Jocelyn Wilson

Jocelyn Wilson

Joycelyn was born on the 12th October 1926.

She is being interviewed by Mary Grover.

M G:  Jocelyn was born in Sheffield on 12th October 1926 and lived in [the] Ranmoor/Fulwood area between 1945 and 1965.  Jocelyn, I’m going to ask you about your reading when you were pre-adult, when you were young.  What kind of stories did you like?

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J W:  I liked all the ones with imaginative stories – Alice in Wonderland, Flower Fairies, fairy stories, things that made your imagination race.

M G:  And can you remember who helped you find these books?

J W:  My mother. And also we had a very dear nanny who was into reading herself and she would have read to us, as indeed our parents did.

MG: Wonderful. Did you read to each other, the children?

JW: I don’t remember doing that.

MG: And did you go to a library with your parents or your nanny?

JW: No, I don’t think we did, no.

MG:  So what was the first book that you can remember reading, thinking, ‘This is an adult book’?

JW:  That’s very difficult to say because it’s a very long time ago, but certainly things with fairy stories in them.  And there’s a lovely book that I was given one Christmas called The Enchanted Forest, with beautiful pictures.  I can’t remember who it was by.  I think I was always influenced by the pictures and that’s why we all loved the Flower Fairies by Cecily M Barker.  And still do really.  Of course they are a part of one’s history.

MG: And can you remember how your tastes developed when you left school?

JW:  It’s very difficult to say that because of course there was a shortage of books.  We lived at that stage outside Sheffield – we were on the fringes – and so it was quite a journey to go anywhere where there were books to be lent.  And we had quite a few books in the house of course and certainly we read a lot of those because they were there on the shelves.  And my mother, particularly – more than my father – was interested in books.  And so there was a good wide variety of classics.

MG:  Mm.  Were there any classics that your mother put in to your hands and said, ‘Here, read this.’

JW:  Not that I remember, but of course I had an older sister and I dare say she helped me into reading more valuable things.  Certainly at school – I was away at school – I did a project on keeping a notebook of all the things I’d read.  I haven’t still got [it] I’m afraid but 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 though the whole range. But that was important in order to learn what was rubbish and what wasn’t.

MG:  So what was the rubbish?

JW:  Oh Baroness Orczy and that sort of thing.  The Scarlet Pimpernel.  Oh good old rubbish that …

MG:  Georgette Heyer?

JW:  Oh yes, but I don’t count her as rubbish

MG:  No.  Did your English teacher think she was rubbish?

JW:  No, I don’t think she did.  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.

MG:  At your boarding school, Jocelyn, did the books that you read have to be passed by the English teacher?

JW:  Not that I remember, I don’t think so.  But they were short; I mean we were short of them because we were evacuated from Kent down to Cornwall and I don’t remember going to a library there.  We must have had some books that belonged to the school.  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.  Certainly it lead me to read the books that were on the shelves at home.  So they were my mother’s choice mostly.  One of those people I do remember was Mary Webb – Precious Bane and all those.  And I think I read them all.  And various other things that were on her shelves.     And I remember my father recommending things like Henty which actually  weren’t terribly what a girl wanted to read.  You know, boy’s own stuff.  But I did read Surtees then which was heavy-going in a way and then I read various people that I don’t think I’d ever have read otherwise

MG:  Did you read John Buchan or Rider Haggard?

JW:  Yes, both those.  And I have made a list of some of the things I read.  They certainly included those sorts of quasi-detective things; you know, thrillers like the John Buchan things; you were following a trail, as you might say.

MG:  Would you like to read out that list and just comment on each one as you read it out as to why you liked it?

JW:  I haven’t put them in any order and I don’t know dates.  But my sister – who is older than I – discussed it the other day and these are the ones we came up with.  Now there’s Nevil Shute; he wrote, I think, towards the end of the war and of course he wrote some wonderfully good stories and we certainly read those.  And starting with the one about the Pied Piper, the old man bringing the children back from France to England, a wonderful story of their privations, walking all the way.  Daphne du Maurier – anything she wrote was grist to the mill.  Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Christie; all those people went on a long time after the war.  My sister suggested G D H Cole – well, I don’t remember him but she said that she had read him – and I think he wrote mystery stories. MarghanitaLaski; she wrote the most wonderful book called Little Boy Lost which tore everybody’s heart to pieces.  Eric Linklater, who was funny.  Mazo de la Roche; she wrote that Saga of the People at Jalna – I think some new ones came out.  It was the original soap opera, you know.  And we all read that.  I certainly read Surtees – I think my sister did too – and Mary Webb.  A J Cronin and Francis Brett Young – both those.  That’s as far as we got but there must have been lots of others.

MG:  Tell me about Francis Brett Young because I picked one up the other day and was fascinated by it.  Were they mostly about Africa?

JW:  No, I don’t think so.  I can hardly remember.  But I thought they were about … oh, wasn’t he a doctor?  Or am I muddling him up with Cronin?  I might be.

MG:  Cronin was a doctor.

JW:  Oh I think I’m muddling them up then.  I certainly did read some but I can’t remember anything about them now.

MG:  Woodsmoke was the one I picked up.

JG: That means nothing.

MG: No. What about Howard Spring?

JW:  Yes. There must be many others but it would take me quite a lot of digging, I think, to dig them all out of my memory.

MG: Yes, so when you …

JW:  Gone with the Wind, that’s another one.  I mean, you know, everyone read Gone with the Wind.

MG:  Did your English teacher know you’d read ‘Gone with the Wind’?

JW:  Yes, ‘cos I kept this list and it was part of a project we had at school called ‘Hobbies’ and you had to submit it to be judged at the end of the year.  That was when she said to me, ‘Why are you reading so much rubbish?’  [Laughs.] I suppose I should have said, ‘Because that’s all there is.’  And I think that was in a way true, to a point.  And I also think you need to read rubbish in order to find out what rubbish is and then you can form an opinion about what’s worth it and what isn’t.  And if you’re not feeling very well, rubbish is what you want! [Laughs.]

MG:  And so is it rubbish if it helps you at that time?

JW:  What is rubbish?  I’m not sure that it IS rubbish. 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. There’s one book which annoyed me very much the other day where I found somebody drinking gin and tonic before the First War and I thought, ‘For Heaven’s sake, it didn’t exist!’  [Laughs.]  And popcorn on the pier, and I thought, ‘Come on, that came from America much later on.’ I thought, ‘You don’t have to make mistakes like that, you know’.

MG:  Do you think the Second World War influenced your reading in any way?  Did it make you more interested in a book like Little Boy Lost, Marghanita Laski’s …

JW:  Oh yes, I think so, although I was 12, nearly 13, when the war broke out and six years on … I grew up in that time.  It must have had an influence.  Gradually you heard so many awful stories and stories of heroism.  And although a lot of things you didn’t know at the time; we’re still finding out, in a way.  But, oh yes, it did have an influence; bound to have done, I think.

MG:  So when you got married in …

JW:  1948.

MG:  Right.  And did getting married change your reading habits at all?

JW:  I can’t really remember that.  I mean, I have always read and I’ve always had a book on the go.  I do remember when we went away on our honeymoon to Switzerland and I hadn’t taken enough to read.  [Laughs]  Because my husband had come back from the war and he was totally exhausted and so he slept a lot in the warm weather and I was very bored.   Luckily, in this nice little hotel on Lake Maggiore there were a few English books and one of them was Hardy, The Woodlanders and one of them I can’t remember.  I was so pleased to find them; I would have read anything! [Laughs.]  Nobody tells you to take books on your honeymoon!  [Laughs]

MG:  So I’m getting the feeling that you were picking up books wherever you could. And rather than going out and seeking what you wanted to read you read what was available.

JW:  Yes, I think we all did that in the war because there were no books available. And unless a library was handy, I don’t think you could have done anything else.  We were lucky of course because there were books in the house and so we read them.

MG:  And these classics, can you remember which ones you enjoyed most?

JW: Oh well, that’s very difficult to go back to, isn’t it?  I can’t really say that I do, but of course Jane Austen and the Brontes; I read them then.  I was too young really in a way because you don’t get the full flavour, do you?  But 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.  But I certainly, at some level, enjoyed Jane Austen – but of course you can’t  help it in a way.  And of course the Brontes  were much more dramatic.

MG:  Thomas Hardy was available in my school library – and they seem most unsuitable for 12 year-olds, but I read them all.  Did you read them at school?

JW:  Yes, well, I went off with The Woodlanders when I was married but I don’t remember that I enjoyed it all that much; I thought it was very slow.  But I’ve read more Hardy since; it is for someone with more mature understanding, isn’t it?

MG:  So when you were married and had children, did you use the library then?

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JW:  I think then I probably had access to the Broomhill Library, although of course I think – and they did too as they grew up. But we bought a lot of  books, I think, and got books as presents … You know, Swallows and Amazons – all that series, and 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?

MG:  So when you bought your books, where did you buy them from?

JW: A B Ward in Chapel Walk was certainly a place that we always went to; it’s a lovely shop.   That’s where we would have normally gone.  I don’t think, at that stage, there was anywhere else we would have gone, particularly.

MG:  You never bought second-hand books?

JW:  Not at that stage, I don’t think.  And there wasn’t the availability of second-hand books.  I wonder why not, because that would have made a big difference, wouldn’t it, if we’d had access to a circulating library that somebody housed?  And I see from the list that some people did do that.

MG:  But you probably didn’t need them if you were relying on Wards to supply you books, and the Broomhill library.  You had what you wanted.

JW:  Yes, I can’t really remember when we started with Broomhill library.  Perhaps not until the family came, though I think I did use it before.

MG:  What about friends, Jocelyn, did they ever influence your choice of reading?

JW:  Yes, I think they must have done.  We must’ve read the same books – the ones that were coming out.  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.

MG:  When you were a married woman with children how did you get a sense of what books you might like to read?  What sent you off to seek out a book?

JW:  Well, reading reviews, I think, and hearsay.  If you found an author you liked, you went back for more.  I think that’s when I started reading people like Elizabeth Bowen and – the name’s gone (Laughs.) – other people who were writing then.  I think I’d wait for their new book to come out and get them out of the library.  I enjoyed them, they were well-written.  And that helps to form your opinions.

MG:  Did the radio help you at all to find books?

JW:  There again, it’s difficult to remember what sort of programmes there were – you know, review programmes.  Not as many as there are now, I think.   But I did listen a lot to the radio so I would’ve heard people talking about things and that must have helped.  And other people, you know, friends.  But we were all very busy with our children and I think I always had a newspaper and tried to read some of that.  There isn’t a lot of time when you’ve got kids. [Laughs.]

MG:  I think most people’s reading falls away when they have children.  So when did you feel you’d got some time back to read?

JW:  Well, I think I’ve always been a very busy person.  I don’t think I’ve ever sat down in the morning to read – if you use that as a sort of yardstick.  I have friends who say, ‘Well, I see better in the morning; the light’s better so I read in the morning’.  I don’t find that at all easy.  I always feel I ought to be doing something, even if it’s only sweeping the floor.

MG:  That’s an interesting question, Jocelyn, that ‘ought’ in reading because some people are made to feel a bit embarrassed by the fact that they are reading, that actually this is a frivolous thing.  Was there anybody who ever made you feel that reading was a leisure activity, not a valuable activity?

JW:  Yes, I think people did say it was a leisure activity because we were all very busy and with children you’re always at it, aren’t you?  It never stops for a minute and even later on; by that time you’ve got into a lot of things.  And I was on a lot of committees and charitable work and that kind of thing and …. I made my own ‘busy-ness’, I suppose.  And so I made my own judgements about that.

MG:  When you were a social worker in the 1960s …

JW:  No, ‘70s.  I started in 1974 and went on til 1986.

MG:  Did you have any time to read then?

JW:  I always read at night in bed … of course. I either fall asleep or wake myself up too much and can’t go to sleep, you know, like everybody else.  And of course it’s not a very good time to read because you’re not always on the ball – too sleepy.  But it does relax you, I think, if it’s a certain kind of book.  I don’t very often in the day sit down and read a book.  But I do read the paper and I sometimes wonder whether I should be changing that round.

MG: Did your parents ever say, ‘Don’t waste your time reading a novel’?

JW:  Oh no, never.  Nobody ever said that.

MG:  Were there any books at home where people said, ‘That’s not worth reading’.

JW:  We might have had that said.  Yes, there were sorts of judgements, I think.  But I do remember – not the name of the author or the book, which is rather annoying – but it was a book that was rather racy, if I can say that.  And I picked it up and wanted to read it and my mother said, ‘I don’t think you’d like it, darling’.  So I didn’t read it but I must have read it later on, just to see what it was I wasn’t going to like, and it was rather racy.  [Laughs.]  People went to bed with each other.  And I think it was placed in India – I wish I could remember what it was called.  My mother was very sensible; she never said, ‘Don’t’.  She was very good; she was highly intelligent and we valued what she thought.

MG:  Books about India interest me.  Can you remember any other books you read about India?

JW:  Well there was John Masters and people, you know.  Bugles Outside was his autobiography and there was Bhowani Junction and all those other ones.  I have quite a few of his and it’s a fascinating place. You say ‘India’ but well, what do you mean? – there are all kinds of India.

MG:  Rumer Godden?

JW:  Yes, The River. I still can read her; she’s very, very good.  She wrote a good autobiography, didn’t she? and I’ve still got it, I think.  When I moved to the flat, I had to throw out a lot of books, far too many.  And I keep looking for things I haven’t got and it’s very annoying.  But Rumer Godden was certainly somebody I enjoyed.  She was very delicate in her writing, sensitive and she touched one’s heart.

MG:  Maud Diver didn’t get read, did she?

JW:  No, I don’t remember reading anything by her.  What did she write?

MG:  Brave Wings.  She wrote much less delicate novels about imperial India, much earlier than Rumer Godden, sort of ‘ripping yarns’ really.  E M Forster’s Passage to India?

JW:  Yes.  Later I read those.

MG:  When you were reading Elizabeth Bowen, Jocelyn, did you read Elizabeth Taylor?

JW:  Yes, I did, and very good she is, too.  Yes, I certainly read her.  And there was somebody Gillespie which I very much liked too but I can’t place her now.  And of course … [laughs] but I can’t remember the name.

MG:  We’ll come back to that.  Elizabeth von Arnim?

JW:  Oh yes.  In the Garden.  I read that later, I think. Somebody put me on to that.

MG:  You mentioned earlier that you read Eric Linklater – and were all his novels funny?

JW:  That I can’t remember.

MG:  I come across a lot of them in secondhand bookshops.  I’ve only read one.

JW:  Was it funny?

MG:  Sort of.  It was satirical really.

JW:  Yes, that’s a better word.  I haven’t read them for years but I do remember laughing, I think, smiling anyway, yes.  Barbara Pym.  [Laughs.]  I knew I’d get it!  I loved Barbara Pym and I followed her.  Then of course she dropped out of everything – you never heard of her again.  And suddenly she had a resurgence and so we’ve been reading her again.  I suggested one to our book group and up to a point people enjoyed it but in the end people said, ‘So what?’  And I think they missed a lot of the in-jokes about the Church, this sort of thing, you know, of which there are many.  They make you laugh a lot.  Oh yes, and Rose Macaulay; she’s another person who had a big dig at the Church and is very  funny about it.  If you know anything about the Church, it resonates. [Laughs.]

MG:  And again, very satirical at times.

JW:  Oh yes.  But laughable.  I laughed out loud at Towers of Trebizond or whatever it is – ‘ “Yuk,” said the camel.’  [Laughs.]

MG:  The other humorous writer from that period I still enjoy is Margery Sharp.

JW:  Yes, certainly I read her.  Who wrote The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie?

MG:  Muriel Spark.

JW:  Yes, when did she stop writing?

MG:  I think, late ’40s/’50s.

JW:  Yes, I read her with pleasure; still do actually.  I mean, you can pick one of hers up; it’s always got something to say to you.

MG:  Absolutely. So are there any books that you loved when you were in your early 20s that you would never dream of reading again.  You feel that somehow the pleasure they gave you then wouldn’t be available any more?

JW:  Well, just off the top I can’t think of any but, just going through the books, I must have had quite a few of those because you just sort of looked at it and thought, well the time for that is past, and in a way Georgette Heyer is in that category.  I thought that I might re-read her when I needed light relief but I’m not sure that I could actually go back to her in the way that I hoped that I might.

MG:  Mm.  Why’s that, I wonder?

JW:  I don’t know.  It’s just … you’ve moved on.  I think that’s the answer.

MG:  Yes.  And Mary Webb?

JW:  Mary Webb, well of course, I haven’t got one; I haven’t tried her again.  She’s rather dour, I seem to think.  Precious Bane is someone with a harelip; yes, but at the time that was an aspect I’d never thought of when I first read her.

MG:  A novelist that I find a lot in secondhand bookshops is Sheila Kaye Smith.  Did your family read it?

JW:  Oh, Far Pavilions or something, was it?

MG:  That was Kaye, M M Kaye, which was about India of course.  Did you read The Far Pavilions?

JW:  No, I heard it on the radio but I haven’t ever read it, I don’t think.

MG:  Sheila Kaye Smith wrote about Sussex farming life.  There was Joanna Godden and Sussex Gorse.  They never came into your house?

JW:  Joanna Godden rings a bell.

MG:  Mm.  About a female farmer.

JW:  I can’t remember.

MG:  No.  And the other novelist my parents read was Compton Mackenzie.

JW:  Yes, that’s right and he was amusing, wasn’t he?  And who was it who wrote … I can’t remember … The South Wind and The North Wind … I think it was not really a novel, perhaps, so that doesn’t count but I certainly read those and found them very difficult.  I read them much too young, because they’re more philosophical, I think.

MG:  So why did you want to read them?

JW:  I probably hadn’t got anything else. 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?

MG:  Absolutely, yes.  And you mentioned on the ‘phone a library that you used to go to with your mother in the ’30s.

JW:  ve above it and it had the Times Library in it.  You could go there or there was the Boots library further down the High Street and you could join that and also get books from that.I can’t remember when we started going to the library.  It was something called the Times Library and it was in various places, my sister reminds me.  But certainly at one time it was in Marshall and Snelgrove which was on the corner of Fargate and Barkers Pool – where H L Brown is now, that was Wilson Peck, the piano people. Then it was Marshall and Snelgro

MG:  Did you?

JW:  Yes.

MG:  So what kind of books?

JW:  I can’t remember … and I don’t remember whether you had to order them but you probably did, yes.

MG:  Somebody told me that the municipal library didn’t stock detective novels so they went to one of these independent libraries for those.  Can you remember that?

JW:  No.  I do remember a children’s library at the Graves.  Now that had a very special smell.  Why do I remember that?  You went downstairs and it’s very evocative.  But the children enjoyed that and we got out all sorts of books like Babar and the things they enjoyed so much when they were little.  Funnily enough, the girls loved being read to and books and things.  My son didn’t really like it.  I don’t know why he didn’t but he just didn’t somehow.  He’d rather play with something and he liked you to be there.  But if he was ill in bed – you know – I thought well, I’ll go and read him a story.  But that’s not what he wanted.  They’re all different, aren’t they. [Laughs.]  He does read now I’m glad to say but he doesn’t read omnivorously like the girls do.

MG:  Interesting.  Do you think women talk to each other more about books?

JW:  Yes, they do, I’m sure they do.  But, actually, we have a book group and it’s half men and half women.  And I do think we choose different books because of that.  And of course we all bring our prejudices to the book group.  I’ve got a book on at the moment that I can’t possibly read.  Ugh, about dreadful people doing dreadful things and I absolutely don’t want to read it; probably won’t finish it.  I don’t often do that but it’s very, very interesting to see people’s reactions.  We certainly don’t get the same.  But it’s a focused group because we don’t get the tittle-tattle that all-women’s group very often degrade into.

MG:  So you appreciate that it’s half men and half women?

JW:  Yes, I do.  I think you get a completely different view and we don’t like the same things – well, we appreciate different things for different reasons.

MG:  How did you come together, your book group?

JW:  It first started in U3A in Sheffield with somebody called Dean Alfred Jowett whom I’d known for many, many years – and his nice wife, Margaret.  Alfred asked me to join because they were just setting it up and he said, ‘I think you’ll like it’.  Indeed it’s a long time ago now; I can’t remember how many years but over 20 and I’ve been going ever since so you can imagine how many books I’ve read.  E H Young – she was someone we read – Miss Mole.  Yes, I always liked Miss Mole; I’ve always liked E H Young; I’ve read a lot of hers.

MG:  They’ve been re-published by Virago in the last 30 years.

JW:  Yes, I had a hard copy of Miss Mole and it was quite different to anything else I’d read.  I expect that was one of the books I was spending a book token on and didn’t know what to buy.  And that was a great feature of birthdays and Christmas and so on.

MG:  When did book tokens come in, Jocelyn?  It’s something I don’t know.

JW:  I can’t answer that.  After the war perhaps?  Must be, I think.

MG:  Yes.  I had them in the 1960s – early/mid ’60s, I’m sure.

JW:  I think it did come in before then. I don’t remember but no doubt one could find out.

MG:  Yes.  So can you end with just thinking which books live with you forever, you know, you feel …

JW:  Jane Austen of course!  Why ask? [Laughs.]  Well, you know, you can always pick her up and read her.  It’s quite amazing, isn’t it?  She writes with such a deft touch and you get the picture.  I’ve got a friend who can’t bear Jane Austen; she says she’s not relevant to what was happening at the time, but I feel they didn’t have telly in those days, did they?  And you know they did live in Meryton or something and they only had the news as it came in, disseminated through many people.  It’s no use judging it by what we get today – far too much news – and I just think it wasn’t that they didn’t know or care; it’s just that their lives went on; they were one step away from the horrors of the Napoleonic Wars and those sorts of things.

MG:  Just one other question occurs to me, Jocelyn.  Did your husband read at all?

JW:  Yes, he did.  He didn’t read the same things though.  He was very interested in history and he liked reading about India and Burma and so on. Of course he was out there in the war and he read rather more heavyweight books than I.  And then he liked detective stories very much.  And later in his life he really read almost exclusively detective stories, which I can read too, you know; Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie and all those people and going on to P D James and so on.  But I have found that if you re-read them, they don’t always quite satisfy, well-written though a lot of them are; somehow the focus is on the development of the story rather than actually on the people.  It’s a different focus and it doesn’t always satisfy in the same way ‘cos it leaves a lot of people hanging about at the end.  You don’t know about …

MG:  So, if you know what’s going to happen next, the pleasure really is gone?

JW:  Not quite because actually each time you read it, you pick something else up, because they’re so clever, aren’t they? … And the good ones are very good with character development.

MG:  Just thinking about character; are there any fictional characters that you felt were really quite influential on you, that they mattered to you and helped you understand the world?

JW:  I can’t say just off the top that there was anyone in particular.  I suppose, you know, you just take it in, don’t you? and it must inform.  And I do think too that this development of book groups is so useful because it makes you think about something in a different way and we do find that we get wonderful discussions – especially if we don’t all like the book.  [Laughs.]  And I sometimes have chosen – this is another book that has been around a long time – and that’s Dracula.  My daughter, who lives in Bogota, had it in her book group and they all found it absolutely fascinating.  So I said to my book group, ‘Dracula is the next book,’ 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 marvellous book.  I keep turning the pages to find out what’s next.  I can’t believe it – then of course it’s a ridiculous book but, do you know, it was written in 1864 and it’s always been in print ever since.  If you look at the classics, it’s always there.  Well, what makes it there?  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.

MG:  Are you?  It didn’t make you take to vampire stories – of which there are hundreds.

JW:  Certainly not, though I just thought it was an amazing story.

MG: I wonder why they were so horrified.

JW:  I don’t know, I didn’t discover but they sort of became exceedingly mule-ish; they weren’t going to waste their time reading ‘rubbish’.

JW:  I said, ‘I know it’s rubbish’.

Access Jocelyn’s reading journey here.

 

 

 

 

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Evelyn Waugh, Rationing, and Style: ‘the Period of Soya Beans and Basic English’(Part 2)

Posted on  by Val Hewson

By Chris Hopkins

Here is Part 2 of our literary food blog on Evelyn Waugh, by Chris Hopkins, Emeritus Professor of English at Sheffield Hallam University.

The book is infused with a kind of gluttony … which now with a full stomach I find distasteful.

Evelyn Waugh, Preface to Brideshead Revisited, 1945, Revised Edition, 1959.

In November 1943, having been unwillingly transferred from the Marines to the Royal Horse Guards, and after having tried unsuccessfully to join the SAS, Waugh was sent on a parachuting course, though he was then forty years old. He actually enjoyed very much the sensation of jumping from an aircraft. However, in landing from one jump, he fractured his leg, and was given a period of leave to recover (eventually extended unpaid until June 1944) during which he began a new novel, to be published as Brideshead Revisited in 1945. (1) It is a novel filled with nostalgia and about nostalgia, but by no means without a critical if idiosyncratic theological framework. Even before this, in a diary entry for 29 August 1943, Waugh had written of his now changed feelings about Army life and of his urgent need to return to his work as a writer. It is perhaps particularly significant that he used a metaphor based on wine-production and cellarage to talk about how he saw the relationship between his experience and his writing at this point:

I dislike the Army. I want to get to work again. I do not want any more experiences in life. I have quite enough bottled and carefully laid in the cellar, some still ripening, most ready for drinking, a little beginning to lose its body. I wrote to Frank [Pakenham] very early in the war to say that its chief use would be to cure artists of the illusion that they were men of action.

Evelyn Waugh, Diaries, p. 548; also quoted in Eade, pp. 320-1).
In civilian clothes. Evelyn Waugh in 1940s. By Carl Van Vechten Carl Van Vechten Photographs collection at the Library of Congress). Public domain.

The vintages must be used at the correct time if they are not to spoil. Unlike his novels of the thirties and even his 1942 novel, Put Out More Flags, this new novel is not mainly about the now, about the modern and modish, but was to be a reflection, Proustian in some respects, on the decades of the twenties and thirties, and their relationship to the wartime present, as well as on various specific lives in the light of eternity and ‘divine grace’ (Preface, location 2). Perhaps in terms of the novel’s larger ambitions, its treatments of food and drink are not primary, but they are nevertheless prominent, and a key part of the work’s atmosphere. As Waugh saw, looking back from the perspective of nineteen-fifty-nine, what he and many others experienced as privations of personal pleasure and indeed style influenced the way the novel recalled the recent past. Here are some of Waugh’s reflections in 1959 on the time when he wrote the novel:

It was a bleak period of present privation and threatening disaster – the period of soya beans and Basic English, and in consequence the book is infused with a kind of gluttony for food and wine, for the splendours of the recent past, and for rhetorical and ornamental language, which now with a full stomach I find distasteful. I have modified the grosser passages but have not obliterated them because they are an essential part of the book

Evelyn Waugh, Preface, location 8.

The connections Waugh makes between food and wine and other matters of style is notable. Nineteen forty-four is the period of ‘soya beans’ and of Basic English, both, in Waugh’s view, drastic reductions to full and proper ways of living. The Soy Info Centre’s invaluable time-line on the History of Soya Beans in Britain and Ireland explains that:

During and after World War II soy flour is used extensively as a substitute for meat, milk, eggs and flour in a vast array of foodstuffs … [it] developed the image of a bad-tasting ersatz foodstuff, and the English came to dislike any food with the name ‘soy’ attached to it, in part because of poor product formulations and the use of low-quality soy flour (2).

Basic English was clearly considered by Waugh a linguistic or stylistic equivalent to soya beans, wholly unable to substitute for the real thing. The idea of Basic English was formulated by Charles Kay Ogden in his book, Basic English: a General Introduction with Rules and Grammar (1932). Basic English was not intended to replace English as a natural language, but to be used by speakers of English as a second language, and to make international communication in English clearer and simpler. This second aim was associated during the war with an idea that Basic English could help sustain world peace in a post-war world. Basic English simplified English by reducing the number of words, both verbs and nouns, while retaining a more-or-less ‘natural’ word-order. Ogden argued that most everyday communication could be readily managed with only eighteen verbs and a core vocabulary of two-thousand words. These precepts are still in practical use – notably in the Simple English Wikipedia (3). Orwell based the ‘constructed language’ of Newspeak in Nineteen Eighty-Four (Secker & Warburg, 1949) on Basic English, fearing its potential for restricting not just free speech, but the expression of free meaning. Clearly, Waugh too saw Basic English as an impoverishment of natural English, and a sign of the times.

Brideshead Revisited certainly does use a more purple prose than Waugh had ever used before (except in the way of parody), but as Waugh realised, this was not just an incidental feature, but something deeply embedded in the conception of the novel. Here for example is the nostalgic opening of chapter one of Book One, which follows on from the much more austere Prologue, and which describes Captain Charles Ryder’s unexpected return to Brideshead when the Army sends his unit there:

‘I have been here before’, I said. I had been there before; first with Sebastian more than twenty years ago on a cloudless day in June, when the ditches were cloudy with meadowsweet and the air heavy with all the scents of summer; it was a day of particular splendour, and though I had been there so often, in so many moods, it was to that first visit that my heart returned on this, my latest (location 229). (4)

Strictly-speaking, purple prose is always a critical term, indicating a prose style which is so excessively decorative that it inevitably fails to hold the reader’s attention or to construct a clear meaning. In that sense, Waugh’s prose here is not purple, because it surely does work superbly in its context, but it is perhaps nearly as rich and ornamental as you can get before turning purple.

It was Waugh himself who made the connection between rationing, food and style in the novel in his Preface, and indeed there is a richness about the description of food in the novel which is equivalent in many ways to the novel’s love of the nostalgic, emotional and rhetorical charge of the past. Of course, the food recalled was indeed at the time a Remembrance of Things Past. Here is the most elaborate description of food, (French) cooking, and wines in the novel. As a foil to Charles Ryder’s knowledgeable enjoyment of this superb meal in Paris is Rex Mottram, who pays for the meal, but does not at all understand its quality:

I remember the dinner well – soup of oseille [sorrel], a sole quite simply cooked in a white-wine sauce, a caneton à la presse, a lemon soufflé. At the last minute, fearing that the whole thing was too simple for Rex, I added caviar aux blinis. And for wine I let him give me a 1906 Montrachet, then at its prime, and with the duck, a Clos de Bèze of 1904.

I rejoiced in the Burgundy. It seemed a reminder that the world was an older and a better place than Rex knew, that mankind in its long passion, had learned another passion than his (locations 2420 and 2470). (5)

Perhaps one would not want to consume such prose all the time, but given the drabness of wartime rationing (which of course went on into the later nineteen-fifties), this response is not mere gluttony, but a heroic recreation of fine food, of food as art (even if Waugh’s own war was not entirely deprived of some decent food and wines – though I personally suspect that entire bottle each of 1920 Dow’s may have been a mistake, in terms of both style and appreciation of the virtues I imagine it to have possessed).

Read Part 1 here.

NOTES

Note 1. See Evelyn Waugh: a Life Revisited, by Philip Eade, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London, 2016, pp. 321- 327 for some of Eade’s account of Waugh’s military career during this period, including a quotation from a letter to Laura Waugh about his enjoyment of parachuting.

Note 2. See History of Soybeans and Soyfoods in the United Kingdom and Ireland (1613-2015) – SoyInfo Center, based on a book of the same title by William Shurtleff and Akiko Ayoyagi (Soy Info Centre, 2015), which can be downloaded in full from the site.

Note 3. Information drawn from the Wikipedia entry on Basic English, which also gives links to Basic English word-lists still in use in various contexts and indeed in the Simple English Wikipedia. See: Basic English – Wikipedia.

Note 4. Some indication of the nature of Waugh’s post-war editing can be seen by comparing the 1945 original of this quotation with the 1959 revision:

‘I have been here before’, I said. I had been there before; first with Sebastian more than twenty years ago on a cloudless day in June, when the ditches were white with fools’ parsley and meadowsweet and the air heavy with all the scents of summer; it was a day of peculiar splendour, such as is given us once or twice in a life-time, when leaf and flower and bird and sun-lit stone and shadow seem all to proclaim the glory of God; and though I had been there so often, in so many moods, it was to that first visit that my heart returned on this, my latest.

(Readers Union with Chapman and Hall unrevised edition, London, 1949, p.15; 1945 editions are not that easy to obtain, being quite collectable; I have underlined textual differences between the 1945 and 1959 versions here, and again in Note 5).

Note 5. In the 1945 version, the first quoted paragraph is identical, but the second had a considerable expansion which spoke of the impossibility of describing a fine wine in its own terms, and saw all such accounts as influenced by the describer’s own emotions:

I rejoiced in the Burgundy. How can I describe it? The Pathetic Fallacy resounds in all our praise of wine. For centuries every language has been strained to define its beauty, and has produced only wild conceits or the stock epithets of the trade. This Burgundy seemed to me then, serene and triumphant, a reminder that the world was an older and a better place than Rex knew, that mankind in its long passion, had learned another passion than his (p. 135).

A concise overview of the textual complexities of Brideshead Revisited across its manuscripts and editions is given in Robert Murray Davis’ ‘Notes Towards a Variorum Edition of Brideshead Revisited’, in the Evelyn Waugh Newsletter, vol. 2, part 3, p.4 (12/1/1968).

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