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.

Nevil Shute’s A Town Like Alice

By Jason Flowers

Sheffield Hallam University student Jason Flowers encounters the novelist Nevil Shute for the first time. Nevil Shute was hugely popular with our original readers, all born in the mid-20th century, and it’s great to get a 21st century view.

Nevil Shute was a new author to me. My previous knowledge of his writing and literary career was merely an idea of the novels he penned and a small bit of trivia. Perhaps this is why I selected A Town Like Alice as my novel for this blog; the title itself seemed embedded in my brain but I had never read the book. I decided to read the novel as I would if I were reading it for pleasure and leave the introduction until I had finished the narrative to avoid spoilers. As such, I had no preconceptions of the book I was about to read. My first impressions of the writing style were positive. I found the way Shute established his characters clearly and set out a few characteristics for each engaging and reader-friendly. I did however note that that the book was very much of its time first noticing this as a quirk of a 21st-century reader seeing the First World War described as the 1914-1918 war. However, as the novel progresses these quirks of antiquity became somewhat more unpleasant as ethnicity was often used to diminish certain characters and a very pro-colonialism view was evident. The same is true about the novel’s treatment of women. Despite the main character being a quite extraordinary woman her accomplishments are met with wonder by most of the characters, not because of their merit but because they were performed by a woman. 

Aside from these elements that are not excused by the age of the book but can perhaps be understood, I was quite taken aback by the format of the novel. It struck me that the structure of the narrative was written perfectly to suit the medium of cinema. The opening chapter introduces our narrator and mode of viewing the tale, this narrator establishes his meeting with the story’s main character, said character then reveals the narrative’s problems to overcome via flashback, before we then see a resolution to the tale by the end. It therefore didn’t surprise me to see that the book was indeed made for cinema release six years after its publishing. Whilst impressed with the aptness of the book for adaptation it would be remiss to not comment on its merits as a piece of literature also. I have already mentioned the way that the book approaches ethnicity and gender jars a modern reader but on further research, the postcolonialism school of thought had its earliest roots in the ’60s but could be credited as late as 1978 with Edward Said’s Orientalism. So in viewing this novel as written significantly before issues such as postcolonialism were in the consciousness of the literary critics and the feminist theory was more concerned with the politics of female authorship than the treatment of women in prose, it is possible to view the problematic issues in this novel as a relic of an era without concerns for these issues. As such the book’s strengths lie in its characterization and relationships between characters. It speaks to the writing that we can witness a hopeless pilgrimage across Malaya and become accustomed to the frequent death of characters yet the death of Joe can still hit the reader so hard with its brutality.

Shute also imbues the novel with strong themes, perhaps the most significant being the resilience of humanity to the horrors that generation witnessed during the two world wars. The wartime experience clings to this book like a shadow and even once the war is over in the narrative the characters are still so intrinsically linked to it that their time during that period seems more significant to their identity than their actions in the present. Whilst reading I was drawn to thinking about the label that appeared often in the news lately with the passing of Sir Captain Tom Moore – the greatest generation –  and I think this book does compliment that description well. Although I think the book would suggest that it should rather be the greatest generations plural because we observe a shifting in generations between our narrator Strachan and our main character Jean. However both share similar experiences across their respective world wars and both show a huge admiration for the other.

As I finished the book I turned to the introduction I had earlier skipped and was surprised to discover that the trek across Malaya was in fact written based on the true story of a party of 80 European women forced to do the same journey. It offers an interesting reread of the journey these women undertook in the novel to understand that this unlikely plight was in fact based in regrettably true circumstances. With this final thought on the novel, I considered what the interviewees of Reading Sheffield might think of the work. I was not shocked that Nevil Shute appeared in a lot of the interviews and most had a very high opinion of his works in particular I noted that Chris F credited him as his favourite all-time author, and I think on the strength of that recommendation I’ll order Requiem for a Wren as my next read.

Nevil Shute

Jason’s Reading Journey

By Jason Flowers

This time it is the turn of Sheffield Hallam University student Jason Flowers to tell us about his reading journey.

The earliest books I can remember being read to me are still vividly alive in my memory. My mum read me the collected stories of Winnie the Pooh and we used to take the opportunity to race Pooh sticks at the local park whenever we could. According to my mum, it was easy to read to me because I was always interested and my imagination was captured by the whimsical. But my experience with reading had always been family-led. Experiences with reading at school always stuck me quite negatively since from a young age I was a quick reader. I was scolded at a parents’ evening in middle school because we were reading a book called Buddy in class but I had finished it early at home and on my request, my mum had got me the sequels from the library which I had also finished before we had completed the reading in class. Looking back at this experience now as an adult I suppose I may have been an early adopter of what we now call spoilers – I can understand why my teachers might have been frustrated at me telling all my classmates what happens two books down the line!

My reading journey started at the same time as the Harry Potter books were being written. They were definitely an encouragement to me being read to and taking over myself. My parents started reading the books to me at around five or six but I soon started reading it to them aloud and before long I wanted to read the stories all the time whilst my parents were busy so I read them on my own. Being able to grow up whilst those books were still being released was tremendously exciting and in general, the early 2000s was a great time for a young reader. My dad took me to see The Return of the King in 2003 and a lifelong infatuation with the works of Tolkien was born. All the fantasy elements of Harry Potter that I loved were present but even more intricate and bigger! The Lord of the Rings has been my favourite book since I was nine and I still read it at least once yearly now. As a child every time I reread it a little older the more I understood, the deeper the meaning and the more delicately woven the story seemed. By 12 I had conquered the Silmarillion for the first time and around ten years later I felt I finally understood it. My Dad witnessing how much taking me to see that film had influenced my reading and seeing that older more complex works seemed more suitable to me now started showing me the books he was interested in. As a very busy man who took barely 15 minutes for his lunch daily, my Dad liked books that followed in a series so he knew the characters already and didn’t have to establish a whole new set of personalities every time he picked up a book. So Dad started showing me Bernard Cornwall’s Sharpe series and Simon Scarrow’s Eagle of the Empire series. Both sets of books had a historical element and realism to the writing that wasn’t as present in my preferred fantasy genre but the more mature nature of the writing and the accompanying real-world events showed me the breadth and impact of writing and opened up chapters and chapters of books to read – as well as giving me a good grounding for the soon to come Game of Thrones hype.

By this time my favourite books had got me through middle school and the prospect of going to secondary school was looming. Reading had become my main hobby by this point and I already had a blossoming book collection. Despite being fortunate enough to be able to buy books every now and then I still relished the opportunity to visit the public library and the prospect of the secondary school having its own library was one of the few things I was looking forward to about moving on from middle school. As it turned out being a fairly standard comprehensive school the library was a bit of a let down, none the less I carried on reading at home and using the local library to read whatever I could get my hands on. As I started becoming interested in other things and started going out with friends a bit more my time spent reading dwindled – that was until when needing a Saturday job I was lucky enough to be employed by my Auntie Lin who just happened to run a few independent bookshops. Suddenly I spent most of my weekends surrounded by books and I had a bit of money coming in – so at the end of my shift I tended to buy a few books for the week between shifts. It must have been a pretty good deal for my auntie because she paid me and I spent that money in her shop! As I started getting back into reading a series by Terry Pratchett caught my attention; the Discworld novels are a set of loosely connected whimsical satires on various topics and were the perfect length for the train journeys to and from work – to this day I tend to carry at least one of the series in any bag I have with me. From working in the shops I started not just being a reader but also a collector and all my old favourites started making frequent additions to my bookshelves, nice copies of Tolkien and Rowling alongside my newly found Pratchett. In fact my journey to loving books had such a profound impact on my life that when as a mature student I decided I’d like to apply to university there was only ever one course that was going to tempt me because of my history with reading and as such I’m now a student of English Literature.

Gone with the Wind

By Emily Nichols

Here is a second post from our guest blogger Emily from Sheffield Hallam University. Emily took part in our Ideas into Action project with the university. Here she is writing about Gone with the Wind, a very popular novel in the mid-20th century, but viewed very differently today.

Before reading Gone with the Wind I did have many preconceptions regarding the novel and its storyline. I watched and enjoyed the film two years ago and bought a copy of the novel intending to read it eventually. This ease of access was part of why I chose to write about this text. Prior to reading the novel, I flicked through and read a few paragraphs to get a feel of the author’s writing style. I found the most racist sentiments I had yet seen in print, finding separately a black man’s ‘joyful contortions…as ludicrous as those of a mastiff’ (Mitchell, M. 1936. pp.742) to see one of his former owners again, and Scarlett thinking that she could not feel like a lady again ‘until black hands and not white took the cotton from Tara.’ (Mitchell, 1936. pp.578) Racism permeates the novel and is a main cause of modern criticism. One of my lasting impressions of the film is that the three black ‘servants’ featured had names you would expect of pets rather than people.

While writing, I will refer to the famous film which was adapted from Mitchell’s novel in 1939, only three years after the book was published and a reflection of its bestseller status – as you must know, even now a bestselling novel can expect to be adapted for cinema soon after publication. While these novels and adaptations are often forgotten, this has been far from the case for Gone with the Wind, the title is familiar to most in Western society, even without reading or watching the source media. The movie is considered a classic part of American culture.

The novel was very well received in its time, it was a bestseller, and won the Pulitzer Prize (“1937 Pulitzer Prizes”, 2021). Contemporary newspapers called it a ‘remarkable first novel’ (Adams, J.D. 1936). Most information on reception of the story by the public focusses on the film, and how it was received in America. Of course Gone with the Wind would be appreciated differently in America, in a time when the Civil War it is centred around had not left living memory and the children of former slaves were commonplace. The glorification of the antebellum South would be attractive to those who still held grudges against the North.

The African-American community protested the film and its treatment of slavery (Haskell M. 2010. pp. 213-214), which remains highly controversial, so it is reasonable to assume that their reaction to the book was similar. Ideally, I wanted to find how the Black British community of the 1930s responded to the book and film but information about either in 1930s Britain, and indeed the Black community in 1930s Britain, are both very difficult to find. I must assume that the novel was read somewhat widely in the UK, and that any Black readers had similar reactions to their counterparts in the USA, perhaps missing the personal family recollections of the truth of slavery whitewashed in the text.

Because finding information regarding the book in the contemporary UK was challenging, I went through the interviews on the Reading Sheffield website, searching the pages for Gone with the Wind, I found that several of the interviewees, mostly women, had read and enjoyed the novel. One stating ‘we all read that’ (Witten, R. 2012) and another ‘absolutely [adores]’ the film, ‘[watching] it every time it comes on television’ (Grover, M. 2012). Gone with the Wind was usually referred to by both interviewers and interviewees as a romance, and compared to Mills and Boon novels but this comparison was rejected by interviewees. It appeared to me that interviewees had read Gone with the Wind due to its popularity, receiving it as presents or from libraries. Some said that the novel had been referred to as rubbish and disapproved of by older adults. I could also conclude, from the repeated trajectory of the interviews regarding the novel, that Gone with the Wind was on the list of questions provided to interviewers, showing modern perception of its contemporary popularity.

Since its publication, Gone with the Wind has retained its place in popular culture, the novel sells well and screenings of the film are common. However, the racism so prevalent in the text has proven to turn many people away from the story. The worldwide resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 has caused the film to be distributed with a disclaimer concerning its portrayals of black people and slavery (Cranz, A. 2020). It is impossible to say that the story is not racist, with the painfully written dialect of black characters and white characters’ dialogue in plain English, persistently othering non-white individuals. Not to mention some passages from the third person narrator that could be published in KKK recruitment leaflets. The novel and film of Gone with the Wind are still very popular – according to the Great American Read, Gone with the Wind comes sixth in a list of America’s one hundred best loved novels (“Results | The Great American Read | PBS”, 2021). I could not find information concerning its readership within the modern black community. This lack of data to me suggesting a lack of popularity.

Having finished the novel, I can state unequivocally that I did not enjoy the book. Hardly any of the characters are likeable and those that are lost this quality for me when their horrific racism was remembered. The story is a well-constructed and compelling narrative, and I can understand why for many people it is so revered. To me it was overlong with the main romance between Scarlett and Rhett Butler at times disturbing. Mitchell makes some astute observations on the role of women in Southern society, how their only way to gain power and security is through marriage in a manner reminiscent of Jane Austen. To me, it is the racism and unlikeable, immature stupidity of the characters that made me so dislike this novel. Scarlett is obsessively in love with Ashley since she is a teenager, continuing until she is a sequentially married woman with multiple children. She does not realise her mistake until she has lost everything to her selfishness and to me this is hardly the tragedy it is often regarded as, more of a deserved comeuppance.

Bibliography:

1937 Pulitzer Prizes. (2021). Retrieved 12 February 2021, from 1937 Pulitzer Prize Winners & Finalists – The Pulitzer Prizes

Adams, J.D. (1936, July 5th). A Fine Novel of the Civil War. The New York Times, pp. 1.

Cranz, A. (2020). After 84 Years, Gone with the Wind Finally Acknowledged as Racist as Shit. Retrieved 12 February 2021.

Grover, M. (2012, May 3). Gillian Applegate. In Readers’ Voices. Reading Sheffield. https://www.readingsheffield.co.uk/readers-stories-2/gillian-applegate/

Haskell, M. (2010). Frankly, My Dear: Gone with the Wind Revisited. Yale University Press: London.

Mitchell, M. (1936), Gone with the Wind. Macmillan: London

Results | The Great American Read | PBS. (2021). Retrieved 12 February 2021, from https://www.pbs.org/the-great-american-read/results/

Selznick, D. (Producer), & Fleming, V. (Director). (1939). Gone with the Wind [Motion Picture]. United States: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Taylor, H. (1989), Scarlett’s Women: Gone with the Wind and its Female Fans. Virago Press: London.

Witten, R. (2012, July 25). Edna B. In Readers’ Voices. Reading Sheffield. https://www.readingsheffield.co.uk/readers-stories-2/edna-b/

My Reading Journey

By Emily Nichols

Emily, our latest guest blogger from Sheffield Hallam University, has written her reading journey.

I have always lived in Sheffield, as have my parents and most of my grandparents. I attended primary school, secondary school and sixth-form in Sheffield and am now studying my second year of English Literature at Sheffield Hallam University.

I could read quite fluently since the age of four – a love of reading is common in my family and part of my affinity to it was certainly fostered by my parents and grandmothers. My Grandma has a favourite story of me at two and a half sat with a book which I constantly made her read to me, saying the story to myself and even turning the pages at the right moment because I had memorised it.

There’s always been books around, my Mum bought me a full set of Beatrix Potter when I was three or four and I read those for years. We found them at car-boot sales but had to get some of the less popular ones through eBay. One of my personal reading rules is that when I read a series I read all of it. In my room I’ve got two full bookcases and about three hundred and fifty books.

Many of my books have always come from charity shops but in the last few years I’ve made more use of Waterstones and Amazon. I’ve not used a non-school library since I was a child because I like to own the books I read. This is in contrast to most of the Reading Sheffield interviewees who did not have such disposable income and mostly used libraries. I do not believe charity shops were as much of a thing in the mid-20th century as they are today.

I started reading Harry Potter when I was five, receiving the seventh book for my sixth birthday and devouring it in two days. My Dad remembers me having all the books open on my bed to cross-reference; I don’t.

After Harry Potter I was given The Hobbit, they intended to let me read The Lord of the Rings if I finished it. I got all the way to the trolls but they scared me so I abandoned it. I didn’t read The Hobbit until I was eleven, then The Lord of the Rings so I could watch the films and then The Silmarillion. My Mum used to have a rule that we had to read the book a film was based on before watching it. When I was seven I once unnerved my Grandma because, watching Prisoner of Azkaban when the Dementors come on the train, she asked me what one was and I apparently said very calmly, ‘They’re Dementors, they suck out your soul.’

Mostly when I was a child I would read history and general knowledge books because I loved history and knowing things. I used to read so much non-fiction that my Year Six teacher had to transition me to reading fiction again, although now I read fiction almost exclusively. In primary school they knew my reading was good so didn’t ever progress me up through the reading boxes where things got more complicated. I read all of Horrible Histories about three times as a result. I used to always have a book on loan from the school library in primary school and we went to the library bus when it came round on Mondays. Every summer I would participate in challenges at the local library and you got a participation medal if you read enough. I always did.

I remember my Nanan getting me the sets of children’s books that came in the newspapers; I read Heidi, Treasure Island, Gulliver’s Travels, Black Beauty and The Secret Garden. Everyone used to buy me books for my birthday or Christmas, they still do. Another thing my Nanan did was get me a set of Disney comic versions of classic books with Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse, I wish I still had one to prove their existence. I have a set of sixteen little books giving the plots of Shakespeare plays in story format and believe it or not those are still useful for my studies, my favourite was A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Strangely, when I read on screens, such as my Kindle, it’s like I unlock reading superspeed. I’ll never forget reading Animal Farm, under two hours, without getting up. The feeling the last scene gave me, where the poor animals can’t tell pigs from humans, I could never describe or replicate, but I was more horrified than when reading Salem’s Lot or The Shining. I prefer physical books because I am able to actually hold one while reading and own a collection of books that I can look at and flick through at any time, physical books are much easier to navigate than eBooks.

I read quite a bit of what is called classic literature, such as Dracula, so I understand it and get the references. My favourite reads in 2020 were the Dune and His Dark Materials series. Generally I’d say what I read genre-wise is a big mix, although I definitely like sci-fi and fantasy. My most recent achievement in terms of reading is all of the Game of Thrones books.

My very favourite book would have to be my copy of The Complete Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales – it has over two hundred stories and I’ve read all of them. My Grandad ordered it for me from the publishers for my third birthday to get the complete version. I like it so much maybe because those stories are just timeless. Another absolute favourite of mine is Watership Down.

Right now I’ve just finished Gone with the Wind for the other half of this project. My reading during the pandemic has been quite eclectic with my university reading removed, including Dracula, Dune, some early Stephen King, The Iliad and The Odyssey, A Series of Unfortunate Events, and last night Twelfth Night on a whim.

Just William and Me

By Fiza Rashid

Sheffield Hallam student Fiza Rashid returns with a guest post about first reading Richmal Crompton’s Just William books.

{By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29925217)

I had never heard of Richmal Crompton nor the Just William series before I started this project so I had no idea what to expect. My very first thought when reading Just William was that it is very similar to Horrid Henry. They are both a collection of episodic stories about anarchic characters who are constantly looking for chaos and if they cannot find it, they will create it. While reading Just William, I noticed that secret societies are quite popular in children’s literature, for example The Famous Five and the Purple Hand Gang in the Horrid Henry series, which adults know nothing about. However, unlike Horrid Henry, William sometimes actually means well but his ill-conceived plans almost always end in disaster. For instance, in the very first story, William Goes to the Pictures, he attempts to re-enact the movie he watched, accidentally knocking his father into the bushes when imitating a crook escaping the police and lowering his voice to flirt with the girl next door which leads her to think William has a problem with his lungs.

These books offer a glimpse of middle class English family life in the 20th century which is something I’ll probably never understand. I was quite surprised by how complex the language was since these stories are mainly targeted towards children; it seems to me that only adults would understand some of the jokes in these stories and that these books are about children, not for them. 

There are some blatantly racist and orientalist passages which I don’t see why Crompton thought it appropriate to include in a children’s book. For example, the ‘Red Indians’ game William and his friends love to play where they hunt and partake in cannibalism with their faces ‘smeared black with burnt cork’. This isn’t the only time he paints himself a different skin colour. He paints himself brown in The Native Protégé from William Again where he is mistaken for a Bornean child and mocks foreign languages, and in William the Money-maker from Still William, the Outlaws hold an exhibition where they each impersonate a different native.

The emotionally distant parents and the abuse that the children and the domestic staff endure is also very uncomfortable to read.

I suppose it’s all down to generational differences. Some of these books were published during the Second World War and therefore a lot of children used Just William with its stories about adventures in the countryside as a form of escapism. Peter Mason, one of the interviewees from Reading Sheffield, talks about how he loved the Just William books and how he can’t understand children’s literature of today. I don’t think there is a huge difference though; I think children still do love these trickster characters.

William reminds me of my youngest siblings as they always twist my parents’ words into something they want to hear. In A Question of Grammar from Just William, William asks his father if he could have a party to which he replies, ‘No, I did not’. Having learned about the concept of double negatives at school, William takes this as an agreement and organises a party which I thought was really funny.

William’s adventures and chaotic behaviour were fun to read. I loved the way Richmal Crompton effortlessly switched between the perspectives of a child and the adults and I loved the imagery of children playing in the woods and having their own adventures without the adults intervening. As a child who spent most of their time outdoors, I identify with this a lot. However, the narrative structure of the stories quickly became predictable and repetitive. I enjoyed how William always got himself involved in an adult’s business and tried to do the right thing but ended up in trouble instead. But I do think William was just unnecessarily cruel at times so I don’t sympathise with him at all. The mischievous, mean-spirited, ‘boys will be boys’ attitude of these stories annoyed me and so I quickly lost interest.

None of the other characters stood out to me except Dorita. I really liked her character; she reminds me of myself when I was younger as we both hate fancy wedding clothes. It is a shame that she only ever appears in the first book of the series.

Madeleine Doherty, another interviewee from Reading Sheffield, says her brother had the Just William books and she describes them as ‘boys’ books’ so I was curious to see if any girls actually did read these books. From an article on the newspaper database, I found that a lot of girls did read Just William and that they actually identified with his character and ‘not those drippy girls’. Another article suggests that many girls between the ages of 9 and 14 loved William and found him attractive because he’s so witty, but honestly, he doesn’t seem that way to me.

Bibliography

Crompton, R. 1990. Just William. UK: Pan MacMillan.

Crompton, R. 1995. William Again. London: Macmillan Children’s Books.

Crompton, R. 2006. Still William. London: Macmillan Children’s.

Roe, S. (2011). Peter Mason. Reading Sheffield. Retrieved from https://www.readingsheffield.co.uk/readers-stories-2/peter-mason/

Cooper, T. (2011). Madeleine Doherty. Reading Sheffield. Retrieved from https://www.readingsheffield.co.uk/readers-stories-2/madeleine-doherty/

Southworth, J., 1988. How to be a male chauvinist piglet at 11 and still make girls love you 66 years later. Daily Mail, May 2, 1988.

Telling tales on a naughty schoolboy, 1992. Daily Mail, Sept 12, 1992. 48.

My Reading Journey

By Fiza Rashid

Our latest Ideas into Action guest post, from Sheffield Hallam student Fiza Rashid.

A stack of books I own or have borrowed from the library

I have lived in Sheffield all my life. I attended primary, secondary school and sixth form in Sheffield. I am now in my second year of studying English Literature at Sheffield Hallam. 

From a very early age, my dad would take me and my siblings to our local library in Firth Park every weekend. Here I became obsessed with Roald Dahl’s books, especially Matilda. I saw myself in her and I started to identify with her. I am 19 years old now and even now, when watching the film with my 4 year old sister, I feel the same sense of comfort I had back then when I read it for the first time. A lot of interviewees on the Reading Sheffield site talk about their love for The Famous Five series but to be honest, I found them quite boring. 

I really loved Jacqueline Wilson’s books. Lizzie Zipmouth was another fictional character I identified with; it’s about a young girl who struggles to settle into her new home. Lizzie Zipmouth refuses to speak to anyone and as someone who has struggled with selective mutism throughout primary and secondary school, it was comforting to see that reflected in a children’s story. 

I also remember my mum had these children’s story books in our native language that she would read to us because I couldn’t quite read the written script back then even though I could fluently speak it.

Books were insanely expensive back then (and still are) so I never really had any books of my own as a child but now that I’m earning a bit of money, I can afford to buy them to keep and reread to my heart’s content. I mostly buy second hand books because I love to see the notes other people have written inside. I dislike reading eBooks; I don’t know why but I find it really difficult to read using electronic devices.

When I was a child, I read Horrible Histories and Horrible Science a lot. I have always loved history and science; I find those subjects very fascinating. At my primary school, they always had Goosebumps books on the shelves in class and they were terrifying to me back then but I absolutely loved them. My cousins and even my uncle loved them and we all agree that Welcome to Dead House is the best book out of the series. I read a lot of dystopian fiction in secondary school. I was obsessed with that genre, but I’m older now and I find the fixation with dystopia in popular culture very off-putting. Why would I want to read about a post-apocalyptic world when for my country, the world ended in 1608?* 

However, I did study Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro for my A-Levels which is a dystopian sci-fi novel but I really enjoyed it and it will haunt me forever.

My copy of Never Let Me Go that I forgot to give back after my A-Level exams

I remember being very excited about the scholastic book fair each year and one of the most memorable books I’ve gotten from there was Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl. I first read it when I was 11 which was around the age she was when she started her diary. I think her diary is relevant during this pandemic. I don’t want to compare her experiences to ours because it is extremely different but her words express feelings of isolation and longing that so many of us have felt during lockdown.

My siblings and I also read the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. These were also books we had gotten from the scholastic book fair. It was about a teen boy’s life written in the form of a diary (or journal because he specifically told his mother not to buy one that said ‘diary’ on it but she did anyway) with silly illustrations which was very funny and relatable.

A Series of Unfortunate Events was another series that defined my childhood. I got up to the fourth novel but I stopped because the library at my secondary school didn’t have the fifth book and I refused to skip ahead and not read them in order. I hope one day I’m able to finish the entire series. 

I stopped reading as many books when I started sixth form. The jump from GCSEs to A-Levels was huge and I had no idea how to cope with the workload. Our education system’s destruction, intentional or not, of a person’s natural desire to read seems to me like an act of violence. My child-like love and desire for reading diminished; it just didn’t bring me joy anymore. I feel like as we grow up, reading is framed as elitist or only supposed to be done when we absolutely need to. Sometimes I feel guilty reading for pleasure because there is always something I should be reading for my essays.

I am trying to take up reading as a hobby again and one of the ways I am doing this is by reading with people. I discuss books with my friends over Facetime and sometimes I even read to them. They keep me accountable and they make it enjoyable. I believe community is essential to all learning which is also the reason I chose this project.

I also set goals for myself each year. Last year in 2020 I set myself the target of 50 books and I surprisingly exceeded that goal reading 59 books (although I feel like this was only achievable since the country was under lockdown because of Covid-19 and I wasn’t worrying about studying or my part time job anymore). My favourites from last year were On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong and Circe by Madeline Miller. This year I plan to read 60 books. I’ve read 14 books so far and hopefully I achieve, or even surpass, my goal. 

My copy of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

Note: All images are the copyright of Fiza Rashid.

Bibliography

Dahl, R. (2003). Matilda. United Kingdom: Penguin Books Limited.

Deary, T., & Hepplewhite, P. (1993-2013). Horrible Histories. London: Scholastic Corporation.

Frank, A. (2007). The Diary of a Young Girl (Pressler, M., & Massotty, S, Trans). London: Penguin.

Ishiguro, K. (2006). Never Let Me Go. London: Faber

Kinney, J. (2007). Diary of a Wimpy Kid. New York: Amulet Books.

Miller, M. (2018). Circe: A Novel. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

Snicket, Lemony. (1999-2006). A Series of Unfortunate Events. New York: HarperCollins.

Stine, R. (1992). Welcome to Dead House. New York: Scholastic.

Vuong, O. (2019). On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. London: Penguin Group

Wilson, J. (2009). Lizzie Zipmouth. London: Young Corgi.

* This refers to the colonisation of South Asia. 1608 was when the British first arrived in India.