Whan thǣt hit bee Yeol

By Val Hewson

More on literary food. Here is the tale of Sheffield Literary Club’s Christmas dinners.

Whan thǣt hit bee Yeol? Yes, well may you pause. It means ‘when it’s Christmas’. Notice ‘Yeol’, which is more usually written as ‘Yule’. The phrase is taken from the menu for a Christmas feast organised by the Sheffield Literary Club in the early 1930s. ‘Feast’ is the operative word: this was no simple roast dinner.

The Literary Club started life as the ‘Sheffield Poetry Club’ in 1923 and, with the change of name perhaps recording wider interests, lasted until the 1960s. It was a largely female and middle-class group, with members having to pay an annual subscription of at least 5/-. The Club had high ideals. The Sheffield Daily Telegraph in 1923 commented:

Here is an opportunity for Sheffielders to refute the ancient taunt that Sheffield is unliterary, that it is ‘at the very nadir of culture’.

The original prospectus promised that:

… poetical plays will be read by lovers of drama; recitals will be given by elocutionists, of the less known good poetry; papers, and discussion on them will cultivate the essay form and encourage debate; original verse-making will be encouraged by inviting the authors to read their works.

The Club’s literary tastes were conservative. In the early years members discussed Austen, Byron, Milton and Tennyson at meetings. They shunned the avant-garde. This all deserves a blog of its own (and one day I will write it) but for now let’s focus on Christmas.  

As my colleague Mary Grover has observed, ‘nostalgia for a pre-industrial world was central to the Club’s original identity’.[i] Perhaps it was even nostalgia for a world which never existed. The 1923 prospectus promised a Christmas supper ‘at which all the beautiful English customs will be revived’ and Club papers show that there was an Old Customs committee. It was ‘Merrie England’ with a vengeance, reminiscent of the ideas beloved of Professor Welch and mocked by his subordinate Jim Dixon in Kingsley Amis’ novel Lucky Jim (1954):

‘The point about Merrie England is that it was about the most un-Merrie period in our history. It’s only the home-made pottery crowd, the organic husbandry crowd, the recorder-playing crowd, the Esperanto…’ He paused and swayed …His head seemed to be swelling and growing lighter …

Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim (1954), Kindle edition, loc 4151.

The first Christmas supper in 1923 seems to have been modest enough but through the 1920s and 1930s the celebrations got more and more elaborate. The event was usually described as ‘ye soper æt Cristenmæsse of ye witenayemot and clubbe of lettres’ [the Christmas dinner of the literary club and its committee], and there were toasts, mummers, a gesteur, the Mayster of Ye Feste, Fader Cristenmæsse and more.

Here is the menu, with appropriate Shakespearean quotations, from around 1935:

Hu Thei Don in Cutlerstoune [Sheffield] Whan thǣt hit bee Yeol

Fare

(‘Dost thou understand thus much English?’)

Fortune speed us! Thus set we on.

Sewe [Soup]

‘He is pure air and fire.’

‘He’s of the colour of the nutmeg.’ And of the heat of ginger.’

‘Good sooth, she is the queen of curds and cream.’

Fisch [fish]

‘Must I bite?’                                     ‘Yes, certainly.’

Turkey

’Tis no matter for his swellings nor his turkey-cocks, God pless you, Aunchient Pistol! You scurvy, lousy knave, God pless you!’

Ye Heved of Ye Boore [The Boar’s Head]

‘Whose tushes never sheathed, he whetteth still.’

‘Why, I pray you, is not pig great? The pig or the great, or the mighty, or the huge, or the magnanimous, are all one reckonings, save the phrase is a little variations.’

Plume-poding [plum pudding]

‘Why then comes in the sweet o’ the year.’

‘I cannot do’t without counters. Let me see: Three pound of sugar; five pound of currants; rice – what will this sister of mine do with rice? But my father hath made her mistress of the feast, and she lays it on. I must have saffron to colour the warden pies; mace; dates; none, that’s out of my notes; nutmegs, seven; a race or two of ginger, but that I may beg; four pound of prunes, and as many raisins o’ the sun.’

‘O that ever I was born!’

Sherries – Sack                                                  Ale – posset      

‘Shall I have some water? Come Kate and wash!’

‘Desist, and drink.’

‘I could not find him at the Elephant,

Yet there he was!’

‘Ye Heved of Ye Boore’, ‘plume-poding’ and the rest were all part of a performance in which the members played a part. At the start,

Ye gests and clubbefelawen schal standen, eche behindan hys siege, and ye Mayster of ye Feste schal pronownce ye Bletsung … And all ye companinie schal seyen ‘AMEN, AMEN, and AMEN! … [The guests and club members will stand behind their chairs, and the Master of the Feast will give the blessing … and the company will say ‘Amen, Amen and Amen!’]

In time Fader Cristenmæsse arrives. The Uschere sing:

A jolly wassail Bowl,

A wassail of good ale

Well fare the butler’s soul

That setteth this for sale!

Our jolly wassail! Our jolly wassail!’

‘I have many towns and countries to visit and must start with Cutlerstoune,’ says Cristenmæsse, and goes on, no doubt to popular acclaim in Yorkshire:

Nay, but to cry truce with jesting, I do love the North

Hath not our greatest trouvère,

Your own poet of Somersby [Tennyson], written

‘That bright and fierce and fickle is the South

And dark and true and tender is the North.

Say to her I do but wanton in the South

But in the North long since my nest is made.’

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, The Princess: O Swallow.

The Feste finally ends after a short break ‘for a man somewhæt to strechen his shanken’ [for everyone to stretch their legs] and a Toast to ‘Absent Friends’.

Presumably it was the Old Customs committee that lovingly and happily researched, composed and argued over this. There is ritual, bell-ringing, singing, quotations from Shakespeare and other Greats, Latin tags and Elizabethan, Middle and Old and – surely! – cod English. ‘Clubbefelawen’? ‘Erthenobbes?’ [Club members and potatoes to you.]

As might be expected, World War II put a stop to all this, and the custom was never revived in post-war austerity. By then the general sentiment was for making the new world, rather than re-making the old. What did the Club members feel about the Festes? I like to think that some enjoyed the playacting, while others took the evening desperately seriously and still others groaned at the thought of it.

Clubbefelawen with Ye Mayster of Ye Feste (City Librarian, J P Lamb) 4th from the left. No-one looks very jolly.

[i] Mary Grover, unpublished notes.

Wodehouse Serves Up A Feast

By Val Hewson

After posting our Edible England blogs for Heritage Open Days 2021, we found that we have more to say on literary food. By the way, there are spoilers below, though I’m not sure this matters much in P G Wodehouse.

It begins with a Prairie Oyster. After a ‘rather cheery little supper’ the night before, Bertie Wooster is trying to read Types of Ethical Theory, which his terrifyingly intellectual fiancée, Lady Florence Craye, feels will improve him:

‘If you would drink this, sir,’ he said, with a kind of bedside manner, rather like the royal doctor shooting the bracer into the sick prince. ‘It is a little preparation of my own invention. It is the Worcester Sauce that gives it its colour. The raw egg makes it nutritious. The red pepper gives it its bite. Gentlemen have told me they have found it extremely invigorating after a late evening.’ …

For a moment I felt as if somebody had touched off a bomb inside the old bean and was strolling down my throat with a lighted torch, and then everything seemed suddenly to get all right. The sun shone in through the window; birds twittered in the tree-tops; and generally speaking, hope dawned once more.

‘You’re engaged!’ I said, as soon as I could say anything. …

‘Thank you, sir. My name is Jeeves.’

P G Wodehouse, Jeeves Takes Charge (1916).

Bertie is now in safe hands:

‘Good morning, sir,’ said Jeeves. He put the good old cup of tea softly on the table by my bed, and I took a refreshing sip. Just right, as usual. Not too hot, not too sweet, not too weak, not too strong, not too much milk, and not a drop spilled in the saucer. A most amazing cove, Jeeves. So dashed competent in every respect.

P G Wodehouse, The Inimitable Jeeves (1923)

It is fortunate that Jeeves is ‘so dashed competent’, given Bertie’s and his friends’ incompetence.

Strand magazine 1921 illustration by Arthur Wallis Mills for Jeeves in the Springtime. Public domain.

In Sir Roderick Comes to Lunch (1922), Bertie has acquired another terrifying fiancée, Honoria (her laugh is famously ‘like the Scotch express going under a bridge’). Her father, Sir Roderick, a nerve specialist or in Bertie’s words, ‘a sort of janitor to a loony-bin’, wants to ‘satisfy himself that [Bertie is] perfectly normal’. Bertie is instructed by his Aunt Agatha to give Sir Roderick lunch.

‘Please remember that he drinks no wine, strongly disapproves of smoking, and can only eat the simplest food, owing to an impaired digestion. Do not offer him coffee, for he considers it the root of half the nerve-trouble in the world.’

P G Wodehouse, Sir Roderick Comes to Lunch (1922)

Bertie is rebuked for suggesting a ‘dog-biscuit and a glass of water’. On the day, Jeeves serves ‘cold consommé, a cutlet, and a savoury, sir. With lemon-squash, iced.’ Bertie has left the choice to Jeeves – a sign of how much master relies on manservant. The lunch is exquisitely awkward, with Bertie rambling nervously. And when three cats, a salmon and a stolen hat intrude. Sir Roderick, who fears cats, stalks out. ‘No wedding bells for me, what?’ says Bertie, realising that Jeeves has engineered the situation to save him from Honoria Glossop. Wodehouse’s menu tells us that a Wooster – Glossop match is not to be.  

In Jeeves in the Springtime (1921), Bertie’s friend Bingo falls for Mabel, a waitress at ‘one of those blighted tea-and-bun shops’:

Bingo studied the menu devoutly. ‘I’ll have a cup of cocoa, cold veal and ham pie, slice of fruit cake, and a macaroon. Same for you, Bertie?’ I gazed at the man, revolted. … ‘Or how about a bit of hot steak-pudding, with a sparkling limado to wash it down?’ said Bingo. You know, the way love can change a fellow is really frightful to contemplate. This chappie before me, who spoke in that absolutely careless way of macaroons and limado, was the man I had seen in happier days telling the head-waiter at Claridge’s exactly how he wanted the chef to prepare the sole frite au gourmet aux champignons, and saying he would jolly well sling it back if it wasn’t just right. Ghastly! Ghastly! A roll and butter and a small coffee seemed the only things on the list that hadn’t been specially prepared by the nastier-minded members of the Borgia family for people they had a particular grudge against, so I chose them, and Mabel hopped it.

P G Wodehouse, Jeeves in the Springtime (1921), chapter 1.

T. D. Skidmore’s 1921 Cosmopolitan illustration for Jeeves in the Springtime. Public domain.

Again the food tells us that Bingo and Mabel are not meant for each other. Jeeves must sort the mess out. In this case he turns out to have a personal interest, having an ‘understanding’ with both Mabel and Bingo’s uncle’s cook, Miss Watson. It all ends happily, of course: Bingo is freed from an unsuitable attachment; Jeeves and Mabel can get together; and Bingo’s uncle, Lord Bittlesham, who ‘devotes himself almost entirely to the pleasures of the table’ gets engaged to Miss Watson, on whose services he ‘sets a high value …’ (P G Wodehouse, The Inimitable Jeeves, chapter 1).

Bingo, being Bingo, soon falls in love with another waitress, over lunch with Bertie at the Senior Liberal club, where ‘the cooking’s the best in London’ (P G Wodehouse, The Inimitable Jeeves, chapter 17):

‘How would this do you, Bingo?’ I said at length. ‘A few plovers’ eggs to weigh in with, a cup of soup, a touch of cold salmon, some cold curry, and a splash of gooseberry tart and cream with a bit of cheese to finish?’ … I looked up and found that his attention was elsewhere. He was gazing at the waitress…

Happily, this waitress turns out to be more suitable – she is the romantic novelist Rosie M Banks, working as a waitress merely to get material for her new book – and soon she and Bingo are married.   

One of the most important minor characters in Wodehouse is intimately connected with food: the French chef, Anatole, ‘with a moustache of the outsize or soup-strainer type’ (P G Wodehouse, Right Ho, Jeeves!, chapter 20). Anatole works for Bertie’s Aunt Dahlia and is a ‘monarch of his profession’ (P G Wodehouse, Right Ho, Jeeves!, chapter 4). Bertie’s friend, Tuppy Glossop, says:     

… the thing that I admire so enormously about Anatole is that, though a Frenchman, he does not, like so many of these chefs, confine himself exclusively to French dishes, but is always willing and ready to weigh in with some good old simple English fare such as this steak-and-kidney pie to which I have alluded.

P G Wodehouse, Right Ho, Jeeves! (1934), chapter 8.

But things begin to go wrong when, at Bertie’s behest, Tuppy Glossop refuses his dinner:

‘Let us get this straight. Tonight, at dinner, when the butler offers me a ris de veau à la financiere, or whatever it may be, hot from Anatole’s hands, you wish me to push it away untasted?’

P G Wodehouse, Right Ho, Jeeves! (1934), chapter 8.

Tuppy is persuaded because he can raid the larder later:

‘There is something cold there … A steak-and-kidney pie. … One of Anatole’s ripest.  …’.

P G Wodehouse, Right Ho, Jeeves! (1934), chapter 8

Bertie persuades Aunt Dahlia and Gussie Fink-Nottle to forego dinner too for various reasons. But, unlike Jeeves’ schemes, it doesn’t work. ‘The whole thing more than a bit like Christmas dinner on Devil’s Island’, (P G Wodehouse, Right Ho, Jeeves! chapter 9) as nonnettes de poulet Agnès Sorel and cèpes à la Rossini are refused. Anatole, like all his race and profession, is temperamental and naturally gives notice:

‘I hear that when the first two courses came back to the kitchen practically untouched, his feelings were so hurt that he cried like a child. And when the rest of the dinner followed, he came to the conclusion that the whole thing was a studied and calculated insult …’  

P G Wodehouse, Right Ho, Jeeves! (1934), chapter 11.

After much farce, including Bertie getting engaged to yet another girl, Madeline Bassett, Jeeves contrives to make everything ‘oojah-cum-spiff’ again, with a fire bell, a bicycle and a key.

Strand magazine 1922 illustration for Scoring for Jeeves by Arthur Wallis Mills. Public domain.

Bertie ascribes his valet’s brilliance to diet, to fish.

‘It’s brain,’ I said, ‘pure brain! What do you do to get like that, Jeeves? I believe you must eat a lot of fish, or something. Do you eat a lot of fish, Jeeves?’

‘No, sir.’

‘Oh, well, then, it’s just a gift, I take it; and if you aren’t born that way there’s no use worrying.’

P G Wodehouse, My Man Jeeves (1919).

Food is clearly important in P G Wodehouse. He uses food as image, often hilariously: ‘she looked like a tomato struggling for self-expression’ (P G Wodehouse, Right Ho! Jeeves, chapter 20). Food offers a framework for Bertie’s life – breakfast from Jeeves, lunch at the Drones and so on – and for Wodehouse to write his set-pieces, like the disastrous dinner cooked by Anatole. Wodehouse describes food – the hearty food of his childhood and the rich French dishes popular in the Edwardian era – with obvious relish. And food may be an indicator: characters with unconventional tastes in food like Sir Roderick are to be treated with caution, while those with a good appetite for ‘proper’ food, like Tuppy and Bingo, are approved of.

Here is a recipe for a Prairie Oyster. It is said to be a cure for a hangover. Mix together a raw egg or yolk, a teaspoon of Worcestershire sauce, a dash of vinegar, a dash of tomato juice (optional) and salt and pepper. The drink is swallowed in one go, with the egg/yolk whole. Jeeves apparently adds red pepper and perhaps a secret ingredient.

Pineapple Chunks and Sardines

By Val Hewson

On a school trip to London, when I was about 17, we stayed overnight in a boarding school. The dormitory was just as all the stories described: small cubicles, curtains to divide them, narrow beds and small lockers. We smuggled in, not food, but a bottle of wine. Well, we were pretty grown up, you know. Not so grown up, however, that we remembered a corkscrew. (Here’s a tip: you can dig out a cork with a nail file, but it’s a messy, slow business so don’t try it unless you have to.) The next morning, some of us smuggled the empty bottle out and disposed of it in a bin on the Underground, while others distracted our teacher. Looking back, I wonder if she knew all about it and was kind enough not to say anything.

This was the closest I ever got to a midnight feast. It has been fun to read about them again for Heritage Open Days 2021 and Edible England.

Food is often mentioned in the classic school story. Noisy dining rooms with teachers or prefects serving the meal from the head of the table; going out for lunch or a picnic with parents at half-term; tuckboxes filled with goodies; teashops in town on half-holiday; muffins toasted over the fire in your study; scrumptious teas with the visiting lacrosse team you’ve just thrashed; Frühstück, Mittagessen and Abendessen in the trilingual Chalet School; and of course midnight feasts.

Enid Blyton’s feasts are typical. Here is an example from her St Clare’s series (which I enjoyed reading for the first time in over fifty years for this blog):

‘Let’s have a midnight feast!’ said Pat, suddenly. ‘… I don’t know why food tastes so much nicer in the middle of the night than in the daytime, but it does!’ … ‘Each girl had better bring one thing – a cake – or ginger beer – or chocolate.’

The most lavish contribution was Kathleen’s! She brought a really marvellous cake, with almond icing all over it, and pink and yellow sugar roses on the top.

‘Golly! Pork pie and chocolate cake, sardines and Nestlé’s milk, chocolate and peppermint creams, tinned pineapple and ginger beer!’ said Janet. ‘Talk about a feast!’

Enid Blyton, The Twins at St Clare’s (1941), chapter 8

The midnight feast in repeated in most of the novels in the St Clare’s series. Blyton varies the theme: sausages fried on an oil stove; a summer feast by the outdoor pool, with a swim first; theft from the cupboard where the goodies are stored; and the French teacher, Mam’zelle, encountering a sleepwalker, locking up three girls under the impression that they are burglars and failing completely to spot the actual feast.

Blyton clearly enjoys this: the girls contributing biscuits, cakes, sausages and at least one elaborate cake from a tuck-box or the baker’s in town; choosing a venue far away from any teachers’ rooms; secreting everything away in handy cupboards; setting the alarm clock and putting it under someone’s pillow; creeping around in the dark to avoid waking those who are not invited; narrow escapes from discovery and even being caught out.

The food the girls enjoy so much is always the same: sardines and tinned pineapple and biscuits and sausages and cakes frosted with sugar rosettes on top and pork pies and Nestlé’s milk and prawns and ginger beer and chocolate.

Feeling queasy? Well, dear reader, I wrote the list deliberately:

‘Look – take a bite of a sardine sandwich, and then a bite of a pork pie, and then a spoonful of Nestlé’s milk,’ said Pat. ‘It tastes gorgeous.’

Enid Blyton, The Twins at St Clare’s (1941), chapter 8

Unsurprisingly, some of the girls feel ill the next day:

Matron had some most disgusting medicine. She dosed the girls generously and they groaned when she made them lick the spoon round. … ‘I know these symptoms,’ said Matron. ‘You are suffering from Midnight Feast Illness! Aha! You needn’t pretend to me! If you will feast on pork pies and sardines, chocolate and ginger beer in the middle of the night, you can expect a dose of medicine from me the next day.’

Enid Blyton, The Twins at St Clare’s (1941), chapter 9

The girls do not, however, learn this lesson at least. In The Second Form at St Clare’s (1944):

They ate everything. Carlotta even ate sardines and pineapple together. Alison tried prawns dipped in ginger beer, which Pat and Isabel said were ‘simply super’, but they made her feel sick taken that way. However, the others didn’t mind, and mixed all the food together with surprising results.

‘Nobody would dream that sardines pressed into gingerbread cake would taste so nice,’ said Janet.

Enid Blyton, The Second Form at St Clare’s, chapter 17

When two girls are sent to Matron the next day for refusing breakfast and dinner, Matron is not fooled:

‘You are both suffering from Too-Much-To-Eat. A dose of medicine will soon put that right.’

Enid Blyton, The Second Form at St Clare’s, chapter 17

The food all seems typical of the period and place (mid-20th century Britain): tinned fruit, tinned fish, fruit cake with icing and ‘lashings of ginger beer’, as Blyton’s Famous Five would put it. It makes the adult stomach curdle but it is one of Blyton’s favourite jokes, calculated to make schoolgirls of the time long for a midnight feast and groan in sympathy at the visit to Matron the next day. 

It’s not, however, just about indigestible combinations of favourite foods. For some poorer readers, the quantity and range of the food described must have been unimaginable. And there is no reference to rationing, even though the St Clare’s series was written and published during World War Two. Perhaps Enid Blyton chose to shield her readers, or was reminding them of happier times (unlike Elinor M Brent-Dyer with her Chalet School in the Austrian Tyrol). In reality, when the twins arrived at St Clare’s, sugar, meat, fats, bacon, and some tinned foods were all rationed and a wartime midnight feast would have been a poor thing.

Leaving aside the fun, midnight feasts are one of the ways in which the girls’ characters are formed in Blyton’s books, along with games, lessons, exams, classroom tricks, plays and concerts, parental visits and more. Her St Clare’s is a ‘sensible,’ single-sex boarding school, priding itself on bringing out the best in its girls. The series starts with the arrival of Pat and Isabel O’Sullivan, aged about 13, and follows them and their class from the first form to the fifth (that is, from the age of 13 to 17, or so). The sequence is incomplete, however, with three books set in the first form, and one each in the second, fourth and fifth. What happened, you wonder, to the third and sixth forms? After Fifth Formers of St Clare’s (1945), we hear no more of Pat, Isabel and their friends. Enid Blyton starts the similar but arguably more polished, 6-book Malory Towers series (1946-51). Its main character, Darrell Rivers, is a stronger, more convincing character than the two-dimensional and often absent from the action Pat and Isabel O’Sullivan.

The St Clare’s novels follow the familiar path of school stories. They start at the beginning of the term or year, with old friends re-uniting and a few new girls, or maybe a teacher, to generate plot. The newcomers have difficulty adjusting, or an established pupil gets into trouble. By the end of the term, some girls will have settled, accepted by the school community, while others will not come up to the St Clare’s standard and leave. (In a way, it’s survival of the fittest.) Mischief is accepted:

‘…at some time or another most schoolgirls attend a midnight feast! Do not take too serious a view of it!’

‘In my school days such a thing was not even thought of!’ said Mam’zelle. ‘Ah, we knew how to work, we French girls!’

‘But did you know how to play, Mam’zelle?’ said Miss Theobald softly.

Enid Blyton, The O’Sullivan Twins (1942), chapter 6.

Cheating, stealing, not owning up, pride, malice, bullying, silliness and excessive interest in one’s appearance, however, are generally condemned, by both staff and girls. Being straightforward, honest and honourable are the St Clare’s way. Foreign students, of course, find this difficult – the French girl, Claudine, is sceptical of the English sense of honour:

‘You English girls, you are so serious and solemn and so very, very honourable. The good Miss Theobald, she said to me this morning that one thing I must take back to France with me , one only – the sense of honour.’

Enid Blyton, Claudine at St Clare’s (1944), chapter 30.

By the fifth form, however, Claudine is beginning to respect the code. To the adult and/or the 21st century reader, the school’s judgements on failure to live up to expectations seem harsh but Blyton’s is a strict moral universe.

‘You are a hard and spiteful woman,’ went on Miss Theobald’s solemn voice [to a temporary Matron who has been unkind to her own children]. ‘This boy and girl need help and comfort, but they would never get it from you!’

Enid Blyton, Claudine at St Clare’s (1944), chapter 22.

‘[Prudence] has a lot of lessons to learn in life,’ said Miss Roberts, seriously. ‘She has been taught a very big one here, and has learnt for the first time to see herself as she really is – and for two or three weeks she has to undergo the ordeal of knowing that others see her as she is, too. Ah, well – I don’t know how she will turn out. She’s a problem – and I’m glad I haven’t got to solve it!’

Enid Blyton, Summer Term at St Clare’s (1943), chapter 20.

The people I know who went to boarding schools generally hated them, and have memories of poor food, strict discipline and even a sub-standard education. Pineapple chunks and sardines are just a lovely dream.

Reading the Recipes

By Val Hewson

In this Heritage Open Days blog, I find that a vintage recipe book unlocks my memory.

I am no cook. I enjoy food but am not particularly interested in the art of preparing it. There are people who read recipe books just for pleasure. Their favourites are worn – loved? – with wrinkled, stained, torn pages. Recipe cards, cuttings from magazines, scraps of paper fall from them. My recipe books sit, clean and mostly unused, on their shelf. But there is one which, though I don’t have a copy, is a stop on my reading journey: Be-Ro Home Recipes (Thomas Bell & Son Ltd, 1957).

My mum had a copy of the Be-Ro book when I was a small child. Where it came from, I don’t know. It was one of the few books in the house, perhaps one of the first I ever saw, and I suppose this is why it is so clear in my mind. The solid Be-Ro logo. The recipe titles in a font that mimics handwriting. Black and white illustrations of cakes, biscuits and pies. Line drawings of women pouring, mixing, beating (and, I see, the only man to feature, shown sitting back, relaxing, as his wife or girlfriend unpacks a picnic basket). Clearest of all to me, the cover photo of a young woman, smiling in her blue blouse and red and white checked apron. Her pose is awkward, half-turning, the Be-Ro book in her left hand and a mixing bowl, measuring jug, cake tin, eggs and, of course, Be-Ro flour on the table in front of her.

Thomas Bell & Son was a Newcastle firm, and this somehow made it special to me as a Geordie. The name came about from a shortening of ‘Bells Royal’, the original name for the company’s self-raising flour and baking powder. In the 1920s, Bells produced the first of their recipe books and distributed them free. This proved to be a brilliant way to establish the brand. There have been about 40 editions over the last hundred years – with updated ingredients and recipes but similar in format – and the name Be-Ro is still familiar.

At least, in my experience, the name is familiar in the north of England and in the Midlands but much less so in the south. When I mentioned it to my Sheffield neighbours, all of a certain age, all northerners, they nodded.

Be-Ro!

I’ve still got a Be-Ro book.  

It helped me learn the basics – making pastry or a sponge cake and that sort of thing. Techniques. And then you could make other things.

Regulo. Do you remember Regulo? My grandkids don’t know what I mean. They laugh.

My mum was a very good cook, who served an excellent Sunday lunch and had a light hand with cakes and pies. She made the best egg custard I’ve ever tasted. But she was not a great one for cookery books. Be-Ro is the only one I remember. My dad liked the food he had always known so there was little call for innovation or experiment. My mum’s skill came from long practice, handed on from her mother or elder sisters. At least, I suppose they taught her. She never said and I never asked.

I do know that our Christmas Cake recipe came from Be-Ro, although my mum always added extra cherries, because I loved them. She never iced the cake, which Be-Ro suggested, as none of us liked icing much. Once made, the cake was put away in a tin until Christmas. A second cake was usually made for my birthday a few months later. Plain fruit cake, perhaps with a slice of cheese, is still my cake of choice.  

Christmas Cake

12 ozs Be-Ro self-raising flour

One teaspoonful mixed spice

4 ozs ground almonds

8 ozs currants

8 ozs sultanas

8 ozs raisins (optional)

4 ozs cherries (halved)

4 ozs peel (chopped)

8 ozs butter

8 ozs caster sugar

4 eggs, beaten with

8 tablespoonsfuls milk

1.   Clean and mix the fruit.

2.   Mix flour, spice and ground almonds.

3.   Beat butter and sugar to a cream in a warm bowl.

4.   Beat eggs and milk together.

5.   Stir in (alternately a little at a time) the flour mixture and eggs and milk, with the butter and sugar.

6.   Add the fruit last.

7.   Mix thoroughly. If a darker cake is desired, add one teaspoonful of gravy browning.

8.   Use a large round cake tin (8” in diameter) lined with greased paper.

9.   Bake about 4 hours, the first hour in a moderate oven (350°-375° F. Regulo 3-4) and then a slow oven (250°-300° F. Regulo 1-2)

Be-Ro Home Recipes (1957)

As I turn the pages, other recipes from 1957 look familiar: scones, drop scones, girdle cakes (‘griddle cakes’ in our house), ginger cakes, sly cake, jam tarts, mince pies, rock cakes, custard tarts and maids of honour. Until I started reading, I had forgotten that my mum used to make all of these. With changing fashions, most of them have disappeared from more recent editions, replaced by carrot cake, lemon drizzle cake and banoffee pancakes.

When she was baking, I was usually allowed to press down the edge of the pastry on the tart my mum was making and to make neat airholes with a fork. She used to let me have some pastry to play with. Kneeling on a chair to reach the table, I would roll the pastry out and turn it and roll it and turn it, until it was grey and sticky. It would be a ‘cake for the birds’, we pretended.

I don’t know what happened to my mum’s Be-Ro. Perhaps it fell apart with use and was thrown out. Or it got lost when she moved house. In her later years, she no longer cooked much, and in any case, after so long, she must have had the recipes by heart.  

Perhaps I should have a go.

Three Rules for Pastry Making

1. Handle it lightly.

2. Keep it cool.

3. Bake it in a HOT oven.

Cool hands, a cool slap, and water as cold as possible help you to produce the best results. Use the finger-tips, as they are the coolest part of the hands. Always mix with a knife. Add the water gradually, using as little as possible, as the pastry should be very stiff. After adding water, avoid adding more flour, as this spoils pastry.

Pastry requires a HOT OVEN. Bake on the top shelf, as this part is the hottest. 

Be-Ro Home Recipes (1957)

Thanks to Lizz Tuckerman for lending me the Be-Ro book, which you can see on display during September at Sheffield Central Library in our Heritage At Home exhibition. The Be-Ro story can be found here.

The Recipe Books of the Countesses of Arundel and Kent

By Lisa Hopkins

For our third heritage Open Days / Edible England blog, Lisa Hopkins, Professor of English at Sheffield Hallam University, has written about two 17th century recipe books. Throughout September, you can see a facsimile of these books in our Heritage At Home exhibition in Sheffield Central Library.

A Choice Manual of Rare and Select Secrets (1653) and Natura Exenterata (1655) are both collections of recipes and remedies with a special connection to Sheffield. A Choice Manual proudly announced that it was the household book of Elizabeth Talbot Grey, countess of Kent. For Natura Exenterata no author is named, but there is a portrait of Alethea Talbot Howard, countess of Arundel, opposite the title page, and it appears under her name in the Arundel Castle library. There is also a small piece of internal evidence for her authorship, for one of the recipes, for ‘a Water called Maids-milk’, observes that ‘This Water is good to make the skin nesh’, a word I had never heard until we moved to Sheffield in 1990. There were not many female aristocratic authors who were equally at home transcribing Latin and calling things nesh, but Elizabeth and Alethea were two of the three daughters of Mary Cavendish Talbot, countess of Shrewsbury, whose mother was Bess of Hardwick. They grew up in Sheffield, and since they had no brothers their father’s vast possessions in the city passed to Alethea’s husband, Thomas Howard, whose family name and titles of earl of Arundel and Surrey (and later Duke of Norfolk) are all remembered in the names of streets and squares. 

Elizabeth (née Talbot), Countess of Kent after Unknown artist
line engraving, mid 17th century, 2 7/8 in. x 2 in. (72 mm x 50 mm) paper size
Given by the daughter of compiler William Fleming MD, Mary Elizabeth Stopford (née Fleming), 1931
Reference Collection
NPG D22796
Aletheia Talbot, Countess of Arundel, by Wenceslaus Hollar, after Sir Anthony van Dyck
etching, 1626. 10 1/2 in. x 7 3/4 in. (267 mm x 198 mm) plate size; 10 3/4 in. x 8 in. (272 mm x 203 mm) paper size
Purchased with help from the Friends of the National Libraries and the Pilgrim Trust, 1966
Reference Collection
NPG D18366

The sisters’ two books were among the earliest household manuals published, though they had been written even earlier, around three decades before. The reader of A choice manual is assured that ‘it may be justly deemed as a rich magazene of experience’; ‘magazine’ has a different tonality in the seventeenth century – the sisters’ cousin Jane Cavendish called her great-grandmother Bess of Hardwick ‘the very magazine of rich’, and Jane’s stepmother Margaret Cavendish called her own brain ‘a Magazine’ –  but Lady Kent’s book does indeed have something of the feel of a modern lifestyle magazine, offering us privileged glimpses into her lovely kitchen and enviable life. Some of the ingredients are decidedly exotic, including ‘English Tobacco’ , spermaceti, and ‘Tutty of Alexandria’ (zinc oxide). ‘A Medicine for the falling Sickness’ requires a pennyweight of gold, six pennyweights each of pearl, amber and coral, eight grains of a bezoar, half an ounce of peony seeds, ‘some pouder of dead mans scull that hath been an Anatomie’ (if the intended recipient is female; if he is male it needs to be a woman’s skull), and endive water. The first of two ‘Receipts for Bruises, approved by the Lady of Arundell’ requires pulverised jet, and ‘An approved Medicine for the Plague, called the Philosophers Egge’ starts innocuously enough with ‘Take a new laid Egg’ but then demands ‘five or six simples of Unicorns horn’, though it does concede that hartshorn will do as a substitute. In this surely lay the appeal of the book at the time of its publication. Even if you had been able to obtain a substance that you called unicorn horn before the Civil War broke out, you would not have been able to do so once it had started – the royalist garrison at Pendennis Castle in Cornwall was reported to be eating horseflesh – or, if you were royalist, after it had finished, since so many of the king’s supporters were living in poverty and exile. Elizabeth’s book peddles a fantasy, offering poignant reminders of a time when people had leisure and energy to trouble themselves about trivia such as cutting Florentines in the shape of virginal keys and never using anything but silver dishes to dry peaches on.

It would certainly have been safer to use the books as aids to nostalgia rather than practical cooking manuals. In Lady Kent’s book, the preface ‘To the reader’ warns that

if any, or perchance many unlook’d for mistaks, for want of a due application, bids thee entertain contrary thoughts, the effect not answering thy curious expectation, upon a more serious reflex, know, that nothing is absolutely perfect, and withall, that the richest and most soveraign Antidote may be often missapplied.

The cautionary note is justified, because some of the recipes are frankly terrifying. A recipe ‘For hot Eyes and red’ begins uncompromisingly ‘Take slugs’ and ‘A Receipt for the Plurisie’ advises ‘Take three round Balls of Horse-dung, boil them in a pint of white Wine till half be consumed, then strain it out, and sweeten it with a little Sugar’ (sugar is a major ingredient in both sisters’ books: a recipe for boiling a duck enjoins the cook to add ‘as much Sugar as will lye upon it’). In Alethea’s book, the advice ‘For a Strein’ orders starkly ‘Take Pisse’, and ‘For the Jaundice’, ‘Take in the morning fasting if it be a man, lice out of a females head, and drink them with white Wine and Sugar, and a little Nutmeg.  And take in the evening pouder of wormes as much as will lye upon a groat’. A recipe for ‘A Vomit to cleanse the stomach’ begins ‘Take three roots of yellow Daffadillies’, which could lead to serious poisoning. Some of the remedies in particular show that even an aristocratic lifestyle was not always glamorous: for cataracts, ‘Take two or three Lice out of ones head’, and the instructions for making ‘a slipcoat Cheese’ include ‘if you find any Mouse turd wipe it off’. There is also a recipe for ‘Pills for the Gonorraeha’ and one for viper wine contributed by family friend Sir Kenelm Digby, who had made it for his wife to cure her headaches (she died, though possibly of a brain haemorrhage rather than of the wine). The two sisters’ books, then, allow us to glimpse a number of things about their world: the interconnectedness of aristocratic families and the value they placed on hospitality and domestic ceremony, but also the shock of the Civil War and the pains and perplexities to which even the most privileged households might be subject, along with a belief that appropriate recipes and remedies could alleviate those.

Heritage At Home

By Val Hewson

It’s been a while since our last post, and the reason for the silence is that we’ve been working on an exhibition for the 2021 Heritage Open Days festival. The theme this year is ‘Edible England’ and so our exhibition is of vintage recipe books. Sheffield Libraries and Archives have been kind enough to host it for us (and to contribute three wonderful books). The exhibition can be visited at any time during opening hours in the Central Lending Library on Surrey Street until 1 October.

Our Heritage At Home exhibition of recipe books illustrates the everyday, private and individual heritage we all have. A heritage which is easily overlooked but which, when we examine it, makes us each think about what we carry from the past into the future.

Many of the books were collected simply by asking around in Sheffield. Some came from local charity shops, and a few via eBay. Most people we spoke to – even those who claimed to be uninterested in cooking – turned out to have recipe books tucked away. Enthusiasts had whole bookcases. We didn’t set out to find classics or to cover different cuisines or periods. We wanted random, not representative. What had survived? How and why?

The variety is surprising. Most of the books are dated between about 1890 and 1970. There are instruction manuals for stoves; booklets given away by food manufacturers promoting their products or as gimmicks by newspapers; domestic encyclopaedias of the sort presented to brides; and books by the Delias and Nigellas of their day, now almost forgotten. (The exception is Mrs Beeton – her book turned up more often than any other, in reprint editions.) Perhaps most interesting are the homemade books, in which recipes have been handwritten or typed or cut from magazines or food packaging.    

 

Many of the books are worn – a few almost to destruction – and this may be not so much the effect of time as of use. There are mysterious stains where something has dripped or overflowed and pages still gritty with flour, sugar, salt. Occasionally scraps of paper are tucked inside, presumably snatched up to mark a page and then forgotten. In the margins there are handwritten reminders, explanations, comments. And there is the personal – names and addresses and sometimes inscriptions, for example, from the husband who gave his wife a Mrs Beeton: ‘’To my wife on this final sign of our getting a home. 1.10.27. LHS.‘

The books tell us about the societies which produced them. They all address themselves to women, whose vocation is unquestionably homemaking. Men appear only occasionally in illustrations, happily consuming delicious food. Class is apparent too: the books range, in terms of style, ingredients and price, from the humble, through the aspirational, to the superior.    

And there are fashions in food. The older a book, the more pudding recipes it seems to have. The 1950s was clearly a time for fantastically decorated ‘occasion cakes’ (calling for skill and time), while in the 1960s food becomes more ‘adventurous’. Ingredients too change over time: lard is a staple; sugar and salt are liberally used; and fruit and vegetables are both traditional and seasonal.

There are some recipes for curry and spaghetti, but on the whole cuisines from other countries do not feature. There is only one vegetarian recipe book, dating from the 1930s and using the somehow unattractive term ‘non-flesh cookery’.    

The design of the books is revealing too: Arts Nouveau and Deco; the decorous 1950s and the bolder 1960s; line drawings giving way to indistinct black and white photography and then often garish colour plates, which are the beginnings of ‘food styling’. 

What we cannot see in the books are the memories they bear. Hand a few books round a group and they readily recall tastes, smells, textures – and then incidents and people. When we collected books from people’s homes, we were sometimes told that they are still used, and sometimes that they just sit on shelves, but either way in memory of a life that is past.

When you visit Heritage At Home, you’ll find cards on which you can leave a favourite recipe or a memory about food.

During the Heritage Open Days festival, from 10 to 19 September, we will be posting blogs about food in books – in the work of Dickens, Evelyn Waugh, George Orwell and P G Wodehouse, in school stories with midnight feasts every term and in detective stories where you really cannot be sure what is in your dinner. And we will tell you about the very special recipe books of Priscilla Haslehurst and the Countesses of Arundel and Kent.

In the meantime, here is a recipe from Over 120 Ways of Using Bread for Tasty and Delightful Dishes (Millers’ Mutual Association, 1934).

Reading Agatha Christie today

By Amelia Finley

Amelia is the last of our guest bloggers from Sheffield Hallam University, and she has chosen to write about Agatha Christie.

Though I had not until now ever read one of her many works, I can’t recall a time in my life that I was unfamiliar with Agatha Christie. The televised versions of the adventures of Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple always seemed to be airing on television in the early afternoon throughout my younger years, though my first real introduction to the illustrious author likely came via one of my other childhood interests: Doctor Who. The 2008 episode The Unicorn and the Wasp, features Fenella Woolgar starring as Christie and the episode chronicles a mystery similar to that which you would find in one of her own novels. Truthfully, many of my preconceptions of the author stem from this fictional portrayal of her and the many references to her life and works throughout the episode. Woolgar’s portrayal was that of a shy but brilliant woman struggling with her impending divorce and pressure of fame. Through my research I found that this was largely accurate, Christie’s obituary in The Times newspaper reads: ‘She was a shy person: she disliked public appearances: but she was friendly and sharp-witted to meet.’ (1976, p. 16). My next encounter with Christie’s infamous tales came in the form of the 2015 BBC miniseries And Then There Were None, an adaption of the novel of the same name. It was after watching this series, that was said to be the most accurate adaption of the novel ever made, that fully ignited my interest in Christie. I went on to watch and adore both Evil Under the Sun (1982) and Murder on the Orient Express (1974) soon after, though I still had not personally read any of the source material. When I discovered that Christie was on the list of authors we could choose from to study for this module, I was quick to select her and begin my research. Christie’s large cultural impact and her novels’ abilities to be relevant decades after their publication and be reimagined in so many different forms remain fascinating to me.

And Then There Were None is widely perceived to be Christie’s most successful novel, reportedly having sold over 100 million copies since its publication in 1939 (Grabianowski, 2009). However, the book and its author are not without its controversy. The novel was first published under the name Ten Little N***** Boys in the United Kingdom, a reference to the poem that the plot of the novel takes much inspiration from, with each character dying in a similar manner to one of the ‘boys’ in the poem’s narrative. The poem was originally published in 1868 as a counting rhyme for children, used in minstrel shows. Minstrel shows were a form of American entertainment which relied on the deeply racist donning of blackface by white performers who would portray black people as ‘lazy, easily frightened, chronically idle, inarticulate, [buffoonish]’ (Pilgrim, 2000) in the name of comedy. The novel was never published under this name in America due to perceived sensitivity surrounding the poem and the racial slur, instead always going by And Then There Were None, in reference to the final line of the poem. Over the years the novel has had many name changes to remove the slur, replacing it with ‘Indian; or ‘soldier’, in the name of censorship. Though I have mixed views on censorship overall, I think the removal of the slur from the novel is a perfect example of using censorship to protect readers and better the source material. In this instance, the slur is in no way central to the novel like it may perhaps be in a narrative that directly concerns itself with themes of racism, therefore its removal has no damaging affect on the story or its message and avoids the use of harmful racist language. Furthermore, the title And Then There Were None, in my opinion is far more fitting in tone for a mystery thriller novel than any of the variations on the ‘Ten Little’ names are, creating more of an atmosphere of foreboding. Fortunately, the controversy doesn’t seem to have affected the success of the book nor any of its many adaptations, censorship in this case working to enhance the experience rather than take away from it, with the book reportedly being the sixth best selling novel of all time (Grabianowski, 2009).

Agatha Christie (Creative Commons Licence, National Portrait Gallery)

Bibliography

Grabianowski, E (2009) The 21 Best-selling Books of All Time. Retrieved from: https://entertainment.howstuffworks.com/arts/literature/21-best-sellers.htm

Pilgrim, D. (2000) The Coon Caricature. Retrieved from: https://www.ferris.edu/jimcrow/coon/

Christie, A. (1939) And Then There Were None. Retrieved from: http://pustaka.unp.ac.id/file/abstrak_kki/EBOOKS/And%20Then%20There%20Were%20None.pdf

Harper, G. (2008) The Unicorn and the Wasp [Television programme]. United Kingdom: BBC.

Viveiros, C. (2015) And Then There Were None [Television Series]. United Kingdom: BBC.

Hamilton, G. (1982) Evil Under the Sun [Film]

Lumet, S. (1974) Murder on the Orient Express [Film]

(1976) Obituary: Dame Agatha Christie. The Times. January 13th, page 16.

Amelia’s Reading Journey

By Amelia Finley

Amelia is the last of our guest bloggers from Sheffield Hallam University. Here she tells us about what reading means to her.

Hi, my name is Amelia Finley and I was born and raised in Leeds. The village that I live in is a stone’s throw away from the city centre and is a historically working-class area due to being known for its fabric mill however in recent years it has seen an influx of young middle-class families moving to the area. I have been an avid reader of both fiction and non-fiction books for as long as I can remember. Most of my immediate family share my love of reading so I was read to and encouraged to read from a very young age. Some of my earliest memories are of being taught to read by my family, I vividly recall reading A Visit from St. Nicholas (though we always called it ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas) every Christmas Eve with my Mum. As a young child I was always drawn to fantasy stories about magic or any story primarily about animals, The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe by C S Lewis comes to mind as one of my early favourites as it was a perfect combination of the two. I would often be caught awake with my bedside lamp on reading past my bedtime or even wide-awake listening to audiobooks on loop played from my old stereo, typically Roald Dahl novels like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I would frequently spend birthday money or gift cards in Waterstones for new books but my favourite way of finding new reading material was going to car boot sales with my grandparents. Aside from being able to spend precious time with my grandma and grandad, I enjoyed hunting for books on my wish list and finding affordable books that I’d perhaps never heard of before. Now in my early twenties I still enjoy shopping sustainably and second-hand for books for the same reasons, I often frequent the charity shops near my university house and online vintage shops for new reads.

Although I enjoy reading new books, I must admit that I have the tendency to reread old favourites instead of exploring new stories. Since picking up Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone for the first time in primary school I must have read the Harry Potter series at least ten times over, if not more. I imagine that this is because I find familiar stories comforting, and enjoy the nostalgia of revisiting particular books that I have fond memories of reading. I also love revisiting old favourites over the years as I find my opinions on certain characters or plot points often change over time as I grow up, I find that new perspectives can reinvigorate my love for each novel and allow me to enjoy it in ways I couldn’t in my youth. I find myself frequently drawn to young adult fantasy or sci-fi novels like Harry Potter or The Hunger Games, especially throughout Year 7 and 8 of high school, largely because I was lucky enough to have friends that shared my love of books and popular franchises were accessible and intriguing to all of us.

As I entered my GSCE years in high school I developed more of an interest in exploring novels outside of the current trends and delving more into classic literature. As someone with a late October birthday I frequently had Halloween themed parties and loved anything spooky so I naturally started with what is now probably my favourite book: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. This not only sparked my love of Gothic fiction as a genre but also other early literary icons like Jane Austen and Oscar Wilde. My love of these works also seems to transcend from the page of the novel into other forms of media, one of my favourite bands being named for Angela Carter’s Gothic short story Wolf Alice and several of my favourite films being adaptions of classic literature, probably most notably Clueless as an adaption of Jane Austen’s Emma. I find it fascinating that such old texts manage to maintain relevancy in the 21st century and hope that they continue to do so.

I first became interested in reading works of non-fiction when I was introduced to National Geographic by my grandad at a young age due to my obsession with wildlife. I often read his copies of the magazine when I could and later started my own subscription. Reading National Geographic and hearing my grandparents’ stories from their many travels definitely inspired me to become more interested in travelling myself to as many places far and wide as I can imagine. I also think it’s fair to say that this was also probably my earliest introduction to the world of politics outside of fiction which I have become quite passionate about in later life, going on to study Government and Politics at A Level alongside History and, naturally, English Literature. I’m also deeply interested in feminist and queer theory, that non-fiction genre that occupies most of my bookshelf today. I tend to gravitate more towards anthologies such as I Call Myself a Feminist that contain a series of essays or thought pieces from the perspective of women and gender non-conforming people from all walks of life. When looking through the Reading Sheffield site I came across the Reading Journey of Florence Cowood. Florence’s story stood out to me as, although we were born almost 80 years apart from one another, our journeys and relationship with books share some similarities. A large portion of the books she recalls reading in her childhood also happened to be favourites of mine – in her interview she mentioned Black Beauty by Anna Sewell that was one of the earliest books I remember reading to myself and thoroughly enjoying. Interestingly, she also mentioned What Katy Did, a 1872 children’s book that I only became familiar with a few weeks ago as I am currently studying a Jaqueline Wilson retelling for my Writing for Children module of my degree. Though she had lived in Sheffield for most of her life, Florence was born in Huddersfield and had close family in Leeds – two places I am very familiar with. Florence says that it was her grandfather, a headteacher living and working in my hometown of Leeds, that encouraged her to read and provided her with money for books, reminding me of my own grandparents who I have always associated with my love of reading. One difference I did note however is that though Florence and myself cite receiving books as gifts from family members as a key source of our reading materials in our youth, Florence and many of the other Reading Sheffield interviewees often talk about going to the library for books. In her interview she said “my idea of heaven, if I had to be shut anywhere, would be a library full of books,” and I found myself wholeheartedly agreeing with her, though I couldn’t for the life of me remember the last time I had read a library book for fun. Out of curiosity I asked a few of my friends when the last time they visited a public library and it transpired that that neither me nor any of my peers had checked a book out of a library for leisure in at least ten years, if not longer. Although university libraries still garner heavy footfall during term time, it seems that public libraries seem to be becoming more of a thing of the past, which in truth I find quite sad. Recently I came across a trend online where people posted the subtle and often overlooked kind things that humans do that reminds them that humanity is really not all that bad, an example that comes to mind is a TikTok user that said they loved it when people waved or smiled at babies to make them smile even if they didn’t know them, and it made me think immediately about libraries. There’s something about borrowing a book for a short time and passing it on again so a complete stranger could have an opportunity read a story and feel what you felt seems very innocent and selfless. I think especially now, when many things are needlessly mass produced and the ongoing pandemic has put a strain on many people’s sense of community, it’s easy to look back on something as simple as borrowing a library book and almost begin to feel melancholic. Though the small library in my village has been closed for quite some time now thanks to the ongoing pandemic, I was happy to discover that for several many months now a small team of people have been designing and building miniature libraries and putting them up around Leeds. They encourage people to walk to their nearest ‘little library’ to pick up a book and leave one of their own they no longer have use for in its place. There happens to be one in the middle of my village that I intend to visit, I think it’s a wonderful project that promotes sustainability and a great sense of community especially in such uncertain times. I hope to see it replicated in more places.

Popular fiction: Georgette Heyer

By Lauren Hurst

For her review of an author popular with our first interviewees, born in the mid-20th century, Sheffield Hallam student Lauren Hurst has chosen Georgette Heyer.

Georgette Heyer began her writing career in 1921 with The Black Moth, originally written at the age of seventeen as entertainment for her brother (The Times, 1974).  She is recognised today as the creator of the Regency genre of historical fiction, having over fifty published books.  After finding out which of Heyer’s books were most popular, I decided to begin my research by reading her first published novel and I must admit I was disappointed.  It seemed from what very little I knew that her novels were quite popular, but I felt that this book was lacking substance and I was unable to connect with the story.  My following research proved that opinions on Georgette Heyer are mixed.

After her writing debut with The Black Moth, Heyer’s name appears frequently in various newspapers (including The Sunday Times, Daily Mail and Aberdeen Journal) advertising her newly published books, suggesting that her novels were widely read and commendable from the 1920s onwards.  In various articles throughout the ’20s, her writing is praised for its historical reconstruction.  One article promoting her new novel Simon The Coldheart in 1925 commends it as ‘a well-written and most interesting medieval fiction’ (Daily Mail, 1925).  The Times Literary Supplement describes the same novel as ‘above the average of the former class of romance,’ and praises Heyer’s talent for reconstruction of past times withal (Falls, 1925).

An article in The Literary Times Supplement, 1929, compliments Heyer’s Pastel as a pleasant novel however goes on to say, ‘the book remains readable to the end but as soon as we begin to suspect the author’s disinterestedness our belief in the story wavers’ (Bailey, 1929).  Overall, in the first decade of her career, Heyer’s books were a success, praised for their enjoyability and delicate reconstruction of the past.  They did not, however, receive acclaim for sincere or influential content.

In most newspaper articles, Heyer’s novels are advertised as readable stories but never as thought-provoking masterpieces.  It seems that her novels were enjoyable as a consumable product and not valued as anything more than trivial stories.  For example, The Sunday Times called Heyer’s novel The Unfinished Clue a ‘stereotype’ and ‘vain,’ but noted that it was still an enjoyable read as ‘good writing would often carry a poor plot’ (Sayers, 1934).  While Heyer’s novels were well-written and pleasant, she failed to inspire her readers further.

Fortunately, Heyer’s writing improved with time; her 1935 novel Death in The Stocks was described as ‘refreshing’ in The Times Literary Supplement (Hayward, 1935). The Sunday Times also described this new novel as ‘a great advance in plausibility’ upon her earlier novel The Unfinished Clue (Sayers, 1935). Furthermore, Regency Buck received praise, ‘another careful piece of reconstruction for those who enjoy escaping from the present to the novelist’s past’ (MacKenzie, 1935).  Again, Heyer’s talent for creating historically accurate fictions is noted.

Fourteen years after Heyer’s first publication, the reviews still echoed the same sentiments.  The Literary Times Supplement recognised that Heyer always had an ‘attention to accuracy which is admirable’ in the creation of her historical backdrops.  However, her novel ‘flags’ and ‘there is the feeling that the novelist has changed places with the social historian’ (The Times Literary Supplement, 1935). This feeling I relate to, as when reading Heyer’s novels I found that they concentrated more so on historical accuracy than the building up of an intriguing plot.

By the mid-1960s, Heyer had become a global phenomenon, going on to write eleven detective novels and, whilst they might be an improvement upon her earliest romances, I don’t think I will be reading any more of her works. On the Reading Sheffield website I found that opinions were mixed, Rosalie Huzzard enjoyed reading Georgette Heyer whilst Joan C says, ‘I didn’t like Georgette Heyer, she was too frivolous’ (Reading Sheffield).

Jennifer Kloester, writer of the 2013 biography on Heyer, believes that her novels ‘continue to inspire readers and writers around the world,’ (Bartlet, 2012) and whilst I agree that critics and those with a particular interest in the Regency period of literature may take interest in her work, I would argue that younger readers will not continue this tradition.

Georgette Heyer was not a bad writer; in her time, she entertained many readers, ‘from all levels of society,’ (The Times, 1974) with her historically accurate fiction.  However, without any consequential content, her novels have failed to stay relevant and encapsulate readers outside of her own generation.  Readers of today find that her writing is too stylised and her plots insubstantial.

Bibliography

Bartlet, K. (2012). Kloester, Jennifer. Georgette Heyer [Review of Kloester, Jennifer. Georgette Heyer]. Library Journal, 137(17), 76–. Library Journals, LLC.

Cabbage as an Entree about the New Books. (1925, October 20). Daily Mail, 15.

Falls, C. B., & Falls, C. (1925, November 19). Simon the Coldheart. The Times Literary Supplement, (1244), 770.

Bailey, R., & BAILEY, R. (1929, June 13). Pastel. The Times Literary Supplement, (1428), 472.

Sayers, D. L. (1934, April 1). Crime Methods in Contrast. Sunday Times, 9.

Hayward, J. D., & Hayward (AKA). (1935, April 18). Death in the Stocks. The Times Literary Supplement, (1733), 256.

Sayers, D. L. (1935, April 21). Pleasant People in a Crime Novel. Sunday Times, 7.

Mackenzie, C. (1935, September 19). Novelist Calls a Spade a Spade. Daily Mail, 4.

Other New Books. (1935, September 26). The Times Literary Supplement, (1756), 597+.

Mr. Punch’s Staff of Learned Clerks. (1935, October 2). Our Booking-Office. Punch, 189(4948), 390+.

West, D. (1936, May 28). First White Woman in a land of Desert Wars. Daily Mail, 20.

Kennedy, M. (1936, May 31). A Dram of Poison. Sunday Times, 9.

Miss Georgette Heyer. (1974, July 6). Times, 14.

Lauren’s Reading Journey

By Lauren Hurst

Now it’s the turn of Sheffield Hallam University student Lauren Hurst to write her reading journey for us.

My mum always provided me with lots of books from an early age.  She would read to me and my brother every night before bed and always encouraged us to join in and read to her aloud.  Every birthday or Christmas she gave me at least a couple of books to encourage me to keep reading.  We also had lots of books that were hers when she was young, such as an extensive collection of Ladybird books and a very tattered illustrated copy of The Magic Finger which I remember fondly.  Thus, growing up, we had a library full of books, new and old, so that we always had plenty of things to read and inspire our imaginations.

Upon asking her of her reasoning for this encouragement, my mum told me that she thought reading was an integral part of my education and development, and that it would help me in my future.  I feel very fortunate to have been brought up in this way, particularly after learning from others’ blogs that this was not the experience of many fellow readers in past generations, whose parents did not read to them or take them to the library.  For me, these experiences were a key bonding time between me and my mum.

On car journeys we would always listen to audiobooks.  The glovebox of my mother’s car always kept a collection of children’s stories on cassette tapes.  I have lived in Sheffield all my life and, from around the age of two, my mother regularly took me and my brother to our local library at Greenhill where we held special membership cards.  We were free to roam the children’s section which was sizable and nearly always free of other children.  Here I read lots of Jacqueline Wilson books from which I learned a lot about topics that were not normally commented on in children’s literature, such as eating disorders and divorce.  Later, I graduated to the adult section which was four times the size, although perhaps prematurely as I did not enjoy the experience of the library as I had before; the space was less colourful and didn’t feel as welcoming.

In primary school we had a system in which our reading was recorded in reading logs, this included every session of reading we did, reading to teachers’ assistants during school time and to our parents at home.  We could pick the books we read from allocated shelves in the school library, though I never had much interest in any of the books there.  Having to choose from this selection and thus spending all my reading time on books I didn’t enjoy prevented me from reading the books that I used to pick out at my local library.  This did create for me a somewhat negative experience with reading.  At this age I also spent a lot of time at my grandparents’ house and even lived there for a while and, whilst they had their own bookcase and could have read to us from the books they had, my grandad chose to make up his own stories.  He was very inventive and came up with some very strange tales to tell me and my brother.

As I got older, I procured an affinity for poems; the first time I knew I loved poetry was after being read The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes in school.  I remember thinking I had never heard anything like it. I loved The Highwayman: the way it sounded, the way it flowed, the imagery it used and the way it was darker than anything I had been able to read before. 

In secondary school I stopped reading as many books as it was not conventional amongst my peers to read in one’s spare time.  However, I always found the time to read a few young adult novels in the summer holidays and, at the age of fourteen, I took up reading as a hobby again.  I had a hard time in school and reading was great escapism for me.  After looking at the other blogs on Reading Sheffield where some readers have described growing up without the ease of access to books that I was fortunate enough to have, I regret having pushed my love for reading aside. 

English literature was my favourite subject in school and unlike my friends I enjoyed reading the set texts, particularly Romeo and Juliet.  I enjoyed learning about the context of the literature and looking closely at the meanings of the texts.  Whilst studying English literature at A-level, I was surrounded by others with the same interests as well as enthusiastic teachers, and I found a whole new passion for literature.  This was the first time I could share my like for reading with others.  My A-level teachers introduced me to many new books such as Movern Callar by Alan Warner and The Secret History by Donna Tartt which really helped further my interest in reading outside of school. Since beginning my A-levels at age sixteen, I have enjoyed scouring second-hand bookshops and building my own personal library of vintage and preloved books.  Some novels that really inspired me were Lolita and A Clockwork Orange; I was immersed in these writing styles and intrigued by the taboo subjects.  Now my favourites are Sylvia Plath and Virginia Woolf, who inspire me to write my own private poetry.