Jocelyn Wilson was born in Sheffield in 1926. She was educated, in wartime, at boarding school in Kent and was evacuated to Cornwall. In 1948 Jocelyn married and in time had children. In the 1970s and ‘80s she was a social worker.
‘Did your parents ever say, “Don’t waste your time reading a novel”?’ ‘Oh no, never. Nobody ever said that.’
How do we choose books? How do we decide what to read? And how do we judge our choices?
Looking at her interview, you feel that Jocelyn W, who read widely and had excellent recall, was confident in her opinions and happy to defend them. The quality of books, her own and others’ perceptions and the value of reading all lie just beneath the surface of her story.
Jocelyn was born into a comfortable, middle-class family in Sheffield in 1926. Her first books were typical for that background and period – Alice in Wonderland, The Enchanted Forest, Cecily M Barker’s Flower Fairies and other fairy stories. Predictably, they were chosen by her mother and a ‘very dear nanny who was into reading herself’. Later, Jocelyn’s older sister helped her find books too. Nanny and Jocelyn’s parents all read aloud to the children. Jocelyn didn’t say so directly, but her first books seemed to have all the impact any parent could have hoped for: Jocelyn described them as stories ‘that made your imagination race’ and remembered them clearly 80 years later. The Flower Fairies for example, she said, were ‘part of one’s history’.
After this promising start, things went less well. Books were in short supply in Jocelyn’s life. At first this was because her family lived ‘on the fringes’ of Sheffield and ‘it was quite a journey to go anywhere where there were books to be lent’. Then World War II intervened and Jocelyn, by now at boarding school, found herself being evacuated to remote Cornwall.
And I remember after a birthday having a book token and having great difficulty in going to a bookshop in Newquay, Cornwall, to find something to buy. And in the end The Heir of Redclyffe. I can’t remember who wrote it but it was a pretty frantic book, I remember. But there was so little choice. And I think that’s one of the things we forget now ‘cos there are so many books of every kind, good and bad. And then there were very, very few.
This early experience seems to have had a lasting effect. Jocelyn said:
But of course it’s difficult for people nowadays to realise how few books came out and they were rare beasts and you waited for your birthday to get a copy. Now there’s so much; you go to a bookshop and I’m overwhelmed. I can hardly ever choose anything ‘cos there’s too much to choose from and it’s difficult to find what you really want.
Another effect of this shortage was that Jocelyn ended up reading what was available – the books on the family bookshelves – just because they were there. She considered herself lucky. ‘I think people forget now that it was like that. You could be in a situation where you hadn’t anything new to read. It seems incredible now, doesn’t it?’
Jocelyn’s family continued to influence her choices and judgments. Her mother was ‘interested in books. And so there was a good wide variety of classics’. Jocelyn remembered reading, for example, Precious Bane and Mary Webb’s other novels. ‘My mother was very sensible; she never said, ‘Don’t’. She was very good; she was highly intelligent and we valued what she thought.’ (Jocelyn’s father tried too, but was rather less successful: suggestions like G A Henty were rejected as ‘boy’s own stuff’.)
School was the next big influence on Jocelyn, and it was there that her own judgment began to emerge.
… I did a project on keeping a notebook of all the things I’d read … I know that it was criticised by the person who taught English at school, saying, ‘I can’t think why you read all this rubbish when you’re capable of reading something so much better.’ You see, it had gone through the whole range. But that was important in order to learn what was rubbish and what wasn’t.
What was this ‘whole range’ that formed Jocelyn’s taste? Over the years, there were:
- classics like Jane Austen (‘she writes with such a deft touch’)
- literary fiction, as we might say today, with authors like Marghanita Laski (Little Boy Lost ‘tore everybody’s heart to pieces’) and Rumer Godden (‘very delicate in her writing, sensitive and she touched one’s heart’)
- popular, middlebrow authors of the day: Nevil Shute (‘wonderfully good stories’); Daphne du Maurier (‘anything she wrote was grist to the mill’); Queens of Crime like Dorothy L Sayers and adventure writers like John Buchan; Mazo de la Roche (whose Jalna books were the ‘original soap opera’)
- ‘rubbish’ like ‘Oh Baroness Orczy and that sort of thing, The Scarlet Pimpernel. Oh good old rubbish, that’.
Rubbish was not, however, as clear-cut as it might seem. For one thing, Jocelyn was becoming confident enough to reject other people’s opinions:
Oh yes, but I don’t count [Georgette Heyer] as rubbish … Of course she was a great storyteller, wasn’t she? And of course historically very accurate. There were things to praise about her. Even though the stories were romantic fiction in the very highest level.
And sometimes rubbish could be the thing: ‘And if you’re not feeling very well, rubbish is what you want!’ If it was what you needed, could it be rubbish?
What Jocelyn would not accept was the badly or carelessly written.
I think that now I can only read things that aren’t badly written. Sloppiness is what really gets me; and I think a lot of writers nowadays are very sloppy; they don’t do their research properly.
So Jocelyn developed her approach: reading widely; making her own assessments but open to influence; seeking out high quality but understanding the worth and pleasure in lower quality. This seemed to stand Jocelyn in good stead throughout her life.
… I didn’t read George Eliot until much later on; I came to ‘Middlemarch’ as a grown-up person. It’s a wonderful book, isn’t it? They’re very raw, some of those books by George Eliot.
…I still can read Arthur Ransome books. When I was laid low with a back injury two years ago. the thing I chose to read was Winter Holiday and I loved it and it took me back. It’s well-written and that’s the key, isn’t it?
I [chose Dracula for book group] and the men sort of withdrew in horror. A lot of them wouldn’t read it. It was quite interesting. The women mostly did. But I think it’s a marvelous book. I keep turning the pages to find out what’s next. I can’t believe it … It’s not even particularly well-written; it’s a most ridiculous story. So why are we fascinated with Dracula? I’m jolly glad I read it. [But the men] weren’t going to waste their time reading ‘rubbish’ … I said, ‘I know it’s rubbish.’
by Val Hewson
Read or listen to Jocelyn’s interview in full here.