First Impressions Last

By Val Hewson

White cards and pens on chairs can make an audience nervous. Will there be a test? No. What we want is to tap memories. What are the first books people remember? What was the first book that made them feel grown-up? What can they say about the libraries they visited as children?

We all seem to remember early books far better than the ones we read a couple of months ago. It’s something to do with firsts, with making discoveries, with new experiences. Our audience polls are unscientific, of course, but what turns up on the cards is always interesting. Some titles we see a lot, while others we have to look up. Then there are the not-quite-remembered ones, where we try to work out what the writers mean. All too often, we find our own memories stirred, and we slip back in time.

Here are our gleanings from a recent talk.

  • Among the very first: Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer, Swallows and Amazons, Jennings at School [sic], Just William. Adult (12ish): Moby Dick, The Castle, A Hero of Our Time. Favourites: A la recherche du temps perdu, Ulysses, Wasteland [sic], Cold Comfort Farm, 1984, Brave New World.
  • First book: Crimson Book of Fairy Tales by Andrew Lang. First adult book: Marjorie Morgenstern [sic] by Herman Wouk
  • First book: Black Beauty. Favourite book: John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids. Favourite authors: Edith Wharton and Iris Murdoch.
  • First book: Not certain. Something Nancy Drew maybe. First children’s book: Wizard of Oz. Adult book: probably something for school report.
  • Black Beauty and Angelique.
  • First book: Bambi. Adult: Little Women.
  • The Chalet School by Eleanore [sic] Brent-Dyer
  • H Rider Haggard? The Devil Rides Out?
  • First children’s book – Enid Blyton. First adult book – Sir Gary by Trevor Bailey. Biography of Sir Gary Sobers, great cricket player.
  • Visited library every Sat as a child. Probably got Enid Blyton, Pamela Brown books. Had many books at home due to having an older sister eg, full set of Arthur Ransome. ‘Adult’ reading probably began with Georgette Heyer and similar.
  • First book from library I remember – biography of Everest explorers Mallory and [illegible]. A task for Booklovers Badge for Guides.
  • Rather forbidding building in my home town with scary rules re silence. Staying with my Grandma and going to much more modern library (this was 1960s) and she let my sister and me borrow children’s books on her ticket. This was [illegible] happy holidays.
  • A borrowed copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover as an 11 year-old, getting severely chastised as a result!

Libraries seem, on this occasion at least, to make less of an impression than the books borrowed from them, with only two audience members sharing memories. For one, the library was clearly just part of the routine, as they went to get books every Saturday, their choice being Enid Blyton and Pamela Brown. Pamela Brown, if you don’t know here, wrote exciting stories, such as The Swish of the Curtain, about children and the theatre. The other memory is much more a vivid and speaks to the severity of municipal architecture and, perhaps hewn from the same stone, municipal staff: 

Rather forbidding building in my home town with scary rules re silence. Staying with my Grandma and going to much more modern library (this was 1960s) and she let my sister and me borrow children’s books on her ticket. This was [illegible] happy holidays.

Turning to the books, it’s striking how old most of them are, and were even when the members of the audience (who were mostly of a certain age) were discovering them. Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time was published in 1840 and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick in 1857. Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women appeared in two volumes in 1868 and 1869, not long after the Civil War which takes Mr March away from his family. Many of the 20th century authors, such as Georgette Heyer and Elinor M Brent-Dyer, started their careers well before World War II and, it has to be said, continued for many years.  

Most – perhaps all – of the books or authors listed, however, are still round, in new editions, as e-book or in second-hand bookshops. Some, like the Nancy Drew books, have regularly been re-worked in different formats, to suit the children of the day. If she were real, Nancy would now be well past her centenary. Many of the books are familiar too from adaptations. Greta Gerwig’s 2019 film of Little Women, for example, is just the latest in a long line.

Tom Sawyer, from the frontispiece of the 1876 edition

Most of the childhood titles suggest the UK in the 1950s and ‘60s. Take this response: ‘Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer, Swallows and Amazons, Jennings at School, Just William’. Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer probably appeared on more than one syllabus. When a teacher read Tom Sawyer to my class in junior school, it seemed to go on forever, and I have never wanted to read it or any Mark Twain novel since. Black Beauty, also listed, is another 19th century classic chosen by my teacher. Fifty years later Beauty’s ill-treatment is sharp in my memory, and I still avoid books about animals because I remain afraid of what might happen to them. This of course includes Bambi, remembered by someone else in the audience.    

Edition from 1953

I would bet that Swallows, Jennings and William were on the shelves of every children’s library in the UK in the middle of the 20th century. In their different ways, they represent those staples of 20th century children’s fiction: the adventure story and the school story. William and Swallows show that adventures are always better without adult interference. A little anarchy is a good thing. Jennings and the Chalet School, from another card, are about the ‘scrapes’ – evocative word! – boys and girls can get into in termtime. Boys and girls. Yes, Jennings was for boys and the Chalet School for girls. It was not unusual at the time to find ‘Books for Boys’ and ‘Books for Girls’ signs in libraries.

These books feature white, middle, or even upper middle, class – children. Their lives were quite unfamiliar to many of the children who read them. Here is Adele J, interviewed by Reading Sheffield a few years ago:

Adele: I loved them and even though [Just William] was right out of my milieu – as a middle-class boy – I didn’t really realise this till later of course. I absolutely adored them. … It was a different life, wasn’t it? I never read anything about MY life.

The ‘loveable’, middle-class scamp, William Brown

As she has been mentioned, let’s turn to Enid Blyton, whose appearance is inevitable. Although librarians and teachers criticised her work as pedestrian, dated, elitist, sexist, racist and more, her readers persisted in liking her. In fact, it’s curious that she appears just twice on this set of cards. Chance, perhaps, or some remembered disapproval?  

Then there’s Nancy Drew, Girl Detective. Bright, fearless and independent, Nancy inspires. In 2019 the Washington Post recorded Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, Sandra Day O’Connor, Laura Bush, Nancy Pelosi and Hillary Clinton as fans. But rather than being a one-off, Nancy came off an assembly line. She was designed and produced by the Stratemeyer Syndicate, which specialised in American children’s literature. The Hardy Boys, anyone? What about the Bobbsey Twins and the Dana Girls and Cherry Ames, the nurse who solves mysteries? (Cherry is my particular favourite, and I have written about her here.) An old house is haunted and Nancy or another young detective steps up, solves the mystery and brings the wrongdoers to justice. Stratemeyer was a hard-headed business, assigning its formulaic books to teams of writers, usually anonymous. Carolyn Keene, credited with the Nancy Drew books, never existed. The children reading them didn’t mind. They knew nothing of Stratemeyer, but when they picked up a Nancy Drew, they had every expectation of entertainment.       

An early Nancy Drew story

There are 12 Swallows and Amazon books, over 20 Jennings books, 28 Just William adventures, at least 60 Chalet School books and, Wikipedia says, ‘613 Nancy Drew books…published as of July 2021 over thirteen different series’. It seems that we always want more, however much it strains the original construct. Did Elinor M Brent-Dyer ever think, as she approached her 60th novel, of bankrupting the school and sending everyone home?

None of the books listed is associated with the earliest years of childhood. There are no picture-books, or story books that parents might have read at bedtime. The only collection of fairy tales – The Crimson Book by Andrew Lang – is not for the very young. This may just be chance, as we do meet people who remember curling up with books at a very young age: 

One of the very earliest memories I have … I was sitting in my little chair, which was really a miniature adult chair, by [my mother’s] knee while she read The House at Pooh Corner, which I still love. And we laughed, both of us, so much and I was helpless and rolled onto the floor with laughter at that point.

Reading Sheffield interviewee Shirley Ellins

At all events, it would seem that people do not remember non-fiction half so well as fiction. This is certainly the case with our 65 Reading Sheffield interviewees, at least when they are thinking about their childhoods, and the cards here bear this out. There are just two non-fiction books:

  • Sir Gary by Trevor Bailey. Biography of Sir Gary Sobers, great cricket player
  • First book from library I remember – biography of Everest explorers Mallory and [illegible – presumably Andrew Irvine, who climbed with Mallory]. A task for Booklovers Badge for Guides.

What book makes you feel grown-up? It is in the eye of the reader. For some it’s a matter of age, for others the nature of the book. Here we have a 12 year-old reading ‘Moby Dick, The Castle, A Hero of Our Time.’ Or there is Sergeanne Golon’s historical romances about Angélique and the black magic of Dennis Wheatley’s The Devil Rides Out (both of which make for uncomfortable reading today). It is easy to understand why these books made their readers feel adult.

Paperback from 1969
A Pan paperback from 1966

This brings us, in a roundabout way, to the subject of ‘forbidden books’. For 30 years Lady Chatterley’s Lover was declared obscene by the state, and publishers were forbidden to print it. When Penguin Books defied the ban with an edition in 1960, they were taken to court and famously won their case. People rushed to read Lady Chatterley’s Lover, to see if it was as bad, or as good, or as thrilling, as it was said to be. (You can read the often under-whelmed reactions of Sheffielders here.) This was all fine for adults, but what about children getting hold of copies? Well, it got one member of our audience into trouble:

A borrowed copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover as an 11 year-old, getting severely chastised as a result!

Penguin’s 1960 cover design. Notice that the book is ‘complete and unexpurgated’.

Our thanks to the people who shared their memories. Do tell us in the comments about the books and libraries you remember.  You can click here for details of the books listed.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

By Charlotte Poole

For her book review, our guest blogger, Charlotte from Sheffield Hallam University, chose an old favourite of ours, Rebecca. What does she make of a novel written some 65 years before she was born?

This is the last of our guest student blogs, and it has been great to host reviews and reading journeys from Sheffield Hallam University folk. Many thanks to Dr Ana-Maria Sanchez-Arce for making all this possible.

The book Rebecca was written by Daphne du Maurier in 1938. The story involves a young English woman who travels to France and meets and marries an older rich gentlemen called Maxim de Winter. This woman remains nameless throughout the book but is the main protagonist. They then go back to his mansion in Cornwall called Manderley. It is here that the problem starts. The house carries the strong legacy of Maxim’s late wife, Rebecca – the protagonist consequently has to deal with many issues.

Originally, I thought this novel would be a dull boring dated piece of work, because most things I read from the 19th or early 20th century are not interesting to me (barring Little Women). However, I was pleasantly surprised to find that not only did it hold my attention, but I was eager to continue the story. Somehow, its approach was fresh and exciting. I was pleased to see that on Ruth Potts’ reading journey blog, she said:

Rebecca is my favourite book of all time. My father also loved du Maurier. Rebecca and Jane Eyre are my favourite books, both with strong female lead characters who get what they want in the end. 

Ruth Potts (Hewson, 2019)

I wouldn’t say it’s my own favourite book of all time, but I do agree with Ruth that the strong female character is excellent.

The main themes in this book show the limited choices of a poor lower-class woman in these times, and how one of the only options to better themselves would be to marry an often older richer man with a higher social status. Women did not have financial independence and therefore their decisions were limited. It is disappointing that even now in modern times, women still do not have the same opportunities as men. For instance, we still have an ever-increasing gender pay gap, especially in higher level jobs.

This book demonstrates the inequalities in class. The main character has moved herself upwards by marrying, yet she still identifies more with the household employees because their way of life is all she has ever known (though the household staff mostly resent her because they think she has betrayed her own class). She therefore becomes unwelcome in both worlds, no matter where or how she presents herself. Looking at where we are now, I feel class is thankfully not as important as it was back then. I, myself, feel I can achieve anything I want to and that it is not my social class that is going to hold me back. The difference here is, the main character in the book would never have been able to achieve anything on her own terms.

This publication has been extremely successful world-wide. It was first published in 1938 in London with only 20,000 copies. It has been translated in many languages such as Chinese, French and Ukrainian. It was also huge in America, and this work has been listed in the 20th century American bestsellers by University of Illinois. The author has written many other books, a mixture of fiction and non-fiction. However, none of them have gained the kudos that Rebecca reached.

At the time it was written, the responding reviews were mixed. For example, one reviewer said,

The novel is immensely long, written in the first person by a heroine who remains irritatingly and unnecessarily nameless to the end, and it lumbers along for three-quarters of its length to a creaking Victorian machinery of melodramatic hint and horror and piled-up pathos.

Rowse, 1938, p.233

So they didn’t like it very much then. Personally, I think the main character remaining nameless works, as it adds to her mystique. It is also quite a common writing style e.g. Roald Dahl did the same thing in his book The Witches. Another review I found stated,

If one chooses to read the book in a critical fashion – but only a tiresome reviewer is likely to do that – it becomes an obligation to take off one’s hat to Miss du Maurier for the skill and assurance with which she sustains a highly improbable fiction.

Jasmine, 2018

This review is more in line with how I felt about the book.

The novel has also been made into two films, the first being the Academy Award-winning black and white 1940s Alfred Hitchcock version. This starred the actresses Joan Fontaine and Judith Anderson. Hitchcock was in his element and developed it as a strong psychological thriller. Rotten Tomatoes gave it 100%. The second film was shot in 2020 and starred Armie Hammer and Lily James and Kristin Scott Thomas. The portrayal of Manderley was actually filmed in six different manors and estates, including Cranbourne in Dorset and Hartland Quay in Devon. The Guardian reviewed the film and felt ‘it was an overdressed and underpowered romantic thriller’ (Bradshaw, 2020). In fact, Rotten Tomatoes only gave it 39%. Having been gripped by the novel, I found the film flimsy and misleading – a poor representation of the book.

The author du Maurier was married to Tommy Browning who was a lieutenant colonel in the Grenadier Guards. She was fortunate that she did not need to work and was able to write when she and her husband travelled with the army. The main theme the author wanted to convey in this work was jealousy, a reflection of her own life – as her husband, too had been engaged before to a dark-haired beauty who Du Maurier believed her husband was still in love with. As a theme, the jealousy that the second wife has for the first wife is as relevant in the present as it was back then. The only difference being that perhaps today, it would more likely end in divorce, rather than death.

Here is Charlotte’s reading journey.


Rebecca (novel). Wikipedia. (n.d). Retrieved from

Michael Hann (2012, August 7). My favourite Hitchcock: Rebecca. The Guardian. Retrieved from

Rae Boocock (2020, October 28). Nine Beautiful Film Locations from Netflix’s Rebecca. Suitcase. Retrieved from

Peter Bradshaw (2020, October 15). Rebecca review – overdressed and underpowered romantic thriller. The Guardian. Retrieved from

Val Hewson (2019, March 8). A Tale of Six Generations: The Reading Journey of Ruth Potts. Reading Sheffield. Retrieved from

Taylor Jasmine (2018, October 6). Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (1938). Literary Ladies Guide. Retrieved from

A.L. Rowse. (1938, September 3). Books and Authors. Via ProQuest. Retrieved from

du Maurier, D. (1938). Rebecca. Gollancz.

Charlotte Poole’s reading journey

Charlotte is the last of this year’s Sheffield Hallam students to write her reading journey for us as part of her Ideas into Action module.

I’d like to introduce myself – my name is Charlotte Poole and I am 19 years old. I was born in 2002, in Manchester and spent my first six months there. Then I moved to Lancashire. At the age of seven, I moved again to Derbyshire, where my parents still live. Reading was greatly encouraged in our house.

My relationship with reading started before my memories did. As a child, I was taken to the library along with my older brother. My mum told me that as a child, I would sit on her lap and look at the books that were brought back from the library. My favourite book at the time was Where’s The Baby? It was an interactive hardback book with flaps to pull up. At the end of the book, there was a plastic mirror which my mum would hold up to my face and say, ‘there she is!’ I loved this book so much, my mum had to buy it for me.

Like most children my age at school, I started out by reading the Biff, Chip and Kipper books by Oxford Reading Tree. And also like most children my age, I’d often hide one of the advanced books behind an easier book so everyone thought I was cleverer than I was. One of the interviewees called Natalie Haigh is a similar generation to me. She wrote on her blog:

My very first memory of reading was in primary school. I can vividly remember learning to read. I read the Biff, Chip and Kipper books.

Natalie Haigh

A book I really loved growing up was The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams; I even persuaded my mum to buy me my own copy, since it had originally come from the library. My dad has a passion for books too and was determined to instil that in me as a child. Some evenings, he would read to me before bed. The book he read to me the most was Revolting Rhymes by Roald Dahl. I would always ask for more because I was not ready to go to sleep. I started reading by myself relatively fast because I preferred it. For instance, while my dad read the Harry Potter series to my older brother, I chose to read them on my own. But at a later age, I do remember us reading the occasional book together, such as Nation by Terry Pratchett, and Anne Frank (cheerful books, I know).

Because of my love of books, I was very advanced for my age and reading books for people two years above me. When I moved to Chapel at seven, we always used to go to the library after school since it was on the way (and so was the sweet shop). I noticed that one of the interviewees, Jean A, also enjoyed using the library:

We went to the Children’s Library in the Central. I can remember going there … It was fine, lovely. I was a great reader. I can remember reading The Forsyte Saga when I was about 15, late at night. I was engrossed in it.

Jean A

The local library held a summer reading challenge each year, which I was eager to take part in. This involved reading particular books and collecting stickers to complete a poster. Every year, I was one of the first ones to complete it.

The author I moved to next was Jacqueline Wilson. I’ve probably read over 90 per cent of all her work, my favourite being My Sister Jodie. It was the book that impacted me the most because I did not expect Jodie to die in the end.

By high school, I was developing my own taste and joined the library book club, Carnegie. There were quizzes every week, and sometimes there was party food. By this point, I could recognise good writing, so while I didn’t have a preference on any set genre, I was willing to read anything that was written well, meaning I enjoyed almost all of the Carnegie books. It was here I discovered my three favourite books of all time: One by Sarah Crossan, The Rest Of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness, and Buffalo Soldier by Tanya Landman.

The books we had to read for English Literature GCSE were very appealing to me: An Inspector Calls, Romeo and Juliet, and A Christmas Carol. It was interesting learning the social history and context behind these pieces too. I notice that the interviewee James Green also read Little Women like I did: ‘Three of the books that were in this one book, that I can remember, were Robinson Crusoe, Little Women…’. I remember it being the first classic that I read. To Kill A Mockingbird came afterwards. Alongside this, my mother had also taken me to many theatre productions such as Wicked, and The Mousetrap.

At Marple College studying A-Levels, I did not take up English Literature, meaning I had to read in my own leisure time. During that time I read novels such as The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. Whenever I went on holiday, I would always take one or two books with me so I could read them at night (with a torch if I was camping). Now as a second-year student studying at university, I not only read books required for my syllabus but continue to explore new and different novels for my own enjoyment. Presently, I am enraptured by The Stand by Stephen King. It is strange that although the interviewees had only physical copies of books growing up, and I have a variety of choices i.e. Kindle, I prefer actual books too because I like to hold them. I often used to say to my mum (although I no longer voice it now) that I prefer books more than people.

Here is Charlotte’s review of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca.