was...

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Family Memories has a very strong feminist theme. From the outset West makes it clear that she has many grievances against men. In nineteenth century Scotland, men were given privileges largely because they were men, not because they were inherently superior to women. Her uncle Alexander Mackenzie, for example, was no doubt a genius, but West believes that her mother Isabella’s talent was just as great. Yet Isabella’s mother, Janet Campbell Mackenzie, lavished all of her resources on her son, disregarding her daughter. When that son rejected his own family, Janet Campbell Mackenzie continued to yearn for his approval. This angers West because her grandmother had shown such strength after her husband’s early death, opening up a lace shop and refusing the charity of her community. In other words, there was no reason that Janet Campbell Mackenzie should defer to the wishes of any man. Yet Alexander Mackenzie was treated like a king.

Isabella became caught in the same pattern of male dominance when she married Charles Fairfield. In fact, the pattern was intensified, because Fairfield came from an Anglo-Irish family in County Kerry, Ireland, which claimed aristocratic descent. He had been brought up to regard himself as a gentleman. This was what gave him such a noble bearing, but it also removed him from the real needs to make a living and support a family.

Yet Family Memories does not merely deal with the tyranny of male authority; it also takes up West’s rebellion against authority figures, men and women. Her primary target was her sister Letitia, eight years older, a brilliant student who became both a doctor and a lawyer. Because Charles Fairfield was undependable and eventually left his family when West was eight years old, Letitia (her father’s firstborn and favorite child) was given a large measure of authority over West that West clearly resented. West portrays her elder sister as rebuffing her, treating her as an unruly intruder. Similarly, at school the precocious and outspoken West was disciplined and prayed over by one of her teachers in a way that embarrassed her and increased her distrust of authority.

In many ways, then, Family Memories is a protest against the humiliations of childhood and of family history which the child is powerless to combat or to rectify. As a novelist, West gave her memoir a strong theme and plot, and her editor, Faith Evans, strongly suspects that West fictionalized and intensified certain events to give them a meaning that fit her design but that is not necessarily the truth of what happened. In part, Evans is drawn to this conclusion (stated in her introduction) because of West’s style, which often has a novelistic narrative power. West’s fictionalizing can also be detected in overwrought passages relating to her mother and father; some of her elaborate descriptions bear the imprint of an imagination that has worked certain events over and over until they attained a highly polished form.

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