I recently spent a few days in Italy, in the city of Bologna.
One of Bologna’s nicknames is ‘Bologna la Dotta’ or ‘Bologna the Learned’, as it houses the oldest university in Europe. So maybe it is not so surprising that Tripadvisor has a list of the ten best libraries to visit in Bologna alone!
Given the dire state of repair of our own central library in Sheffield and the effect of severe central government funding cuts over a decade, I was pleasantly surprised to see that one of the top libraries in Bologna is in fact its central public library – the Biblioteca Salaborsa. And I’m happy to report that it looks to be in a perfect state of repair!
The library is housed in a beautiful, historic building near to the Town Hall in Bologna’s central square, Piazza Maggiore. The building has been a fortress, a botanical garden, a basketball and boxing arena, a trading centre, a restaurant, a bank and a puppet theatre during its 2000+ years of life. The public library is one of the best in a city of libraries, not just because of its stunning home but also the quality and quantity of its books. The public can walk in and admire its spectacular central atrium, reading rooms, lecture theatres and exhibitions. There are even 1st century Roman remains in the basement, which are also open to the public to wander around freely.
The public library has been in Salaborsa for 22 years but the first library open to the public in Bologna, the Aula Magna, was opened in 1756. It was a gift of Pope Benedict XIV. Its original walnut shelving holds 50,000 texts from the 16th to 18th centuries. Now part of the University Library, it is still possible to visit it on certain days, though sadly not when we were visiting the city.
We all say we value public libraries but I do wish we could follow Bologna’s wonderful example and put our money where our mouth is!
At a time when libraries and many other public services are having their budgets cut, it’s interesting to look back to the 1930s when the Great Depression caused severe economic and social problems, including cuts to services.
‘On the ground of economy,’ wrote the Sheffield Independent in October 1931, ‘the public libraries in Sheffield are to be closed on Sundays’. The Reference Library, however, would remain open. It was the ‘Mecca of scores of earnest young students’, many of whom were not from Sheffield.
Every Sunday during the summer months from 60 to 70 students from the University, private students who work alone and students whose parents are out of work and who have no other means of study open to them, attend the Public Reference Library, many of them staying from opening time in the afternoon to closing time at night.
Joseph Lamb, Sheffield’s chief librarian, told the Independent that he had letters from grateful students declaring that they passed their exams ‘only because of facilities open to them at the reference library’.
One young man, whose father was unemployed, was so helped by Mr. Lamb that he was able to write a thesis which, if it had not been for the books obtained especially for him, would have meant a month’s residence in another county. Mr. Lamb managed to persuade the librarian of another town to send along the books week by week as the student wanted them, with the result that the student successfully got his thesis through.
The Independent took the view, no doubt encouraged by Joseph Lamb, that the Reference Library was ‘one of the most useful institutions in the city’ and regretted that this was not better appreciated. Sunday opening was ‘just another example of the way Mr. Lamb does what he can to meet the wishes of the citizens. … Sheffield has certainly got an efficient Library service’.
It is astonishing to realise that public libraries were at one time routinely open on Sundays and often until 9pm most evenings. Today technology has changed the way many people study, enabling them to work at home. For some, however, a public library provides a safe, comfortable space and free access to the books and resources they need.
All quotations above are taken from the Sheffield Independent of Tuesday 6 October 1931.
When our Treasurer, Margaret Bennett, mentioned she was going to stay for a few days at Gladstone’s Library in North Wales, we naturally invited her to write about it.
Have you ever wanted to have a sleepover in a library? Do you love the dusty smell of old books, paper and leather and the hush of researchers deep in thought, only interrupted by the occasional quiet rustle of papers and scratch of a pencil?
If so, Gladstone’s Library in Hawarden, Flintshire, North Wales, seven miles from Chester, is well worth a visit. The UK’s only prime-ministerial, and Wales’s only residential library. the Library was founded by the four times Prime Minister, William Ewart Gladstone. He bequeathed his collection of 32,000 books to the nation – apparently he’d only read 22,000 of them! He even transported them himself, from his home a quarter of a mile away from the library – by trundling them across in a wheelbarrow! That must have been quite a few trips!
The library now has 80,000 books and 70,000 papers and journals: many of the books have Gladstone’s own copious annotations still in them. It is particularly strong on 19th century history, theology, politics and literature, but it also holds modern collections, several special collections and archives ranging from the British Crime Writing Archive (including the records of the Detection Club) to the archive of the Movement for the Ordination of Women! It is recognized as the most important research library in Wales after the National Library of Wales.
The Library also hosts talks, conferences and writers-in-residence and it has its own literary festival, Gladfest.
The current building dates from 1902 and was designed by John Douglas. It was funded by public subscription and is now Grade I-listed. As well as the Reading Rooms, there are 26 bedrooms (mostly en suite), a comfortable lounge full of leather armchairs and novels, a chapel and a café. Notable guests include Alan Bennett and A S Byatt. It has been calculated that over 300 published books have been started, finished or worked on in the Library.
But you don’t have to be a writer: anyone can come and use the Library and stay in the beautiful building. It is open to all – writers, students, researchers and anybody looking for peace and quiet. There are no TVs in the bedrooms but books everywhere and each room has its own Roberts radio and writing desk. The staff are very helpful and welcoming and good food is available in the café and bistro. Rules are kept to a minimum, except for sensible ones relating to the use of the collections. It quickly comes to feel like home!
As Gladstone had wanted, the Library provides ‘books for readers without books and readers for books without readers’. And a peaceful place to read, write or just think.
Before you ask, yes, we are deeply envious of Margaret. There even seems to be a friendly cat.
In June 2023, Liverpool University Press published Steel City Readers: Reading for Pleasure in Sheffield, 1925-1955 by Mary Grover, who founded the Reading Sheffield project. On 12 July, a special event to launch the book was held at the Central Library in Sheffield. The 90 or so guests included some of the 65 people whose interviews are at the heart of the book, along with their families and Mary’s own family, friends and colleagues.
Chris Hopkins, Emeritus Professor of English at Sheffield Hallam University, who has supported Reading Sheffield and Mary’s work from the very beginning, welcomed everyone to the event.
Mary described the experience of researching and writing Steel City Readers:
Writing is almost always a lonely process. Whatever you are writing, however supportive your colleagues and companions, you are alone with the next sentence. But, however confused or doubtful, I have never been involved in a writing project in which I have felt less alone. Never have so many people contributed to a book I have produced. … When I was, as a friend put it, ‘becalmed’, I would reread stories like Kath and Judith’s, and their energy and resourcefulness were an inspiration.
The stories Mary and her colleagues drew out of the 65 readers featured in Steel City Readers are fascinating accounts of the wonder of reading. The interviews ‘helped our readers create their own narrative structures and become eloquent narrators of their own lives’ – something they had rarely, if ever, known before.
Irene had gained a place at grammar school and was reading A Tale of Two Cities and David Copperfield, but it was the annuals given to her at Christmas that helped establish her reading fluency. The reason why she cherished these annuals till the end of her life and the reason why my listeners lit up when they held one in their hands again after 70 years, is the part that annuals played in the narrative of their lives. Like no other book, an annual is a precise marker of development. We know the year, the month, the day when we read it, Christmas Day 1931 in the case of Irene’s Pip, Squeak and Wilfred. Its physical presence is associated with those who surrounded us when we read it and those who gave it to us, at some expense. Its inscription brings back the memory of a loved relative or friend, often an unmarried aunt.
Chris then introduced Professor Dame Karin Barber, a friend of Mary’s. Karin, an anthropologist, spoke about reading the book in draft:
… I was totally gripped by it. It transported me into mid-twentieth century Sheffield – not just into the place, distinctive as it is, and the time, before and after the Second World War, but also – most importantly – the people: the 65 participants in the project talking about their memories of books and reading, their enjoyment of all kinds of literature, their practical strategies for getting hold of books to read.
Steel City Readers, she continued, was ‘a highly original and valuable contribution to social history’.
Oral history, done like this, reaches parts of the past that no other research can. It preserves and re-activates historical memories that would otherwise be lost – but which illuminate big themes of social change, class, cultural history, with unique vividness. The Reading Sheffield project – and the book that came out of it – are pioneers. It’s to be hoped that they will have started a movement and that more projects as exciting as this one will follow.
Reading Sheffield celebrated the publication of Steel City Readers by presenting copies to all the interviewees or their families. This was made possible by the generosity of those who donated to the project, including Sheffield-based Gripple and The James Neill Trust Fund, the broadcaster, Robin Ince, who did two fundraisers, and many individual supporters.
Mary Grover and the Reading Sheffield committee would like to thank Sheffield Libraries – in particular, Library Manager Alexis Filby – for hosting the launch in the Central Library. Given the importance of public libraries in Steel City Readers, this was the perfect venue.
Thanks to Lizz Tuckerman and Val Hewson for the photos of the launch, and to Karin and Mary for permission to include their speeches.
The paperback of Steel City Readers is available from all good booksellers. The e-book can be downloaded free from Liverpool University Press.
In Sheffield City Library is a department called Sheffield Room. It is a treasure house of historical records of the city and district.
Sheffield Evening Telegraph, Tuesday 17 January 1939
In years of searching newspapers for stories about public libraries, I’ve found various articles discussing the obscure, odd and funny questions people apparently expect librarians to answer. It’s hard to tell if these are the idea of the journalist, editor or librarian. When I mentioned this to a friend, he even suggested that the questions are just made up for effect. At all events, the resulting articles are an easy job for a journalist and good publicity for a library service, with readers presumably both amused and bemused by the information sought. The stories tell us something about how libraries work – and about what life was like before Google.
On Tuesday 17 January 1939, a few months before the outbreak of World War II, one of these stories appeared in the Sheffield Evening Telegraph, under the title: ‘Where They Know Nearly All The Answers’. It must have been a collaboration between librarian and journalist. The statistics included were clearly official and the City Librarian, Joseph Lamb, who was quoted, was very canny in securing publicity for his service.
The 7,000 books, 30,000 manuscripts, 5,000 plans, and 6,000 deeds in Sheffield Room omit nothing of importance in the city’s history. The room is constantly in use. In addition to personal inquiries on an average there are two inquiries a week by post, which lead to research among the voluminous records, steeped in the atmosphere of bygone tradition.
Sheffield Evening Telegraph, as above
After setting the scene, rich in tradition and scholarship, the unnamed journalist got down to business with ‘the most recent inquiries’: the Spence Broughton affair, William Mompesson and the Lescar Inn on Sharrow Vale Road. There was something for everyone in these fragments of local history.
Spence Broughton, the library’s record revealed, was a farmer, who, having squandered his money took to robbery.
BODY HUNG IN CHAINS
One night a boy was taking the mail from Sheffield to Rotherham. Broughton and another man – who was never caught – set upon him at Attercliffe, took the mail bag and left the boy bound upon the highway. In 1792 Broughton was hanged at York for the crime. His body was brought back to Attercliffe, where it hung in chains for 35 years. This is believed to have been the last example of gibbetting in England.
Sheffield Evening Telegraph, as above
I detect a hint of local pride in those last two sentences about the gibbet. To this day there is, you might note, the Noose & Gibbet Inn on Broughton Lane in Attercliffe.
In the case of William Mompesson, ‘the parson of Eyam plague fame’, the enquirer was looking for his date and place of birth. This proved a ‘teaser’, reported the journalist.
Finally, it was established after extensive research that neither the date nor place of Mompesson’s birth was definitely known, although it was possible to trace the approximate date of his birth from a tombstone inscription.
Sheffield Evening Telegraph, as above
Then there was the enquiry from the man writing a book on inn signs. How did the Lescar Inn, still a popular pub today, get its name?
The library records showed there were two grinding wheels in Sharrow Vale Road —they had been there since 1547 – called the Upper and Nether Lescar Wheels. The inn, built in 1879, was named after them.
Sheffield Evening Telegraph, as above
Having established the library’s credentials with these stories, the reporter turned to the City Librarian:
It is one of the purposes of a library to provide material for research, though it cannot, of course, undertake unduly detailed work … In the main … we provide the source of information that will satisfy queries, but in cases of inquiries from overseas the actual details asked for are also supplied if possible.
Sheffield Evening Telegraph, as above
The overseas enquiries, it seemed, usually referred to family history. People in Australia or America would get in touch in the search for their ancestors or long-lost relatives. Not much has changed then, as genealogy remains big business for public libraries. Sheffield Libraries, like many others, offer advice and free access to sites like Ancestry and the British Newspaper Archive.
In the 84 years since the Telegraph published its article, things have changed. People do still ask librarians questions, and use their libraries for research, but they also turn easily to Google, or sites like Find My Past and Ancestry, for information. It takes seconds to search Google to find the Wikipedia entries on Mompesson (his birth still seems obscure, by the way) and on Spence Broughton. There’s a lot of interesting information on Broughton, including this song of the time, in which he has apparently learned his lesson:
Hark, his blood, in strains so piercing, Cries for justice night and day, In these words which I’m rehersing, Now methinks I hear him say – ‘Thou, who art my spirit’s portion In the realms of endless bliss, When at first thou gav’st me motion Knew that I should come to this.’
Spence Broughton’s Lament by Joseph Mather
The obvious question in all this is whether there is still a need for public libraries in this context. Of course there is. Who but library and archive services have the capacity and expertise to collect and store the information the online articles draw on? The services are impartial. They are not out to make a profit or run by characterful billionaires. They have the trained and qualified staff to help people access, search and assess the material available. As Joseph Lamb noted all those years ago,
A library … was a storehouse of knowledge and experience, and if properly used could supply the answer to any reasonable question.
We are glad to welcome two new interviewees, Anne and John Robinson, both born in 1949.This reading journey is based on notes taken during the interview. There is no audio file or transcript.
By Mary Grover
When, in January 2023, I gave a talk in Hillsborough Library about reading in Wadsley, I expected to see Anne and Alan B whose reading memories from both Wadsley and Rotherham contributed to my understanding of reading in Sheffield in the Fifties. It was good to see Anne and Alan but it was an added bonus to meet two readers new to Reading Sheffield: John and Anne Robinson. The two couples are not only great readers but they are all key members of Wadsley and Loxley Commoners. WALC is a voluntary group of mainly local people who share a great love for Wadsley and Loxley Commons, a nature reserve to the north-west of Sheffield. The four friends work together in preserving and sharing this unique common land, once an industrial landscape where gannister was mined.
Anne and John would seem to have little time for reading but in fact they read every day. When they met with me and Sue Roe in the café of the Millennium Gallery, they shared reading histories that were very different from each other’s but they agree that they now influence each other’s tastes. Not only do they read books about the natural environment and history but they also share a taste for detective fiction, especially the novels of Anthony Horowitz. I felt that Anne was the sterner critic. The endings of detective novels were measured against those of Agatha Christie who ‘always got it right’. John loves biographies. He says that’s because he is a ‘nosey parker’.
Both Anne and John came from families which valued reading. As a girl, Anne McConnachie was given many opportunities to read. Her Sunday school introduced her to Bible stories. She was bought comics. Relatives, aunts especially, helped her acquire books of her own. At Christmas she was given annuals: Girls’ Crystal and School Friend. One of Anne’s aunties used to buy comics for her, her sister and a nephew. ‘Every week there was Girl for my sister, the Swift for me and the Eagle for the nephew. Me and my sister used to have a look at the cover of the Eagle (we weren’t so keen on the Mekon).’ Anne’s mother made sure that her daughters recorded the name of the relative who gave them an annual as a Christmas gift; each was inscribed in the front cover. A book was an object of value.
Anne’s mother was not only in a book club but she took her daughters with her on her hunt for popular fiction. She went to the cinema and enjoyed the thrillers of the Thirties and Forties with actors such as Humphrey Bogart, James Stewart and Tyrone Power. She read John Creasey and Raymond Chandler. Neither John nor Anne can remember seeing their mothers read. Both felt that when the family were around their mothers would have been too busy with domestic duties to do much reading themselves. If they sat down, they often took up ‘something useful’ like their knitting rather than a book.
As children, both Anne and John found the novels of Enid Blyton a delight. John probably got his from the mobile library in Dore, where he also found the Bobbsey Twins, mysteries and adventures written by the American Laura Lee Hope (a pseudonym for multiple authors). Anne loved Blyton’s The Faraway Tree and recalls the refrain ‘Wisha, wisha’, the noise of the wind in the trees. She could imagine going to the distant lands conjured by Blyton’s story. It was perhaps this book that inspired her love of magical stories and mythology. She realises now that the horrors of Greek mythology were just accepted as a child, their cruelty and monstrousness just taken for granted.
Another shared experience was the work of Charles Dickens. Anne found Great Expectations a very satisfying read when it was set for O level. John found Dickens heavy on the detail but ploughed on with Nicholas Nickleby and enjoyed the story. After he had finished reading it, he got a sense of achievement and still remembers it. Anne recently enjoyed A Christmas Carol. Though neither John nor Anne became regular readers of Dickens, they value the novels of his that they have they read.
One of the reasons for John’s difficulty with the sheer bulk of Dickens’ novels was possibly undiagnosed dyslexia. As for many children of his generation, the lack of diagnosis led teachers to conclude that he was not interested in reading. His primary school teacher was unconcerned by his lack of progress, often sending John and his friend to garden and to shovel snow when it needed clearing.
John was determined to learn, and to learn from books, in spite of his early difficulties with reading. His intense curiosity and determination have led him to be the avid reader that he is today. In spite of the red ink that covered the compositions that he so loved to write in primary school, he persisted and when he got to Silverdale School, in the late Fifties, he found the environment he needed to learn. Not only was he encouraged to read but the newly built secondary modern had good facilities including a library. John joined the chess club, sang in the choir and played in the orchestra. He learned to read music. He aimed to catch up and he coped well. His determination is reflected in the way he reads. As he puts it, ‘I will go the extra mile if the book is a bit difficult or slow’.
As a reader Anne had no obstacles to overcome. In her last year at Philadelphia Primary School, her headteacher found that she had a reading age of 15. She always found reading easy and her home was filled with print. Her dad worked nights for the Sheffield Telegraph and brought copies home. She remembers her mum reading them, building up piles that couldn’t be thrown out. Her mother read both the Telegraph and the Star.
Anne enjoyed Sunday School and the Bible stories she heard there. Upperthorpe Library was also an important source of books when the family lived in Kelvin. She probably went with her mother and sister.
Anne loved the library – the big round tables and the chairs – but she was a little in awe of the librarians. She wouldn’t have dared ask them for suggestions about what she might read but she can’t remember needing suggestions. She could take out five at once, would take them home, sit by the fire and read them all at a gallop. She can still do an efficient skim of a book if necessary.
As for many of our readers, an illness gave Anne increased opportunities to read. When she was 16, she got shingles and read whatever came to hand. She discovered A Pocketful of Rye and then They Came to Baghdad and became a big fan of Agatha Christie.
Though Anne went to a grammar school, Brincliffe, she can’t remember the school having a library, unlike the much better equipped secondary modern where John went.
Different though Anne and John’s reading histories have been, it is clear that what made them readers was the value their own families set on books. They both soon realised that books opened up opportunities to satisfy their natural curiosity, their imagination and their determination to make something of their lives. John’s adult confidence with print enabled him to be a committee man (one of many is the committee of the local Royal Society of Protection of Birds). All importantly, this confidence enabled him to run the family loan business. John’s command of records and paperwork was essential to building up the company’s reputation for reliability and trustworthiness. Anne thinks John should write a history of his working life. She suggests, ‘It could be called “The Loan Arranger”’.
Here is the last of the guest blogs from Sheffield Hallam student, Ellie Jackson, about the novels of Daphne du Maurier. This is part of Ellie’s final year project. Here she sets out her thoughts on the issue of class.
I will be discussing Daphne du Maurier’s most famous novels; Rebecca (1938), Jamaica Inn (1935), and My Cousin Rachel (1951). The female protagonist in all of these novels are victims of the class division, but particularly in Rebecca.
Mrs de Winter’s decision to marry a man above her own class challenges the rules for social mobility, but it is important to consider whether this was Du Maurier’s intention. Not only does her decision challenge the rules for mobility, but also the expectations of a woman’s role in marriage, and whether the woman should choose herself or conform to those expectations. We quickly realise that the narrator’s decision to marry was not actually her decision at all. Maxim gives her the choice: ‘Either you go to America with Mrs. Van Hopper or you come home to Manderley with me.’ (du Maurier, 1938, 6). This suggests that a woman of her status cannot have the privilege of choice. It’s a matter of which upper class individual to be dependent upon.
Mrs de Winter is aware of the class division in her marriage, and of her lack of confidence and awkwardness. but eventually realises her ‘intense desire to please’ (du Maurier, 1938, 16), especially when it comes to Mrs Danvers, the late Rebecca’s maid. Mrs Danvers is a constant reminder of Rebecca’s presence in Manderley, retelling stories of her perfectly proper mistress and insulted by her replacement. We do not even learn the name of our protagonist throughout the entire novel – only the powerful Mr de Winter and his well-bred, upper class wife Rebecca, whom he could not control, unlike the second Mrs de Winter. Even before our narrator is betrothed to Maxim, her social status is reinforced through her paid companionship to the obnoxious Mrs Van Hopper. The narrator is very aware of her social class and what others think of her when travelling with Mrs Van Hopper. She wishes that she were ‘a woman of about thirty-six dressed in black satin with a string of pearls’ (du Maurier, 1938, 5). She makes her wish to be someone else early on in the novel, which foreshadows the identity she will replace – Rebecca – when she arrives at Manderley, something she will regret ever wishing for.
Similarly, in My Cousin Rachel, du Maurier demonstrates the class difference between Rachel and Philip, her nephew by marriage. He is completely perplexed by Rachel’s desire to make her own way in the world without the financial stability of a husband, and suggests that he would prefer to pay her for doing nothing. Rachel’s independence ultimately proves to be a threat to the social class she now belongs to, after her marriage to Ambrose. Throughout the novel, there is the uncertain question of whether Rachel is genuine, or if she murdered Ambrose in order to inherit his wealth and estate, to send money out of the country and leave the family in debt. Rachel becomes a villain as she is accused of poisoning Philip suddenly after he gives up his inheritance for her. Is she, however, presented this way for other reasons? Is the thought of a woman with a new upper-class status, being independent with her finances and refusing to marry, so hard to believe that she must be a villain? Rachel is a defiant character. She is difficult to relate to as a woman who has moved through the classes and has a strong, powerful influence on a man. With Philip’s inability to accept Rachel defying convention, he allows himself to be complicit in her death.
Du Maurier ultimately suggests the determination of society to eradicate those who pose a threat to societal norms – especially those who aim for a higher social class. Mary Yellen in Jamaica Inn is another of du Maurier’s female characters who defy the societal norms of women being completely dependent on a man, as she is happy to continue her free, quiet life on the farm following the death of her mother. However, this independence is not unusual for a woman of Mary’s lower class and the main class difference that we see in Jamaica Inn is the type of work her uncle Joss undertakes. Joss is not an upper class man with a good economic situation, and so his dangerous smuggling operation contrasts the comfortable lives of the men in the other novels (despite their often endangering the lives of the women they know). The characters in Jamaica Inn are much lower in the social order than those in Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel, and therefore have less security and may have to take risks. The dark, depressing and abysmal dwelling in which Jamaica Inn is set, confirms the impact of the lower social class in terms of the lacking opportunities and freedom. The smuggling operation is not only a symbol of a lower social class and the pressure to have money in their pockets, but their lack of freedom to live regular lives.
Our guest blogger, Ellie Jackson, a student at Sheffield Hallam University, is looking at the novels of Daphne du Maurier for her final year project. Here are her thoughts about how du Maurier used the aesthetic of the Gothic to great effect in her novels.
The first recognised Gothic novel was written by Horace Walpole in 1764, The Castle of Otranto. The traditional Gothic novel has a number of recognisable key characteristics: death and decay, haunted castles and remote landscapes, intense emotion or fear in the reader. Since the 18th century, the idea of a new, modern Gothic has emerged, and the castle is no longer an essential element to the literature. The narratives of the modern Gothic focus on ‘the urban present, refracting contemporary concerns through the lens of a literature of terror’ (Dryden, 2003).
Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca is an exemplar model of the modern Gothic; it contains a large mansion, a murder, a great fire and a sinister servant. The pre-eminent Gothic trope is the setting: Manderley, the colossal mansion which the heroine, Mrs de Winter, comes to know after marrying Maxim de Winter. Even her first impressions of Manderley are negative, and leave an impact on her perceptions. The ‘gates crashing’, ‘serpent-like drive’ and the ‘roof of branches’ (du Maurier, 1938, 7) envision entrapment and a sense of a hidden evil. The emphasis on a picturesque landscape casts Manderley with a supernatural mystique, with du Maurier exploring her protagonist’s feelings of sublimity and her relationship with her natural surroundings. Mrs de Winter’s inquisitiveness reflects the twentieth century curiosity and thirst for the unknown. Du Maurier plays on this curiosity in the novel – for example, the murder mystery and the supernatural.
The use of the weather in Gothic literature is important, with storms seen as omens of evil, representing the inner self of the protagonist in externalising fears and conflict. The fog has a significant role in the novel, both literally and figuratively. For much of the novel, the fog completely blinds the narrator, Mrs de Winter, but once the truth of Rebecca is revealed, ‘The mist entered my nostrils and lay upon my lips rank and sour. It was stifling, like a blanket, like an anaesthetic. I was beginning to forget about being unhappy, and about loving Maxim. I was beginning to forget Rebecca,’ (du Maurier, 1938, 18). The lingering presence of the late Mrs de Winter was like the fog, clouding the protagonist’s vision and judgement. However, it is not suggested that Rebecca’s presence in Manderley disappears as the fog does. Even when Manderley is burned at the end, the foreboding first line of the novel, ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again’ (du Maurier, 1938, 1) suggests not that the presence of Rebecca has been destroyed with it, but that both the house and Rebecca still haunt Mrs de Winter and her husband.
Jamaica Inn encompasses similar conventional Gothic tropes, involving ‘a frail protagonist in terrible danger’, because she ‘is placed in a hostile, threatening, mysterious environment, usually so prodigiously large that it dwarfs her; she is made prisoner, she is threatened by individuals who should protect her, parents and parent-figures’ (Grellet, Valentin, 1996). This describes Mary Yellen, as she becomes the perfect Gothic protagonist on her arrival at Jamaica Inn and is threatened both by her (new) parent figures and the house itself. Although the house is not a ruined castle as pictured in The Castle of Otranto, it embodies characteristics of the traditional Gothic setting, with dark secrets hidden within it, secret rooms, doors and passages which du Maurier uses to build the mystery and workings of Jamaica Inn.
While there are conventional elements of the Gothic seen in both Rebecca and Jamaica Inn, du Maurier portrays My Cousin Rachel as the exact opposite. Traditionally, the Gothic novel features a young, naïve heroine whose inexperience puts her in a disadvantaged position with her older male superior. However, this is not the case for Rachel. Though the Gothic trope of the large manor house on the Ashley estate is present in the novel, it has little power compared to the character of Rachel. She is a headstrong, sexually overt, (eventually) economically stable woman with little need for a man. Du Maurier has drawn on Rachel’s personality in this way to encompass fears and curiosity within the reader about the ‘wicked woman’ who is thought to have murdered her husband and attempted to murder Philip too. Both Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel feature the female villain in their stories, but are they really villains at all? Both women have a disruptive effect on the narrators in their novels, but are their actions actually villainous, or are the impressions offered to the reader unfair from the perspective of other characters?
Mystery, suspense and death are present in all of these novels: the lingering death of Rebecca; the dark, dangerous mystery around Jamaica Inn and the activities undertaken there; and the death of Ambrose and poisoning of Philip all convey traditional and modern elements of the Gothic.
It’s good to welcome back guest blogger, Ellie Jackson, from Sheffield Hallam University. Ellie has already written her reading journey and a review of Gaudy Night (1935) by Dorothy L Sayers for our blog. Now she is looking at the novels of Daphne du Maurier for her final year project and, as part of that, is writing three blogs for us. Here is the first.
Daphne du Maurier had already published four novels and two biographies by the age of 30 and went on to write many more novels, short stories etc. Search her name in Google, and the first three book titles to show are Rebecca (1938), Jamaica Inn (1935) and My Cousin Rachel (1951) as her most famous novels. Rebecca is undoubtedly the most recognised novel of the three, with multiple film adaptations and written ‘sequels’ by different authors, such as Mrs de Winter (1993) by Susan Hill or Rebecca’s Tale (2001) by Sally Beauman.
Throughout this blog I will be discussing how du Maurier represents her female protagonist in relation to the gender identities presented in these popular fictions. Du Maurier both demonstrates and also subverts the conventional views of femininity through the use of her protagonists.
In Rebecca, this is particularly suggested by the hidden character of Rebecca herself. In some ways, it is suggested that Maxim de Winter’s first wife is an evil villain, a woman who posed a great threat to the conventional rules of female conduct and therefore judged by her unfeminine behaviour and her subversion of the female ideal of pleasing her husband. But critics have suggested that Rebecca was not only a victim of sexism, but of her husband too. The novel is an important early work of feminism, certainly presenting the ways in which the male character dominates. We only ever hear Maxim’s side of the story. Rebecca is never given a voice to speak her truth. Is Maxim the real villain? A controlling husband who expects his wife to behave as an obedient child and when she refuses to abide by his rules, becomes hateful and lashes out at her? Though absent in the novel, Rebecca has a strong presence throughout. Our impression of her becomes increasingly negative and we are made to believe that she is the primary antagonist of the novel, a skilful manipulator having extramarital affairs, and Maxim is portrayed as her helpless victim. Is the novel ahead of its time in terms of gender roles or has it aged badly? Rebecca is a woman who refused to let marriage destroy her right to identity, but she is also judged according to conventional rules for female behaviour that by modern standards don’t carry much currency.
My Cousin Rachel is a second novel by du Maurier that undoubtedly demonstrates this feminist ideology through her independent protagonist Rachel. Du Maurier makes very clear that in the only sex scene in the novel, Rachel is at the height of her power. From the beginning of the novel, Philip lays down his thoughts on the fundamental rules of female behaviour, in which he suggests women are emotional, unpredictable, ‘erratic and unstable’ (du Maurier, 1951, 5) in contrast to the rationality of a man. Rachel’s expression of her comfortable and overt sexuality completely bewilders Philip, and ultimately du Maurier uses his ambivalence to demonstrate that the power of a man is much stronger than the sexual power Rachel exhibits. This is made evident through Rachel’s inability to become pregnant. Sex is independently an act of pleasure rather than a function of marriage or family, and it is definitively on her own terms as Rachel uses it to ‘thank [him], that’s all’ (du Maurier, 1951, 22). So Rachel denying Philip marriage after they slept together turns him rather violent, emphasising his intolerance of her sexual power by attempting to physically overpower her.
The subversion of conventional views of femininity is further shown through du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn. Mary, her protagonist, exhibits a profound loathing for the culturally defined identities which society has given to women. She attempts to ignore her own femaleness, questioning ‘why were women such fools?’ (du Maurier, 1935, 5) in relation to the cruel, powerful character of her uncle Joss. Despite Mary’s self-sufficient character, the lack of identity of a woman under patriarchal influence is demonstrated when she ends up at Jamaica Inn. The masculine power of Joss Merlyn is used as a means to control the women in the novel, as they are ‘trained by constant cruelty to implicit obedience’. (du Maurier, 1935, 2).
Throughout all three of Du Maurier’s most popular novels, it is fair to suggest that she was ahead of her time in terms of gender identity, with her attempts to subvert the traditional societal roles given to women through her female protagonists, but ultimately positioning the male characters in such a way that they will always be superior. The lives of women are in the hands of the men in each of the novels. Mary is the only female protagonist that makes it out of the hands of her male superior. The same cannot be said for the characters of Rebecca and Rachel, who are both murdered for their ‘crimes’ against traditional feminine standards.
Here is Ellie’s second blog, on Daphne du Maurier’s use of the Gothic, and here is her third, on class in du Maurier’s novels.
Du Maurier, D. (1938). Rebecca. HarperCollins.
Du Maurier, D. (1951). My Cousin Rachel. Penguin Books.
Du Maurier, D. (1935). Jamaica Inn. Penguin Books.
If you follow Reading Sheffield on Twitter (@readsheffield) or Facebook, you’ll know that we are raising funds to support the publication of a new book, Steel City Readers: Reading for Pleasure in Sheffield, 1925-1955. The book, by Mary Grover, who founded our group, is an important celebration of Sheffield’s literary heritage. It’s based on the interviews with our 65 Sheffield readers which are all available here, in audio and transcript. Liverpool University Press (LUP) plans to publish the book on 1 June 2023. Here is the wonderful cover design, which uses an image from Sheffield Archives’ Picture Sheffield collection.
We want to raise £12,500 to support the publication. LUP’s plan is to make the book downloadable by anyone from the internet at no cost. To do this Reading Sheffield needs to invest £10,000 to help LUP pay for design, editing etc and to compensate for the loss of sales, and to have some funds to help promote the book etc. This is a big commitment for Reading Sheffield, but it would be wonderful to have a book free to everyone. We have a crowdfunding page – Just Giving – and are grateful for any donations.
The Joy of Reading, with Robin Ince
Robin Ince, BBC Radio 4 personality, author, comedian and all-round booklover and good egg, is coming to Sheffield to do two benefit shows to help us raise funds for Steel City Readers. The shows will be part of Robin’s nationwide tour of independent bookshops to talk about his own new book, Bibliomaniac. Both shows, each lasting about an hour, will take place on 11 January 2023, in the Carpenter Room in Sheffield Central Library on Surrey St, Sheffield, S1 1XZ. The first starts at 4pm, the second at 7pm. Tickets cost £15 and all the money raised will go to our fundraising. Here are links to book tickets for the two shows through Sheffield Libraries’ Eventbrite: