Mary Jones and her Bible: Prizes

By Sue Roe

When I was about ten, my family moved from Wybourn to Abbeydale Road in Sheffield. I changed schools and made new friends – especially a girl called Janet. She was a Methodist and after a while I started going to her church. I also went to Sunday School with her. As in many Sunday Schools, books were given as prizes for attendance etc. I distinctly remember getting one myself: it was Mary Jones and Her Bible by Mary Carter. It may have been for getting a high mark in the Scripture exam.

I am sure some people are familiar with Mary’s story: how she at the age 15 walked 26 miles barefoot to Bala to buy a copy of the Bible in Welsh. She was the daughter of a poor family from LLanfihangel; her parents were devout Methodists. Welsh Bibles were scarce and she saved for six years until she had enough to buy one. Sadly, I no longer have the book but I have a clear memory of the cover.

This got me thinking about school prizes and Sunday School prizes too. I won two school prizes: the first was a Bible when I was in the second year (Y8 in today’s terminology) at grammar school This must have been in my church-going days. The second was in the Sixth Form (Y12): T S Eliot’s Collected Poems. I saw myself as more intellectual then!

Several of our Reading Sheffield interviewees mention such prizes. Often they belonged to their parents or even grandparents.

Winnie had a vivid memory of one such book which was probably from the Salvation Army Sunday School:

We didn’t have books at home. Don’t think mother could afford them anyway, only the odd one that were prizes … In fact I’ve still got one or two of mum’s old books.

MG: Have you? What are they?

Winnie: Yeah, from her being ten years old.

MG: Really? Winnie: Yes. Jessica’s Prayer

Frank had similar memories:

Me mother and dad both had a bookcase full of books, one that me dad made, and it was full of books, at least 2 shelves of books in there. I think most of their books came as things like Sunday School prizes. I remember the Dog Crusoe, know that one? And there was another one, a series of books, thin paperback books he had, I can’t remember the author, about a character called Bindle. He was a Jewish man in London at the time of the outbreak of the First World War and they were very very tongue-in-cheek.

Yvonne’s parents had a collection housed in a bookcase:

Yvonne: She [Yvonne’s mother] also possessed books she’d won as prizes at Sunday School as a girl. But other than that, there was no child reading material available in those days because it was the wartime and it just wasn’t there

SR: Did your mum have a bookcase? Was it a little one? A big one?

Yvonne: Oh, it was a free-standing bookcase. There was a bureau in the middle, there was a cupboard underneath, and there were two bookcases. It wasn’t crammed full of books but my mother’s prizes were at that end, my dad’s were at that…

SR: What sort of books did she have as prizes?

Yvonne: One in a box in there that I’ve still got was a copy of Lorna Doone which I won’t part with. And I read that. I couldn’t get into it at first when I was younger but as I got older I read it again. I also read The Prisoner of Zenda. That was one of my mum’s prizes.

Shirley Ellins speaks of:

… the famous Shakespeare that mother won as a child when she was 14 from Crookesmoor School for Progress, before she left; complete works, complete with wonderful Victorian paintings and photographs of Victorian actors and actresses. Which is my pride and joy.

Betty N remembers her grandmother’s copy of A Peep Behind the Scenes, by Mrs Walton and published by The Religious Tract Society. Betty was so attached to it that she tracked down a copy in a junk shop.

I’m quite amazed but it’s true that I could read that before I went to school. My Grandmother’s had been a school prize. It had a bookplate for a school prize in her copy. But that was the first book I ever read.

Mary S has memories of prizes belonging to different members of her family:

They had all these ghastly Victorian … you know, educational novels, like Peep Behind the Scenes. That novel called Peep Behind the Scenes, that grandma thought was wonderful? All the kind of Sunday School prizes kind of books … we’ve still got all the Sunday School prizes that various bits of the family got.

Some interviewees won prizes themselves.

Josie remembers there wasn’t much money for presents so she had books for Christmas and birthday presents but she recalled other sources:

JH: … also schools used to give them out as prizes, and Sunday School used to give them out.

MG: Did you get any prizes?

JH: Yes, and it was always a book.

MG: And where were you allowed to choose your book from for the prize, or did they choose them for you?

JH: Sometimes they gave you a list and you could either put like, as I got older, cookery book or romantic novel or boy’s book or whatever. There was categories and you could actually choose at some places, but not all. Sometimes they just chose and gave what they thought was suitable.

Christine has similar memories:

I used to win prizes as well at school (a real swot!) and I won form prizes and we were always taken to the bookshop and the books I chose I’ve still got them and some were non-fiction and I got The Cruel Sea and C S Forester’s The Good Shepherd. And then Best Foot Forward, which is a war story about someone who lost his leg[s] and is a bit like Douglas Bader.

Several remembered going to Andrews Stationers on Holly Lane in Sheffield to choose their book prizes. Gillian won the prize for English Literature at school: 

So we went to Andrews and I didn’t just manage one, I got two books. I got Ivanhoe and Emma by Jane Austen.  And it’s all got ‘School Prize: Gillian Stannington’.

Margaret Young went to the Methodist Book Shop to choose her prize:

Er, yes. I once took the scripture exam in Sheffield and came second in Sheffield, with 98 marks. We had to go the Montgomery Hall to be presented. So I had a book token, and whenever I got book tokens from church – I was at Walkley Methodist Church, on South Road – or the scripture exam, they  used to take me to the Methodist book shop in Chapel Walk to buy books. This occasion, I remember I got an Arthur Ransome book, which was quite a thick book – it was a good token!

These prize books were treasured by our interviewees; many are still on their bookshelves.

Dorothy L Sayers’ Gaudy Night

The great detective novelist Dorothy L Sayers is often mentioned in the 65 interviews which are the foundation of Reading Sheffield. She was an obvious choice for our list of authors and books to be reviewed by the Sheffield Hallam students we have been working with this year. We thought that Gaudy Night (1935), with all it has to say about women’s education and their role in the world, would be an interesting read for the students of today. Here are Ellie Jackson’s thoughts. But beware, for there are spoilers in her review.

Dorothy Leigh Sayers published her first novel in 1923 introducing Lord Peter Wimsey, with the publication of Gaudy Night in 1935 being another addition to the Wimsey-Vane saga. I have sought through many reviews on the internet in order to get a grasp of others’ opinions on the Wimsey-Vane saga, and come to the conclusion that many have thought Gaudy Night to be the culmination of the saga, although it is actually not the final piece of the chronicles. There is Busman’s Honeymoon from 1937 and then Dorothy Sayers began writing Thrones, Dominations but she later abandoned it and the novel was merely notes and fragments of the story after her death. The novel was later finished by Jill Paton Walsh, and published in 1998. Gaudy Night begins with a reunion at Shrewsbury College, a mysterious crime of poison pen letters and tormenting events in which famous mystery writer Harriet Vane, the protagonist of the novel previously proven innocent and saved by Lord Wimsey after the accusation of a murder she didn’t commit, investigates. The novel is full of gripping techniques of ‘whodunit’ and I found it rather difficult to put down after beginning. Dorothy was an English crime writer and poet, best known for her mystery novels (The Dorothy L Sayers Society, 2019). Dorothy Sayers is known as one of the ‘big four’ female detective writers from the ‘golden age’ of detective fiction (GBSM, 2012) along with great writers such as Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham, and Ngaio Marsh. The golden age of detective fiction is still one of the most popular literary genres generally regarded as spanning from 1920 to 1940, and remains as a generic highpoint in literary fiction (UOO, 2022).

Before I began this project, I had never read or heard of Dorothy Sayers’ series of mystery novels. Truth be told, I had no particular interest in reading mystery fiction before commencing my project on Gaudy Night either. Often in my youth I found murder mystery novels to be particularly lightweight in comparison to other literary texts and novels I had read and enjoyed for their passion and emotion, ‘[giving] rise to no feelings or [evoking] no dream’ (Brody, 1985). They tend to be least focused on the emotional development and growth of the main character, and rather concerned with answering the question of ‘who committed the crime?’. It is also suggested that detective fiction is said to ‘continually invent stricter rules for itself’ and ‘it is careful only to leave no suspense, nothing unclear. Everything mysterious that it introduces, it makes coherent’ (Brody, 1985). For this reason, I have never enjoyed reading detective fiction as there is never room left for the readers’ imagination. Surprisingly, I thoroughly appreciated reading Gaudy Night and after witnessing the development of feminist ideas and how class divisions are being represented even within a mystery novel, I now have a completely different perspective for mystery fiction. Perhaps it is because I have matured and have more reading experiences now than I did the last time I attempted reading a mystery fiction, or because I found it refreshing to read something entirely different to anything I would usually choose. I found Gaudy Night to be less of a stereotypical detective novel, and was able to leave some ideas to the imagination. Regrettably, I did not read the thrilling series in order of events, and so jumping straight in at Gaudy Night I had to work harder to understand what was unfolding throughout the novel – however this did not hinder the pleasure of reading it. Despite having not read the complete saga, I have searched the internet for many in-depth reviews and criticisms for the previous novels, and found that in fact not reading the series in order is the most popular opinion when it comes to discovering the emotional intensity of Gaudy Night, and so the reader has no emotional investment already present for each of the characters. Sayers has a superb writing style that keeps the story flowing but also delivers humorous and thought-provoking comments to keep the mystery and development of characters and allows insight into the mind of the heroine and writer. In addition to such research, I found that Gaudy Night is the first to adopt a feminist ideology between all of the Wimsey novels, discussing the struggles and development of female characters toward equality and education. Sayers presents her heroine finally as a centre point in the Wimsey saga, a woman with detective qualities and employed to investigate a crime. Sayers does a wonderful job of creating a meaningful but complicated relationship between Harriet and Peter, in which the heroine does not conform to usual stereotypes for women in the time period and the male character respects such behaviour. I think she allows the reader to see the subtle and unspoken moments but also the significance of them. After researching many newspaper articles from the 20th century on Dorothy Sayers and Gaudy Night, The Times suggests ‘Dorothy Sayers in her early twenties was a focal point for the young people of literary importance of her time.’ (The Times Newspaper, issue no. 54037, 1958. Pg 13). Harriet is a successful author, wondering if mystery novels will ever rise to the level of literature, mirroring her creator.

Gaudy Night is absolutely a mystery novel, but it contains no actual murder, just a series of poison pen letters and the heroine of the story, Harriet, is asked to capture the culprit of these letters and practical jokes played by an individual attending Shrewsbury College. The perpetrator is found to be a servant, an individual seemingly invisible to the rest of the population of the College. Sayers represents the idea of class division by making the invisible servant visible, and reinforcing prejudices against class and femininity throughout the novel. Upon commencing research for this novel and author, I discovered the interview of Kath and Ken conducted by Reading Sheffield. As conversation is flowing, Ken begins to discuss the works of Dorothy Sayers, particularly Gaudy Night. He refers to it as a ‘fantastically written thing’, an opinion I would be inclined to agree with. He also makes a great point about the class distinctions and prejudices throughout the novel, relevant to the time frame in which it was written and the view others have on reading about more old-fashioned ideas and particularly rejecting them, and suggests that ‘if you can’t read a book because that puts you off, it deprives you of so much that’s been written’. Ken makes a valid observation, as most popular fiction from the 1930s contain old fashioned ideas and can be seen as controversial in modern literature. However it doesn’t take away the significance at the time, or the significance of the message throughout.

Gaudy Night was an absolute pleasure to read, and I can confirm I will be reading the complete saga.

Here is Ellie’s reading journey.

Bibliography-

Brody, M. (1985). The Haunting of “Gaudy Night”: Misreadings in a Work of Detective Fiction. Style, 19(1), 94–116. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42945532

Gerard Bianco Storyteller Marketing, 2012. DO YOU KNOW THE “BIG FOUR” FEMALE DETECTIVE WRITERS FROM THE “GOLDEN AGE”? https://gerardbianco.blogspot.com/2012/08/do-you-know-big-four-female-detective.html

The Dorothy L Sayers Society, 2019. About Dorothy L Sayers. https://www.sayers.org.uk/biography

The Times Newspaper, 1958. Miss Dorothy Sayers. Issue no. 54037. Pg 13.

The Golden Age of British Detective Fiction. University of Oxford, 2022. https://tinyurl.com/mpjtr8cn

Ellie Jackson’s reading journey

This year, we have again taken part in Sheffield Hallam University’s Ideas into Action initiative. We ask the students to write their own reading journey (a task they seem to enjoy, as they’re rarely given the opportunity to think about reading for pleasure) and to read and review a book or author popular with our original interviewees, all born at least 60 years before the students. (Click here for more information on these tasks.) It’s always interesting to see our material through the eyes of people born in this century, and we hope that the chance they get to look back increases their understanding of the world when their grandparents and great-grandparents were young. We hope to publish more of the students’ work in the next few weeks.

As a child, I was introduced to books from the first moment I can remember. I was born and raised in a small town on the outskirts of Nottingham, and moved to Sheffield in September 2020 to complete my degree in English Literature. I was taken to the library in our small town multiple times a week by my grandparents, with rows and rows of more books than I could count. This experience is encapsulated into my memory; my younger self being completely mesmerized by them. I later realized that the library probably had no more books than a couple of hundred, a miniscule amount as opposed to other libraries I have visited after this. And so my reading journey began at a young age; the earliest books I remember reading are the Tales of Beatrix Potter and the Winnie the Pooh collection. My parents would read them to me before bedtime each night over and over again. I was fascinated by how the pictures in the books came to life, from the authors’ writing and the way my parents would adopt a new tone for each character. In my room I had a bookcase of around two hundred books, and even more that were given a space in our spare bedroom as my parents would never throw them out, and I must have gotten at least five new for each birthday and Christmas.

Winnie the Pooh, by Ernest Howard Shepard (illustrator) (Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

My grandparents have always had a vast impact on my life in general, but more so when it comes to my reading experiences. I never had a positive reading experience during my years at primary school, having to make my way up the reading stages with the Biff and Chip book collection was something I dreaded and remember asking my then teacher, if I could read The Wind in the Willows, or Peter Pan. I sped through the books, and I knew I could read more advanced ones. I was told that I was lacking in punctuation and quite far behind in writing skills than most of the other children in my school year, and that I needed extra curricular sessions with my English teacher after school. I became completely disheartened and despite knowing I was a great reader and it being my favourite pastime, I started reading less and less. My grandparents would collect me from school each day, and later informed me that they had noticed I wasn’t as interested in reading anymore, and no longer wanted to sit with my nose buried into a book before dinner. And so, instead of taking me to the library to borrow a book, they had taken me into their attic and let me have the choice of what I would like to read. From this day, I discovered multiple authors that have had a huge impact on my personal reading journey so far, such as Enid Blyton’s The Famous Five, as well as Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte and Charles Dickens. After listening to many of the Readers’ Voices interviews on the Reading Sheffield website, I realized myself and Margaret Young both shared our first reading experiences and with our grandparents, as her grandfather was an ‘avid reader’ and grandmother read classic novels much like the ones I was introduced to by my own grandparents, ‘Dickens and so on’.

‘It’s a great cake. A bride-cake. Mine!’ An illustration by John McLenan from Great Expectations (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

As I was searching through the Reading Sheffield website to find more of others’ reading journeys, I came across Gillian Applegate’s interview, and despite being born sixty-one years apart, I noticed we share a similar enjoyment in reading Charles Dickens, specifically Great Expectations. This story is one I remember well and also studied during my GCSEs and came across again during my first year of university. I enjoyed watching the BBC adaptation of Great Expectations almost as much as I enjoyed reading the book for the first time, and found a love for watching TV and film adaptations of other celebrated novels too. Gillian also discusses her love for historical novels, which definitely resonates with myself as I prefer to read classic, timeless novels such as Wuthering Heights and War and Peace, both of which I have appreciated in the past few years.

Enid Blyton’s work as a whole has inspired much of my reading journey, The Magic Faraway Tree and The Enchanted Wood becoming my favorite books for years of my childhood after being read by my mum before bedtime. I also used Enid Blyton as a case in point within my Extended Project Qualification at A level, discussing her as an author but also arguments put out through the media about her work. I absolutely loved creating this project as her books had been a huge part of my childhood, and I achieved an A*.  Regrettably, in order to complete my degree, I have many great (and some, in my opinion not so great) books that I have to read, consequently causing a lack of reading for pleasure and rather for work purposes. An example of the books I haven’t enjoyed so much throughout my modules is Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe and A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. Both are great books for those who enjoy adventure fiction, and I loved the psychological analysis of both novels involving Freudian analysis. However I personally did not engage as well with these novels as I have with the others I have studied, such as Defoe’s Moll Flanders and Animal’s People by Indra Sinha. I hope to begin reading much more for myself from now on and to work on managing my workload of novels along with ones I am personally eager to read, as there are so many books still sat on my bookshelf that I feel guilty for neglecting, while picking up the same books I have been reading all year. I have recently commenced reading Gaudy Night by Dorothy L Sayers for the other half of this project, and plan to purchase the rest of the collection to this book for my own reading pleasure.

Here are Ellie’s thoughts about Gaudy Night.