Betty’s reading journey begins with the savour of the words Aesop’s Fables on her tongue and the beauty of its pictures as her mother read to her from the book. There were singing and nursery rhymes too, and the gorgeous colours of the pictures in an illustrated Stories from the Bible, and the remembered motion of being lifted onto her mother’s knee.
Betty’s experience of her early reading seems a sensory delight which flooded her play and her early education – she took her baby sister from her pram and put her in her garden irises in imitation of Moses, and practised beautiful curls on her letters, helped by her older cousin.
At her first school her teacher read from a lectern to the class at the end of lessons, and in this way Anne of Green Gables, Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and Jim Hawkins of Treasure Island (who frightened her) entered her life. Her mother supplemented the school stories with Mowgli and more Anne of Green Gables, her childhood favourite.
Born in 1925, Betty says there wasn’t much money for books in her house, although ‘we used to always get a book at Christmas’.
… we didn’t have a lot of choice. We wanted books. ‘There is a new book for you.’ You’d always want it.
As a teenager at school she read Dickens, who she didn’t like, but loved Wuthering Heights, a story so vivid for her that she relived it on a family walk on the moors.
And I can remember … we went on the moors, my Paula and Cecily, mum and dad and myself and … there was a stone where you sat and I said, ‘I’m going to walk up further up, keep turning and when you can’t see me, turn round and come back.’ I went running up, and I crouched behind something, I don’t know what it was, and I was calling to Heathcliff, I was calling ‘Heathcliff, Cathy’, and two people were walking past as I was calling, and ran down past my mother and father and they said, ‘There’s voices up there! We’re so frightened.’ And my father said, ‘No, I think I know who is making the noises,’ and my father came up and I was crouched down and he said, ‘Betty!’ He grabbed me like this.
Betty remembers the 12 volumes of encyclopaedias the family owned, their purchase financed by a friend of the family.
All sorts of information you could find, and I can remember everybody from the village used to be coming up, ‘Can we look in your encyclopaedias?’
With the coming of the Second World War – ‘you couldn’t really buy books in the wartime’ – the Paper Salvage scheme took some of Betty’s store of books for paper recycling.
A lot of these things you had to give to the war effort, and they wanted paper. Paper was in great demand. I can remember mum and dad … thinking which books should go. They said, ‘That is for Betty, Paula and Cecily to decide. If they want them they won’t go, they should decide, but we’ll tell them it’s needed for the country.’
And when she started her training at the Royal Hospital the nursing books she bought were ‘very small and on roughish paper’. These were supplemented by books borrowed from the patients’ library, organised by Toc H, a Christian charitable organisation. From the Toc H trolley she picked The Snow Goose, now her favourite book which she has read many times. She also borrowed from wealthier nurses who ‘could afford to buy books and share’. When her training finished and she finally got a salary, she bought The History of the English Speaking Peoples – ‘you got one book at a time. I got one book as a present … you went to the shop and bought each one.’
During her career Betty came to read books she had ‘never read at home – Wind in the Willows, Peter Pan, Dylan Thomas. In the hospital where Betty nursed for the greater part of her working life – the Royal Hospital Annexe, a specialist burns and plastic surgery unit – she remembers reading Richard Hillary’s The Last Enemy, which recounts his experiences as a Spitfire pilot who suffered terrible burns in 1940 and endured months of plastic surgery. ‘The medical staff would discuss things and what they read in the paper that was interesting. They included you and they had their books and they’d let you borrow if you wanted.’ She also read Anna Karenina and War and Peace – ‘That took a lot of time, you read little things‘ – Lady Chatterley’s Lover (in brown paper covers), Daughter of Time, books on Field Marshal Montgomery and Mary Queen of Scots.
Later, in her retirement, Betty has continued with her reading in another lively community of older friends, and latterly, as an avid reader from the city’s mobile library:
I don’t pick, I let them decide and they get me some good books. One about Marco Polo, I couldn’t put it down!
She is still as enthusiastic and engaged a reader as ever.
by Loveday Herridge