Daphne du Maurier and the Gothic

By Ellie Jackson

Our guest blogger, Ellie Jackson, a student at Sheffield Hallam University, is looking at the novels of Daphne du Maurier for her final year project. Here are her thoughts about how du Maurier used the aesthetic of the Gothic to great effect in her novels.

The first recognised Gothic novel was written by Horace Walpole in 1764, The Castle of Otranto. The traditional Gothic novel has a number of recognisable key characteristics: death and decay, haunted castles and remote landscapes, intense emotion or fear in the reader. Since the 18th century, the idea of a new, modern Gothic has emerged, and the castle is no longer an essential element to the literature. The narratives of the modern Gothic focus on ‘the urban present, refracting contemporary concerns through the lens of a literature of terror’ (Dryden, 2003).

Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca is an exemplar model of the modern Gothic; it contains a large mansion, a murder, a great fire and a sinister servant. The pre-eminent Gothic trope is the setting: Manderley, the colossal mansion which the heroine, Mrs de Winter, comes to know after marrying Maxim de Winter. Even her first impressions of Manderley are negative, and leave an impact on her perceptions. The ‘gates crashing’, ‘serpent-like drive’ and the ‘roof of branches’ (du Maurier, 1938, 7) envision entrapment and a sense of a hidden evil. The emphasis on a picturesque landscape casts Manderley with a supernatural mystique, with du Maurier exploring her protagonist’s feelings of sublimity and her relationship with her natural surroundings. Mrs de Winter’s inquisitiveness reflects the twentieth century curiosity and thirst for the unknown. Du Maurier plays on this curiosity in the novel – for example, the murder mystery and the supernatural.

The use of the weather in Gothic literature is important, with storms seen as omens of evil, representing the inner self of the protagonist in externalising fears and conflict. The fog has a significant role in the novel, both literally and figuratively. For much of the novel, the fog completely blinds the narrator, Mrs de Winter, but once the truth of Rebecca is revealed, ‘The mist entered my nostrils and lay upon my lips rank and sour. It was stifling, like a blanket, like an anaesthetic. I was beginning to forget about being unhappy, and about loving Maxim. I was beginning to forget Rebecca,’ (du Maurier, 1938, 18). The lingering presence of the late Mrs de Winter was like the fog, clouding the protagonist’s vision and judgement. However, it is not suggested that Rebecca’s presence in Manderley disappears as the fog does. Even when Manderley is burned at the end, the foreboding first line of the novel, ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again’ (du Maurier, 1938, 1) suggests not that the presence of Rebecca has been destroyed with it, but that both the house and Rebecca still haunt Mrs de Winter and her husband.

Manderley burning in the 2020 film adaptation of Rebecca (Creative Commons licence)

Jamaica Inn encompasses similar conventional Gothic tropes, involving ‘a frail protagonist in terrible danger’, because she ‘is placed in a hostile, threatening, mysterious environment, usually so prodigiously large that it dwarfs her; she is made prisoner, she is threatened by individuals who should protect her, parents and parent-figures’ (Grellet, Valentin, 1996). This describes Mary Yellen, as she becomes the perfect Gothic protagonist on her arrival at Jamaica Inn and is threatened both by her (new) parent figures and the house itself. Although the house is not a ruined castle as pictured in The Castle of Otranto, it embodies characteristics of the traditional Gothic setting, with dark secrets hidden within it, secret rooms, doors and passages which du Maurier uses to build the mystery and workings of Jamaica Inn.

Jamaica Inn, as seen in the 2014 BBC adaptation (Creative Commons licence)

While there are conventional elements of the Gothic seen in both Rebecca and Jamaica Inn, du Maurier portrays My Cousin Rachel as the exact opposite. Traditionally, the Gothic novel features a young, naïve heroine whose inexperience puts her in a disadvantaged position with her older male superior. However, this is not the case for Rachel. Though the Gothic trope of the large manor house on the Ashley estate is present in the novel, it has little power compared to the character of Rachel. She is a headstrong, sexually overt, (eventually) economically stable woman with little need for a man. Du Maurier has drawn on Rachel’s personality in this way to encompass fears and curiosity within the reader about the ‘wicked woman’ who is thought to have murdered her husband and attempted to murder Philip too. Both Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel feature the female villain in their stories, but are they really villains at all? Both women have a disruptive effect on the narrators in their novels, but are their actions actually villainous, or are the impressions offered to the reader unfair from the perspective of other characters?

Mystery, suspense and death are present in all of these novels: the lingering death of Rebecca; the dark, dangerous mystery around Jamaica Inn and the activities undertaken there; and the death of Ambrose and poisoning of Philip all convey traditional and modern elements of the Gothic.

Ellie’s blogs on Class and Social Mobility in the novels of Daphne du Maurier and Rebecca, Rachel and Mary: du Maurier’s Strong, Unconventional Women.

Bibliography

Du Maurier, D. (1938). Rebecca. HarperCollins.

Du Maurier, D. (1951). My Cousin Rachel. Penguin Books.

Du Maurier, D. (1935). Jamaica Inn. Penguin Books.

Dryden, L. (2003). The Modern Gothic. In: The Modern Gothic and Literary Doubles. Palgrave Macmillan, London.

Rebecca, Mary and Rachel: Daphne du Maurier’s unconventional, strong women

By Ellie Jackson

It’s good to welcome back guest blogger, Ellie Jackson, from Sheffield Hallam University. Ellie has already written her reading journey and a review of Gaudy Night (1935) by Dorothy L Sayers for our blog. Now she is looking at the novels of Daphne du Maurier for her final year project and, as part of that, is writing three blogs for us. Here is the first.

Daphne du Maurier had already published four novels and two biographies by the age of 30 and went on to write many more novels, short stories etc. Search her name in Google, and the first three book titles to show are Rebecca (1938), Jamaica Inn (1935) and My Cousin Rachel (1951) as her most famous novels. Rebecca is undoubtedly the most recognised novel of the three, with multiple film adaptations and written ‘sequels’ by different authors, such as Mrs de Winter (1993) by Susan Hill or Rebecca’s Tale (2001) by Sally Beauman.

Throughout this blog I will be discussing how du Maurier represents her female protagonist in relation to the gender identities presented in these popular fictions. Du Maurier both demonstrates and also subverts the conventional views of femininity through the use of her protagonists.

In Rebecca, this is particularly suggested by the hidden character of Rebecca herself. In some ways, it is suggested that Maxim de Winter’s first wife is an evil villain, a woman who posed a great threat to the conventional rules of female conduct and therefore judged by her unfeminine behaviour and her subversion of the female ideal of pleasing her husband. But critics have suggested that Rebecca was not only a victim of sexism, but of her husband too. The novel is an important early work of feminism, certainly presenting the ways in which the male character dominates. We only ever hear Maxim’s side of the story. Rebecca is never given a voice to speak her truth. Is Maxim the real villain? A controlling husband who expects his wife to behave as an obedient child and when she refuses to abide by his rules, becomes hateful and lashes out at her? Though absent in the novel, Rebecca has a strong presence throughout. Our impression of her becomes increasingly negative and we are made to believe that she is the primary antagonist of the novel, a skilful manipulator having extramarital affairs, and Maxim is portrayed as her helpless victim. Is the novel ahead of its time in terms of gender roles or has it aged badly? Rebecca is a woman who refused to let marriage destroy her right to identity, but she is also judged according to conventional rules for female behaviour that by modern standards don’t carry much currency.

Mrs de Winter (Joan Fontaine) and Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier) from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 film, Rebecca (Creative Commons licence)

My Cousin Rachel is a second novel by du Maurier that undoubtedly demonstrates this feminist ideology through her independent protagonist Rachel. Du Maurier makes very clear that in the only sex scene in the novel, Rachel is at the height of her power. From the beginning of the novel, Philip lays down his thoughts on the fundamental rules of female behaviour, in which he suggests women are emotional, unpredictable, ‘erratic and unstable’ (du Maurier, 1951, 5) in contrast to the rationality of a man. Rachel’s expression of her comfortable and overt sexuality completely bewilders Philip, and ultimately du Maurier uses his ambivalence to demonstrate that the power of a man is much stronger than the sexual power Rachel exhibits. This is made evident through Rachel’s inability to become pregnant. Sex is independently an act of pleasure rather than a function of marriage or family, and it is definitively on her own terms as Rachel uses it to ‘thank [him], that’s all’ (du Maurier, 1951, 22). So Rachel denying Philip marriage after they slept together turns him rather violent, emphasising his intolerance of her sexual power by attempting to physically overpower her.

Rachel (Rachel Weisz) and Philip (Sam Claflin) discussing marriage in Roger Michell’s 2017 film, My Cousin Rachel (Creative Commons licence)

The subversion of conventional views of femininity is further shown through du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn. Mary, her protagonist, exhibits a profound loathing for the culturally defined identities which society has given to women. She attempts to ignore her own femaleness, questioning ‘why were women such fools?’ (du Maurier, 1935, 5) in relation to the cruel, powerful character of her uncle Joss. Despite Mary’s self-sufficient character, the lack of identity of a woman under patriarchal influence is demonstrated when she ends up at Jamaica Inn. The masculine power of Joss Merlyn is used as a means to control the women in the novel, as they are ‘trained by constant cruelty to implicit obedience’. (du Maurier, 1935, 2).

Film poster for Alfred Hitchcock’s 1939 film, Jamaica Inn, with Maureen O’Hara as Mary Yellen. In the background, on the far right, is Leslie Banks as Joss Merlyn, Mary’s cruel uncle. (Fair use)

Throughout all three of Du Maurier’s most popular novels, it is fair to suggest that she was ahead of her time in terms of gender identity, with her attempts to subvert the traditional societal roles given to women through her female protagonists, but ultimately positioning the male characters in such a way that they will always be superior. The lives of women are in the hands of the men in each of the novels. Mary is the only female protagonist that makes it out of the hands of her male superior. The same cannot be said for the characters of Rebecca and Rachel, who are both murdered for their ‘crimes’ against traditional feminine standards.

Here is Ellie’s second blog, on Daphne du Maurier’s use of the Gothic, and here is her third, on class in du Maurier’s novels.

Bibliography

Du Maurier, D. (1938). Rebecca. HarperCollins.

Du Maurier, D. (1951). My Cousin Rachel. Penguin Books.

Du Maurier, D. (1935). Jamaica Inn. Penguin Books.

Judith Warrender’s Reading Journey

Judith reading Woman magazine

By Mary Grover

Judith was interviewed by Rebecca Fisher in February 2013. She was born Judith Hancock in 1950 and grew up in Page Hall, Sheffield, between 1950 and 1972.

Two minutes from my house was the grand building of Page Hall which at that time was an orphanage, a feature of many a children’s story! The fact that I never saw anyone emerge from it added to its mystery!

Mrs Hancock in Firth Park with baby Judith, her son and a friend. Shortly after this must have been taken, Judith spent three months in a baby home because of her mother’s post-natal depression.

Judith’s mother was determined her daughter would read. Thanks to her, the little girl joined Firth Park Library when she was five. The first book Judith had out was Teddy Robinson. Her mother mainly borrowed Agatha Christies. Judith’s father was a tram driver, working long, demanding shifts. It was her mother who read to her.

Judith aged 11
Judith and her brother playing in the street

Judith went to a good junior school, Hucklow Road. She recalls a set of folding bookshelves (configured like a pasting table) which circulated from the City Libraries. Though the pupils weren’t offered a range of subjects, they were prepared for the eleven plus exam. Judith passed the eleven plus and gained a place at Abbeydale Girls’ Grammar, a prestigious grammar school, two bus journeys away on the other side of the city.

Judith had few books at home. She borrowed lots of Enid Blytons and popular fiction from the library but didn’t possess copies of her own.

Well, my family, you know, just didn’t have the money to buy paper or books. So, the only books I got really, as far as I remember, were Christmas annuals, you know, my comic, the Bunty, and the annuals for the comics that you took all year.

The only book she remembers reading which reflected anything like the life she led was Eve Garnett’s The Family from One End Street (1937). She realises that Garnett herself didn’t come from the kind of family she described, but she finds the stories charming and beautifully illustrated, by Garnett herself.

I suppose I like that they are homely. I like the homely nature of them…I liked homely stories, you know Milly Molly Mandy, it was the same, you know…she lived in a thatched cottage.

Judith’s dad used to read the Pears Cyclopaedia, and the Bible, because of his brother: ‘His brother was a bit fanatical’.

Otherwise we would watch telly, as we all lived in one room, you see. That was another thing, we didn’t have our own bedrooms where we entertained friends…we all lived in one room with the telly on. So that again conditioned what you did. My mother lit a fire in the front room to do homework – I enjoyed staying there studying all evening.

At Hucklow Road Judith made friends with the daughter of an English Teacher at Firth Park Boys’ Grammar School. She discovered a house could be full of books. The Cook family was a great influence on Judith. Stanley Cook had studied English at Oxford, tutored by J R R Tolkien. Judith went round to her friend’s a lot.

Mrs Cook was a teacher too and taught Judith to swim. She also taught her the longest word Judith knew at the time – ‘sesquipedalian’! The Cooks’ three children were bought Puffin books and ‘sugar paper’ to draw on. Her friend, Sarah Cook, would spend days with Judith, creating multiple copies of little magazines – ‘with carbon paper you know…it was magic’.

Children’s Library at Firth Park in the 1940s/1950s (Ref no: u02884, Picture Sheffield)

Judith lived near Firth Park. ‘I spent half of my childhood in the park, which was just at the top of our road, and half of it in the library.’ The Junior Library recruited children to be library helpers, each with their own special badge. Judith longed to be a library helper.

So I used to gaze at other children, I just never had the courage to ask to be one. But I used to play at libraries at home. And I had a little chest of drawers, which I shall show you a picture of, it was a tiny spice chest, about this sort of size [9” x 6”] at home which a neighbour had given me, with tiny drawers with the spice names on. And I used to cut out little cards for the few books I had, so they would be in these drawers and I would get them out like this. [Judith demonstrates flicking through cards.]

She used to ‘play library’ and still has the little chest in her home.

Firth Park Library also put on films for children in the week. Judith and her brother used go on their own in the dark, about a quarter of an hour’s walk.

Trips to church were formative – the services and Sunday school. Hymns introduced Jude to a wealth of new words, adult vocabulary. School introduced her to more poetry. Judith has never forgotten one particular poem by Robert Louis Stevenson in A Child’s Garden of Verses. She still enjoys ‘From a Railway Carriage’ with its headlong rhythm and energy. She remembers her teacher ‘pumping us to read this poem because it’s very onomatopoeic’.

Faster than fairies, faster than witches,
Bridges and houses, hedges and ditches;
And charging along like troops in a battle,
All through the meadows the horses and cattle:
All of the sights of the hill and the plain
Fly as thick as driving rain;
And ever again, in the wink of an eye,
Painted stations whistle by.

Here is a child who clambers and scrambles,
All by himself and gathering brambles;
Here is a tramp who stands and gazes;
And there is the green for stringing the daisies!
Here is a cart run away in the road
Lumping along with man and load;
And here is a mill and there is a river:
Each a glimpse and gone for ever!

From a Railway Carriage, by Robert Louis Stevenson, in A Child’s Garden of Verses (1885)

When Judith got to Abbeydale Girls’ Grammar School her reading changed, partly because there was less time. The two-bus journey took an hour, usually spent chatting with her mates. She remembers reading Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities on the bus, but that was all.

You know with my paper round, then my tea, then homework, then it was bedtime, it was a tiring day. So, I don’t recall reading much as a teenager because we used to have, like, three subjects homework a night.

The subjects she studied, German, French and English, absorbed her. When she got to the sixth form she was put in for four A levels and two ‘S’ (Special)  levels, each ‘S’ level having five set texts. A lot of her German and French texts were from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Her twentieth century French texts (Sartre and Camus) made a ‘big impression’. In English she studied Emma, Othello, Antony and Cleopatra, and a modern anthology of twentieth century poetry, including T S Eliot, Auden and MacNeice.

In her adulthood Judith has done a huge amount of community work. She is an expert gardener and goes regularly to Nepal to teach. When she has time she reads biography, books about nature and history rather than fiction, though she very much enjoys Annie Proulx and ‘wacky stuff’ like Malcolm Pryce’s Welsh noir spoofs on detective novels like Raymond Chandler’s (try Last Tango in Aberystwyth). Perhaps the book that had the biggest influence on her as an adult was a collection of sayings about nature from native American people. It is called Black Elk Speaks by John G Neihardt.

Judith’s husband, Paul, was very well read and bought a lot of books.

He left school at 16, with only two O levels; then he did an English A level as a mature student. And he, he was very much self-taught actually. I mean when he was ill, three years ill, he read the whole of Proust.

Three weeks after Paul died, during the bitter snowy 2010 winter, when post deliveries seized up, a parcel arrived for Judith. Inside it was a book from a series that was very dear to her heart when she was about eight or ten. Paul had ordered it for her. There are fourteen books by Will Scott about the Cherrys. Jude has met few people who have heard of the books. They are about a father devising adventures for his children – ‘not very long but I just loved them!’

They had these lovely diagrams in them, they have these lovely maps and there were sometimes little word puzzles. I don’t know if there is one in this one… [flicks through] Oh! that’s like a treasure hunt thing where they have to follow a route.


Judith possesses two titles in the series of books about the Cherrys, both bought when she was an adult – these are her treasures.

Judith, aged 10, in the only shop-bought dress she remembers wearing as a child

You can read the transcript of Judith’s interview here. There is no audio file.

Shelagh Dixon: A reading life in Upper Walkley

By Mary Grover

Shelagh, aged four in 1958

Shelagh Dixon tells us how reading has shaped her life from childhood onwards.

I was introduced to Shelagh by Kathryn Austin whose mother, Winnie Lincoln, was interviewed for the Reading Sheffield project. Shelagh, like Kathryn, has worked to improve literacy among Sheffield adults so it was no surprise to hear how important reading has been to her from a very young age.

Shelagh was born in 1954 and grew up in Upper Walkley, a suburb of Sheffield. She loved the view from her bedroom, looking down into two valleys, to the confluence of the Rivelin and the Loxley rivers. In 1875 John Ruskin had chosen Upper Walkley to establish St George’s Museum, his collection of natural objects and art designed to lift the artistic sensibilities of the skilled metal workers toiling in the polluted valleys below. The objects are now to be found in the centre of Sheffield but Shelagh used to play in the gardens of what had been Ruskin’s museum.

Shelagh feels that Walkley was a transitional place. Lower and Upper were rather different. Upper Walkley was only developed after the tannery was closed, in the middle of the 19th century. Walkley Tan Yard originally lay between Walkley Bank Rd and Bell Hagg Rd and was at one time the property of the resident of Walkley Old Hall. At the beginning of the 19th century it had been the dominant industry on the hillside, its foul smell deterring residents. We can still find a few of the early 19th century farms scattered among the terraces of Upper Walkley. It was when the air was cleaner that John Ruskin established his museum.

Shelagh remembers the community as very diverse. Most people were connected with manufacturing or retail work and were well paid enough to rent or own a Victorian terrace house, or a 1930s semi. There was little council housing in 1950s Walkley.

Shelagh went to Bole Hill County School, like her mother and grandfather before her. In the 1930s amd 1940s, before she met Shelagh’s father at English Steels, Shelagh’s mother had worked in an upmarket department store on the Moor, learning to abandon her Sheffield accent when she tended to her wealthy clients. She familiarised Shelagh with this kind of speech.

Shelagh herself was able to mix with everyone, knowing when to use ‘teeming’ and when ‘pouring’. A friend commented that ‘We had our own language in Upper Walkley.’ The colour mauve was ‘morve’. But Shelagh’s mother always corrected her when she used traditional local grammar. Teachers did the same. Shelagh remembers a friend telling the teacher ‘There i’n’t no green cotton left’ and being firmly corrected: ‘There isn’t any green cotton.’ ‘Mum made sure we didn’t speak like many of the local children.’

Once Shelagh learnt to read, between the ages of four-and-a-half and five, she acquired a new set of words. When she tried to use them in conversation, she found that some were understood by nobody but herself. She gradually learnt that there were no such words as ‘grot-es-cue’ or ‘ank-cious’. Because she was partly self-taught her phonics were not great.

Shelagh would probably not have become a great reader if she hadn’t been so ill as a child. She had flu when she was three, a very bad attack of measles when she was five, with maybe a touch of encephalitis, then recurring tonsilitis. She missed many of her early years of infant school but by five she was reading most things that came her way.

Janet and John: Here we go (1961) by Mabel O’Donnell

When she was able to go to school, Shelagh had a wonderful reception teacher who would hold up flash cards to the children on the coconut matting in front of her. She soon allowed Shelagh to read whole books. The little girl was enchanted by Janet and John books – the kittens and the little dog and the lovely garden. ‘But I never realised there were actually children who had a life that was actually like that. I thought of it like Alice in Wonderland – fantasy.’ It was only later that she realised they were depicting a real world. Shelagh didn’t have many children’s books but she got some from an aunt who was a primary school teacher in Doncaster. Two of them she never forgot. The Little Lorry was a basic early reader but Little Redwing was even more thrilling. It was in colour, in big print and about a little Native American boy. She read it over and over again, entranced by the boat he journeyed in, the little ‘canó’.

Little Red Wing (Enchantment Books) by Dora Castley, Kathleen Fowler and Sheila Carstairs

The school didn’t have a library but it did have a little library bookcase in each junior classroom. When Shelagh had gone through all the ‘girls’ books’, she moved on to the boys’ section, to books like The Gorilla Hunters. The children were meant to write a review when they had finished a book from the library shelf but Shelagh never did because she always wanted to move on and read the next title. Shelagh learnt to use the local Walkley Library, funded in part by the American philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie. The whole family ‘read library books like anything.’ When she was five she was reading Enid Blyton.

Walkley Carnegie Library

And there were always her parents’ books on motherhood and marriage. ‘All my sex education, initially, came from that.’ And she was much better informed about the facts of life than her friends.

She did, however, struggle with the Walter Scott on her parents’ shelves.

Shelagh was bought copies of the Collins children’s classics: Black Beauty, Little Women and The Children of the New Forest. ‘Before that, someone had given me a copy of Alice in Wonderland but I couldn’t get past the caucus race because there were so many hard words. I have an abiding memory of the day when I got past the caucus race.‘

Shelagh read all the time, even when she shouldn’t have. When she had measles, she was not allowed to read with the curtains drawn back or by electric light in case she went blind. She got into trouble when she tried to read under the bedclothes. The fluorescent toy sea creatures that were given away through her cereal box (a common marketing ploy at the time) provided her with light. She powered them up under the electric light and they cast a gentle light in the cave under the bedclothes. 

Shelagh read books by daylight as she walked back and forward between home and school. She was in a class of about 45 children so could always get away with opening the lid of her desk unnoticed and reading the book inside it. Sometimes the book was perched on her knee. One day, having found herself comfortably tucked away at the back of the classroom and engrossed in an illicit book, she was dismayed to find that the headmaster had entered and had stopped behind her. But instead of telling her off, he just smiled and passed on. Shelagh thinks her obsession with reading made her friends think she ‘was a bit of a freak’ but because she was so bad at maths, they ‘let her off.’

The headmaster helped Shelagh a lot. He knew she was very good at subjects requiring reading and writing but her (as yet undiagnosed) dyscalculia was a barrier to passing the 11+. She later learnt that he had been her advocate at the meeting of teachers which followed the exam. It was he who pitched her case, helping her gain a place at High Storrs Grammar School. He was committed to fostering social mobility.

Many years later, in the 1970s, when Shelagh was training to be a primary school teacher, she was dismayed to visit one particular school. The headteacher had been there for many years and said ‘not much could be expected from these children, academically.’ So the school focused on fostering good manners. Shelagh said, ‘I was very glad I had not been sent to that school.’ It is that kind of attitude that makes Shelagh in favour of SATs which, in her opinion, force teachers to be ambitious for their pupils.

Shelagh feels she was lucky to get a good education both at her primary and grammar school. She went on to do a degree in education, with English as her second subject. In spite of her difficulties with maths she liked science and got a biology ‘A’ level.

Shelagh continues to read. When I asked her what books made an impression on her in her adulthood, she was unable to list them, because ‘there were so many.’

Shelagh’s reading journey is based on our notes of her interview. There is no verbatim transcript or audio recording.

Steel City Readers

If you follow Reading Sheffield on Twitter (@readsheffield) or Facebook, you’ll know that we are raising funds to support the publication of a new book, Steel City Readers: Reading for Pleasure in Sheffield, 1925-1955. The book, by Mary Grover, who founded our group, is an important celebration of Sheffield’s literary heritage. It’s based on the interviews with our 65 Sheffield readers which are all available here, in audio and transcript. Liverpool University Press (LUP) plans to publish the book on 1 June 2023. Here is the wonderful cover design, which uses an image from Sheffield Archives’ Picture Sheffield collection.

We want to raise £12,500 to support the publication. LUP’s plan is to make the book downloadable by anyone from the internet at no cost. To do this Reading Sheffield needs to invest £10,000 to help LUP pay for design, editing etc and to compensate for the loss of sales, and to have some funds to help promote the book etc. This is a big commitment for Reading Sheffield, but it would be wonderful to have a book free to everyone. We have a crowdfunding page – Just Giving – and are grateful for any donations.

The Joy of Reading, with Robin Ince

Robin Ince, BBC Radio 4 personality, author, comedian and all-round booklover and good egg, is coming to Sheffield to do two benefit shows to help us raise funds for Steel City Readers. The shows will be part of Robin’s nationwide tour of independent bookshops to talk about his own new book, Bibliomaniac. Both shows, each lasting about an hour, will take place on 11 January 2023, in the Carpenter Room in Sheffield Central Library on Surrey St, Sheffield, S1 1XZ. The first starts at 4pm, the second at 7pm. Tickets cost £15 and all the money raised will go to our fundraising. Here are links to book tickets for the two shows through Sheffield Libraries’ Eventbrite:

4pm show

7pm show

First Impressions Last

By Val Hewson

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

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

Here are our gleanings from a recent talk.

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

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

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

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

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

Tom Sawyer, from the frontispiece of the 1876 edition

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

Edition from 1953

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

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

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

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

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

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

An early Nancy Drew story

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

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

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

Reading Sheffield interviewee Shirley Ellins

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

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

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

Paperback from 1969
A Pan paperback from 1966

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

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

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

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

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

By Charlotte Poole

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

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

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

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

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

Ruth Potts (Hewson, 2019)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rowse, 1938, p.233

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

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

Jasmine, 2018

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

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

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

Here is Charlotte’s reading journey.

Bibliography

Rebecca (novel). Wikipedia. (n.d). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rebecca_(novel)

Michael Hann (2012, August 7). My favourite Hitchcock: Rebecca. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/film/filmblog/2012/aug/07/my-favourite-alfred-hitchcock-rebecca

Rae Boocock (2020, October 28). Nine Beautiful Film Locations from Netflix’s Rebecca. Suitcase. Retrieved from https://suitcasemag.com/articles/netflix-rebecca-film-locations

Peter Bradshaw (2020, October 15). Rebecca review – overdressed and underpowered romantic thriller. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/film/2020/oct/15/rebecca-review-ben-wheatley-armie-hammer-lily-james-kristin-scott-thomas

Val Hewson (2019, March 8). A Tale of Six Generations: The Reading Journey of Ruth Potts. Reading Sheffield. Retrieved from https://www.readingsheffield.co.uk/a-tale-of-six-generations-the-reading-journey-of-ruth-potts/

Taylor Jasmine (2018, October 6). Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (1938). Literary Ladies Guide. Retrieved from https://www.literaryladiesguide.com/book-reviews/rebecca-by-daphne-du-maurier-1938-a-review/

A.L. Rowse. (1938, September 3). Books and Authors. Via ProQuest. Retrieved from https://www-proquest-com.hallam.idm.oclc.org/docview/1542861396?pq-origsite=primo

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

Charlotte Poole’s reading journey

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

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

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

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

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

Natalie Haigh

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

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

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

Jean A

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

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

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

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

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

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

The King’s Secret Matter (1962) by Jean Plaidy

Sheffield Hallam student Laya Turnbull explores a vintage historical novel new to her.

Upon first searching the name of this book, even before I had read the first page, I assumed the novel would sacrifice the emotion and feeling to stay historically accurate to the story of Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon and his marriage to Anne Boleyn. Even though this event is dramatic in itself when I had been taught about this in school as I studied and enjoyed history in my GCSEs and A levels it was made to seem like a drab story of divorce and infidelity and could not even be compared to the romance drama we see in other fiction and on television today. However, Plaidy seems to rewrite this story perfectly conveying the emotion of a wife going through her husband’s affair and eventual betrayal without sacrificing the facts that lead to the divorce.

The novel takes place twelve years after King Henry VIII married Catherine of Aragon and they have become involved in a loveless marriage. It also takes place when their daughter Princess Mary is a child and not regarded as a suitable heir to the throne. Henry’s desire for a legitimate son and his interest in the young Anne Boleyn causes a power struggle that ruins the lives of Catherine and Mary. We also see the struggle Henry has to secure a divorce and the relationship he has with Cardinal Wolsey that is shown as a devious puppeteer controlling the king.

Whilst I was reading the book I felt a strong sense of nostalgia because it reminded me of reading the historical fiction books by Philippa Gregory whilst I was in school. Much like Reading Sheffield interviewee Gillian Applegate who said in an interview that she had ‘always had a love for history’ and also mentions that she liked the novels of Jean Plaidy which I feel is very similar to how I feel. We both have a love for history and reading and so we both enjoy the historical fiction genre. Gregory’s books sparked my interest in historical fiction as I loved history in school and researching parts of history I enjoyed in my spare time. I enjoyed reading this book as I liked that I felt I already knew about parts of the historical events that Plaidy mentioned. For example when she mentions the Field of the Cloth of Gold in the first few chapters, I had studied it in school also. I liked the feeling that I was building on my knowledge of the Tudors whilst also being entertained by the plot. I also liked how the novel humanised people who were originally thought as emotionless or people that we forget were actual human beings. For example the portrayal of Queen Mary as a child and her naivety and hopes at the beginning of the book contradicts the name Bloody Mary which we all mostly know her as because of her brutal genocide of the Protestants.

My past experience reading historical fiction is very limited and included some novels by Philippa Gregory and a young adult novel that gave an account of the Babington Plot that was also in the Tudor period. Similarly to these novels I felt that The King’s Secret Matter perfectly balanced the factual events with the fictional thoughts and feelings. Eleanor Alice Burford or Jean Plaidy, her pen name, wrote The King’s Secret Matter in 1962 as the fourth addition to her Tudor series. She was known for her historical romances but wrote for many other genres under other pseudonyms. She is also the 71st most borrowed author of 1990-1991 according to a report about the top 100 most borrowed authors in the UK (British Library, 2017). This shows that her relevance did not diminish – the interest in historical fiction continues even thirty years after she published her novels and she still has a ‘strong presence in British public libraries today’ (Wallace, 2005). The media reviews to the novel have been very consistent praising Plaidy for her ability to write historical fiction. Her novels were popular in many countries, her books having been translated into 20 different languages and the New York Times named her a ‘pioneer of the romantic suspense and gothic genre.’ (Lambert 1993).

I felt that reading this book was easy compared to the others I have had to read for other university endeavours. All of the books I read at the moment or in the past year have all been for my course. The King’s Secret Matter is the first one I have read for a while that I feel I did partly choose for myself which meant that I felt more interested and engaged in the actual plot and story, instead of trying to focus on understanding the book and what I could interpret from it which I have to do for the other books and texts for university. I found that I could actually enjoy this novel without any pressure because I knew I had chosen the book purposely as I knew historical fiction was something I enjoyed reading when I was younger.

After reading the novel my interest in history and especially the Tudor period was re sparked. Reading this novel made me want to continue to feed my interest in history so I started to listen to the podcast You’re Dead to Me where Greg Jenner talks with experts and comedians about different historical events. This will allow me to easily continue my interest in history and can still fit in with my busy schedule as a student. Also I would like to start reading the rest of Jean Plaidy’s Tudor saga because I really enjoyed reading and researching The King’s Secret Matter and will hopefully continue with my interest with historical fiction and romance.

Here is Laya’s reading journey.

Laya Turnbull’s reading journey

Laya, a student at Sheffield Hallam University, has written her reading journey for us, as part of her Ideas into Action module.

My first memories of reading for myself, as a younger sibling who wanted be just like her older sister, began with me copying and reading whatever my sister who is two and a half years older was reading at that time because as a child she was also an avid reader and would often share the books after she had read them. This included the Mr Men series by Roger Hargreaves and the Rainbow Magic series by Daisy Meadows but as a small child I could not understand or read properly but enjoyed the colour and trying to collect the whole series. These books still hold sentimental value to me today as I have kept the whole collection in my childhood room as I feel unable to throw them away. Also they still hold relevance to my life today as these books are the theme for my good friend’s birthday party in a few weeks. This shows the sentimental value these sorts of books have for everyone my age and the nostalgia they still have for many people. In talking to my mum about this blog to gather research from her about my childhood reading habits, she told me that when I was little I was also almost obsessed with a book called Eat Your Peas [by Kes Gray]. In this book Daisy’s mother tries to get her to eat her vegetable by promising her increasingly outrageous treats which according to my mum reflected my own attitude to peas when I was younger.

I loved reading as a child and getting read to by my Mum and Dad. However my love for reading declined when I got to secondary school and being forced to read made me lose the enjoyment I once had from it. During this time only choosing short and easy to read stories that probably didn’t interest me just to say I had read something for school because we were made to read or at least look like we were reading during form time. Although my love for reading was regained during the summer and going on holidays when I was not in school. I would read two or three whole novels when on a week long holiday either on the beach or near the pool. I would still describe this as my paradise and my idea of heaven. At this age I tended to read young adult novels usually of the sci-fi or dystopian genre like The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins or The Maze Runner by James Dashner, as I loved the romantic subplots with the action packed scenes.

Surprisingly in school as I got older my love for reading increased again as I enjoyed learning about Shakespeare and the plays and poems we had to learn for my GCSEs and A Levels. My favourites were Macbeth, Othello and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The Great Gatsby is still my favourite book to this day and sparked a small obsession with the 1920s aesthetic and even having a 1920s themed birthday party just last year where I dressed as a flapper girl. The poetry side of my schooling however was something I just had to endure. Even though I no longer have a hatred for all poetry I only enjoy small parts like the metaphysical poetry of John Donne and Andrew Marvell. As I got more back into reading I had felt I had missed out on the children’s books and young adult books that everyone was so captivated by. Because of this it was only recently that I decided to read the whole Harry Potter series and also became fixated as I understood why there was so much praise for the series.

Currently I enjoy reading the typical classics including Bram Stoker’s Dracula, George Orwell’s Animal Farm and most recently Pride and Prejudice which has sparked a new love for the romantic genre. I love the social commentary of George Orwell’s novels as it mostly reflects my own views on history and politics that I still think are relevant today as I and the author both support socialism. I also have found recently that I enjoy the horror genre after reading Stephen King’s Misery whose tension and unsettling nature stayed with me for weeks after. In the future I am going to read more of his novels. I most want to read Carrie and Pet Sematary. Furthermore, my wish to read lots of ‘classics’ is due to a poster I own where you have to scratch off the books you have read, called the ‘100 books bucket list’. This has prompted me and pushed me to start reading more again. I am making my way through this list slowly and steadily as some of the books on there are not something I would usually read but I feel like it would make me broaden my horizons and read more genres. I am continuing to try and read more of these classics but I am also currently interested in reading online newspapers, magazines and blogs because it feeds my desire to continue my interests in reading but they are short enough that my attention span is not tested and can fit into my busy life at university. I find that trying to fit reading long novels that I do enjoy is difficult to continue in my university life so just reading short newspaper articles and blogs and keeping up with current events is easier for me. I am currently reading Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn and its mystery genre is something I would like to continue reading.

Here is Laya’s review of The King’s Secret Matter by Jean Plaidy.