Madeleine Doherty’s Reading Journey

Madeleine was born in Sheffield in 1940 and grew up near the Botanical Gardens. She lived with her parents and her brother, who was four years older. Her father was an engineer. Her mother was French and Madeleine’s French grandmother also lived with them. After leaving school, Madeleine trained as a teacher. She married and had a family; her husband taught engineering.

madeleine-treeby-1952-.okMadeleine says of the house she grew up in:

…it was a house full of books,..a lot of them were my father’s engineering books, then there’d be my mother’s French books, and then there were my brother’s books.

Her early memories of books are of being read to but by the time she was eleven she was choosing books and reading them. From this time she remembers the Milly Molly Mandy stories, a French book called Les Malheurs de Sophie about a naughty girl, a weekly comic called Sunny Stories which came out on a Friday and a series of books, The Twins, about twins in different countries. Her favourite book was a beautifully illustrated edition of The Water Babies, which was a present from her father’s mother. Although she understood French and had French books read to her, she didn’t read any herself.

She used to go to the Children’s Library in Sheffield, first with her mother and later with her brother. He would also take her to the Saturday morning film shows at the Library Theatre. When she was a bit older, she would sometimes get the tram to Ecclesall Library but she always preferred the Central Library. She loved Enid Blyton and probably read them all. She read some of her brother’s books, for example, historical stories by G.A. Henty.

Later on school became important for Madeleine’s development as a reader. She went to grammar school and when she was about 14 had a form teacher who was also Head of English. She had a cupboard full of books which anyone could borrow. Madeleine identifies this as the point at which she became an avid reader.

I used to stay up reading half the night, you know. I’d not turn my light out but I read them too fast…

She read many classic novels at this time: Thackeray, Austen, the Brontes, Dickens, Mrs Gaskell. She read what was there and didn’t necessarily seek out other books by writers she liked; in fact she thinks that even now there are Dickens’ novels she hasn’t read. She remembers C.S. Forester and E.M. Forster from that time as well.

Another powerful memory for Madeleine comes from when she was about 17 or 18 and she was introduced to the novels of Charles Williams by the curate at her church. He ran a youth club after church on a Sunday evening which she went to with friends, though she was the only one who borrowed books. Madeleine doesn’t recall the titles of these books but she remembers clearly their compelling quality. She has sometimes looked for them since but has never found them.

…I was absolutely hooked on those books…I just read them one after the other. I probably had one a week, something like that.

Madeleine talks more about Williams than about any other writer and his books clearly had a great impact on her. He was one of the Inklings group of writers, along with Tolkein and C.S. Lewis. His novels are very difficult to categorize but are usually described as religious or supernatural thrillers. Each one features a conflict between good and evil, with powerfully drawn characters on either side. This conflict is played out in a world where the boundary between the everyday world and the spiritual world is porous, with certain characters able to move between the two. The atmosphere of the novels is uncanny and quite unmistakable.

During the 1950s, Madeleine’s family didn’t have a television though she used to watch it at friends’ houses. She remembers seeing Quatermass at a schoolfriend’s and thinking that she wanted to read it. Later on she got the book.

Madeleine went to Notts County Teacher Training College in Retford. She used to come home at weekends and collect books to read. She mentions 1984, Animal Farm and Brave New World and also the novels of Nevil Shute. Madeleine’s husband wasn’t a reader and after she was married and had children, she read less. Television had a big effect. She thinks that having one meant she read less, although sometimes it would lead her to read something, as with Quatermass. Watching a television version of a book is different from reading,

…television actually spoilt people’s reading. I still believe it now. I watch things and that’s giving you a picture…and it might not be what you would have thought if you had read it yourself.

Or if you have read the book first, ‘I watch it and I think, “That’s not what I read”.’

Madeleine also enjoyed reading poetry and ‘years and years ago’ had a hardback book into which she used to copy poems. She also learned some off by heart.

She does read more now, mostly books given to her by her daughter.

Read or listen to Madeleine’s interview in full here.

Note: reviews of three of Charles Williams’ novels can be found on Reading 1900-1950 and further information about his life and work from the Charles Williams Society.

Access Madeline’s transcript and audio here

9 thoughts on “Madeleine Doherty’s Reading Journey

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  3. When I first came to Sheffield in the 1980s I met Alfred Jowett, a clergyman, then in his 80s who had also been an English teacher at Ecclesfield Grammar School. He recommended Charles Williams to me. Do any pupils of Alfred remember reading Williams at his suggestion? I think Williams might have been widely recommneded within the Church of England. Any other memories of reading him? He is a very unusual writer.

    • Friends of mine, who worked in/married into the Church of England and are now in their 80s, both recall Charles Williams being recommended widely in CoE circles in the 1950s.

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