Mavis was born on the 8th January 1937.

She is being interviewed by Mary Grover on 12th March 2012.

Mary Katherine Grover: Mavis was born in Jessop’s Hospital in Sheffield on 18 January 1937 and lived in Tinsley Park and Handsworth between 1945 and 1965.  Thanks very much, Mavis.  So, Mavis, I know you’re a great reader.  Can you remember who got you interested in reading?


Mavis Garratt: Not really, because I can’t remember not being able to read.  Well, I can remember having struggles with a few words and reading aloud to my parents but well before I went to nursery – about 3 or 4 – and it was just expected I would read.  My parents gave me books.  They didn’t have any books in the house.  Well, they had three: the Bible; a book called Vigil which I thought was Virgil till I thought he couldn’t have been that bad and it turned out to be a book of prayers; and a Dorothy L Sayers murder mystery, and those were the only three books, with a dictionary, that they had in the house.  But I do seem to remember that I had quite a lot of picture books and story books but I can’t remember not being expected to read them.  I do remember being read to but I very soon got bored with being read to because it soon dawned on me that I didn’t need to say the words.  So I found it was a bit slow because I was always at the end of the page before my reader was.  So, my parents, it must have been.  I had an auntie, friend of the family, who was a very young teacher at the time, of infant children, and I suspect she had a hand in it.  Or, by the time I was four, because by then she was evacuated and I didn’t see her so much.  And I know I could read before she was evacuated.

MKG: You could read before you went to school?

MaG: Oh well before, yes. Not incredibly well, not a full-length book, but I definitely never couldn’t read.  At school I got put out of the nursery.  I used to come and… I was a nuisance.  When they realised I could read they took the first opportunity to get rid of me and put me in Reception.  I went to school quite suddenly, to nursery, after the Sheffield Blitz because my mother was called back into work and I was sent to the local school nursery and I lasted a week.  And then I went into proper school and proceeded most of the time about a year young until confusion occurred when I was about nine… Anyway, that’s nothing to do with this project.

MKG: Which school was it that you went to?

MaG: It was called Phillimore Road which was in Darnall. Originally it was because there was a bus which picked up all the children from Tinsley village which was a mining village.  But after about two days on the bus, I was the smallest and I was regarded as the poshest and got bullied a bit so I decided I’d rather walk three-quarters of a mile than ride.  And quite often I got a lift from coal lorries because being the weighing station they always had to stop at our house and I would come out clutching a piece of newspaper and get a lift, part way sometimes, and then after a year I went to Carbrook.  I think when I was off sick the attendance man came and said “You don’t want to send her there: send her to Carbrook” so I was sent to Carbrook which was a little further away but still only about a mile, so not beyond the 5-year old.

MKG: Did you walk as a five-year old, on your own?

MaG: Yes, and younger. Nobody didn’t.  I got lifts on the way there sometimes in the morning with the coal lorry and I used to try to organise a lift back at lunchtime, with the milkman.  If I happened to get the right time at the dairy the milkman was coming out and I would get to drive the horses home because he was coming to our house, but otherwise … Nine times out of ten I missed one or the other and I walked; ran, because I was always hanging about at home.

MKG: So what was your father doing at Tinsley Colliery?

MaG: He was not actually at the colliery, he was about a mile away and it was the check weighing station where when the coal had been loaded onto lorries it was delivered and he had to check that what had been put on at the colliery was the same amount as he weighed – as his office weighed – and they also organised the distribution to wherever the coal lorries were supposed to go.  They sent the coal lorries to the coal merchants in the town.  It was mostly fire coal – coal for fires in houses.  But also coke because there was a coke oven as well and that went to industrial places.  So we lived there, so to speak, and the front room was his office with three or four people working there.  It was mostly clerical work and all the lorry drivers came and stopped off there and had to run their lorries onto the weighing scales so they hadn’t nicked any coal between the colliery and the mile and a half before they got our place.  And they were then responsible for making sure that that number of bags of coal.. that they got signatures for that number of bags of coal.  The opportunity for theft was between the coal face and the weighing station. After that they took responsibility having been….

MKG: So would you describe your father’s work as a clerkly job?

MaG: Yes, it was entirely clerical.

MKG: So he valued reading.

MaG: He did, but he didn’t read much. Nor did my mother, really. They were both more … I would say maths was their strong point though my father wrote well, interesting letters.  But they virtually never read anything except the newspaper.

MKG: Which newspaper?

MaG: The Mirror. And, didn’t take a Sunday one very often – occasionally, and it would vary according to what looked the more interesting but the Mirror was delivered and the local, I think the Star, the evening paper in Sheffield was called the Star.  But we did take the Telegraph occasionally; I think if people went somewhere – something to read on the bus, which was the morning paper then – I don’t know if it still is.

MKG: You can’t remember where your parents got that Dorothy L Sayers from?

MKG: No idea.  I think it came before I did. I’ve no idea. [Laughs]

MKG: So if you only had three books in the house how did you develop your passion for reading?

MaG: I think they bought me children’s picture books.  I can always remember books around.  But I had an uncle, my father’s eldest brother – much older than him – who almost acted as a father figure to him – he was fifteen years older – and my father’s father dies when he was about eleven.  And he had trained as, I think it was a chemist, doing chemistry but he ended up teaching.  He was a village headmaster near Doncaster and I spent a lot of time there, with my mother working, I would spend quite a lot of time in the holidays and the library was housed in the school hall so from a very early age when I went there I would be led into the school hall.  You know: “What would you like to do? Come and find some books.” And there were picture books, children’s books.  And he used to buy me books, often books which were much older than the age I was, and because I thought he knew what he was doing, if he bought it me and I found it hard, it must be my fault and I better make sure I could read it [laughing] because he would ask me about it when I saw him again and funnily enough he did manage to lead me on to quite a lot of things which could…..His was the one book which triggered off lots of others. He bought me, when I was about seven, he bought me a book of Greek myths and we got taken to the library from school – I think it must have been when the majority of the class were eight – for about a term we got walked on the last lesson of the day to Attercliffe Library.  It was in the same building as the swimming baths so it seemed quite normal to us.  Because we used to walk to the swimming baths once a week we went to the library once a week.  And I homed in on the Greek and Roman section as a result of having had this book of Greek myths and I must have literally read my way through the Greek and Roman section of the library.  I thought the stories were wonderful.  I absolutely loved it until I came to study Latin.  It was the be-all and end-all of my life to study Latin and I couldn’t believe how boring they were [laughs] when I got there.  Big disappointment.  And when I was about nine or ten he bought me The Mill on the Floss which I struggled with initially and then got into the story and that got me into reading George Eliot because if I liked that, which I did, and when I’d read it about three times I thought “Mmm, she’s written some more” and that kept me going for another few weeks.  So he sort of sparked me off when I first went to the library.  You could only have a ticket on your own when you were seven or eight and the school took is when we were that age and carried on taking us for about a term till…I think the hope was that it would become second nature and in my case it most certainly did.  And I think that Mill on the Floss moved me on because they weren’t in the children’s section.  I was allowed to use my junior ticket and then they gave me an adult ticket which meant I could get not three books, I could get five books – I kept my junior ones as well – and I think that launched me into the senior library.  So indirectly my uncle was very influential and whenever I went to stay there, there was never any boredom because I could always go and ask for the key, let myself into the school, and I was given the key to the library cupboards and I would choose something.  So it meant I wasn’t stuck with a long walk in the holidays, all I had to do was pop out the backdoor.  Because as a village schoolmaster his house was on site.  So probably he was the most influential.  He probably had no idea.  He was the most influential person in my reading.  He gave me lots of other books but I do remember struggling with these two and getting interested and thinking “ Well, now I know what I shall read next”.

MKG: Did you read them in the school or were you able to take them home with you?

MaG: I read those when I was visiting my uncle.  And I had a Doncaster library pass as well, so sometimes because I was in the Doncaster area – West Riding, it was a West Riding pass –  and if he could see I was in the middle of reading something he’d let me take it home.  But no, I’d go into the cupboards, got books and locked them back up again, locked the school up and went back again.  I was given fairly carte blanche to go into the school provided I told somebody I was taking the key.

MKG: Did your sisters and brothers have the same ….

MaG: I didn’t have any..

MKG: You didn’t?

MaG: No. Which is why I read a lot.  No-one to play with.  The weigh house where I lived was about a mile from the pit village –Tinsley Park pit village – and it was about three quarters of a mile from the big bulk of housing.  About half a mile there were children but they didn’t go to the same school as me, the ones that lived nearer because they went to the school I left after a year.  It was OK in the summer, there were children within the half-mile, but there was nowhere to play with them in the winter, so I read.

MKG: So you read at home?

MaG: All the time, yes.

MKG: So what was your parents’ attitude to your reading?

MaG: If I was supposed to be doing something else, not enthusiastic, but I think it became second nature that I never just sat, I sat and read, and if not stopped, I ate and read.  And if not stopped, I went to bed and read!  [Laughs]   I just read all the time.

MKG: So when you’d gone through George Eliot, at the age of probably about ten …

MaG: Between ten and eleven, before I went to secondary school and while I was at it.  They take re-reading as you might say.  I was reading lots of other things.  It would be George Eliot one week, it would be The Island of Adventure the next, or The Adventures of Scamp.  I’m not sure if it was the Pullen Thompsons, the horse stories: I had a horse phase, like all little girls, but I was reading quite a lot of adult fiction at the same time.  Especially as the stuff that I got lead on to was always available.  You didn’t get a big queue for the next George Eliot whereas you did for the Enid Blytons.

MKG: Did you ever read detective stories?

MaG: No, I’ve probably read far more in the second half of my century than I ever did in the first.  I did read them, but not … I think I liked a bit more in-depth characterisation at a very young age. I did read this Dorothy L Sayers which was at home but it was quite gruesome but it didn’t inspire me to go and find more. If I was stuck, I knew that she’d written a lot and I knew Agatha Christie had written a lot but just as there always seems to be a Poirot on television if you’re looking round and desperate for something to watch, just to relax, I’d probably never put the Agatha Christie Poirot series on.  I might go for the CSI.  I wasn’t dead keen on … it wasn’t my favourite genre, I must say.

MKG: So what did you read after George Eliot?

MaG: That got me onto the adult library and then we moved away when I was twelve. There was a Handsworth library but it wasn’t in the direction I travelled.  I had a ticket for it and if I visited my aunts who lived at the tram terminus in Handsworth I would drop into the library and collect a book because they’d have something different from the local but mostly it was the Central Library and as I walked in – didn’t know quite know where to start – and started at the Ws.  I found Hugh Walpole, Leo Walmsley and I don’t quite know…I think accidentally someone had filed Warwick Deeping in the Ws and I read him and I just read others by those authors.  And I went to the biography section and found some interesting things. I’d heard a recording – I’m not any good at music myself – but of singing – some of my family are –  I heard a recording of Kathleen Ferrier so I can remember reading her biography. And rather later I kept getting told about the speed traps in village called Renishaw near Handsworth and I discovered the Sitwells lived there so I read everything the Sitwells wrote.  It was an awful downfall, because I had an interview at one of the London colleges – I think it was King’s College – and I was asked what I thought of his father and I said I’d not have fancied him myself as a father, and I was asked didn’t I think he was unusually peculiar. I said, no, he’s just a posher version of an awful lot of other people in Yorkshire.  They looked very (indistinguishable). I said, no, he was nowty, he was odd, there was a lot of people like that.  He was just upper class but  I’d met people a lot funnier than him. They clearly thought I was bonkers and all I got was, I was on the waiting list.  I was so annoyed to be on the waiting list that when I got the offer in the summer I thought “Blow you, I’m not going there”.

MKG: So where did you go?

MaG: I went to Leeds.

MKG: And what did you study at Leeds?

MaG: English.  Literature.  I didn’t do the language course, or at least only as much as we had to, with reluctance.

MKG: So, going back to Leo Walmsley, whom I don’t know anything about, could you tell me what you liked…

MaG: Yes, he wrote about the North East, about the fishing communities.  I’d read the story of – do you know, her name has escaped me – the girl who rescued, who took the life boat out..

MKG: Florence Darling, is it?

MaG: Florence doesn’t seem right.  Is it Grace?

MKG: Grace Darling.

MaG: Grace Darling.  I’d never been there, I’d never been further north than Whitby and it was quite a …a completely different sort of life from the one I knew.  It was really a family series.  I regarded it as very much like the Rogue Herries novels.  It was the same sort of attraction, an area that I didn’t know, that sounded wild and romantic and an area I wanted to go to, in which the family lived and I wanted to know …. They were a bit like soap operas, I suspect, but as there weren’t soap operas … apart from Mrs Dale’s Diary  which I found a big yawn, but these were much more fascinating.  You asked who Leo Walmsley was…and the novels were set there.  I guess he’s dropped out of publication altogether now but he was certainly an easy lead-in because life doesn’t make it possible to spend the long stretches that you need to read something with more meat to it.  You could start at the beginning of the meal, put it on one side when you got called, take it up again later, when you got chased to wash up put it down …That’s the sort of life.  Reading was what you did when you didn’t have to do something else or when you could get away with it and it was a bit of a pick-up and put-down and something lighter was much easier.

MKG: How would you describe Warwick Deeping and the kind of pleasure you got from that?

MaG: I don’t remember his books as well.  He was very much for me an author around … Compared with Leo Walmsley and Hugh Walpole.  To be honest I can’t remember the stories in the same way that I can those, but I just do remember he was one. Having found him in the Ws I realised he was misplaced and went back and found some more in the Ds but you know how you read some that .. .It was an easy read.

MKG: Sorrell and Son.

MaG: Yes, I think I thought he was a little bit like Arnold Bennett. We heard on the radio – I must have been quite young because it was before we moved house – I think it was a dramatisation on Sunday nights of Anna of the Five Towns and The Card so I got quite interested in them and read them, and I thought Warwick Deeping was an inferior author to Arnold Bennett. [laughs]  You make value judgements at young ages and you’re relived afterwards that you haven’t got it hopelessly wrong, and I think that those novels blended in with some of the Bennett Five Towns novels.  I know they’re set completely differently.  And it’s why I found Sons and Lovers which followed on, for me, from that sort of family saga which I must have got into, and so I got into D H Lawrence very young, so young that I had no idea what I was reading.  The sex scenes went right over my head.  In fact somebody lent me a forbidden copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.  I could only have been about fourteen.  Somebody got it from her sister who was much older and I didn’t notice why it should be banned, I couldn’t understand! [Laughs]  And I look back now and think how could I possibly not have noticed what that was all about.  So I must have been very into family sagas.  It was the same time I was reading Arthur Ransome because somebody I knew at school was going to the Lake District and I’d just read Wordsworth for the first time and thought that this was … most people went to Scarborough, they didn’t go to the Lake District for a holiday and it seemed to me very sophisticated, something to aspire to, and having read the Rogue Herries series as well I then devoured Arthur Ransome, long after, and I never went to the Lakes until I was twenty but it was always somewhere I wanted to go and these books sort of prepared me.  So those were the sort of things I read.

MKG: What’s interesting is that there’s a wonderful mix of children’s and adult fiction. You didn’t seem to discriminate.

MaG: Oh, I was very undiscriminating [laughs] and probably if I’d found an Enid Blyton lying around that I hadn’t read, I’d be reading that at the same time. I didn’t read a lot of poetry and that I noticed when I was studying. When I was forced to, I would find poems that I would spend ages reading but I wouldn’t readily pick up a poem and read a poem. It was only because I had to that I would read the poetry and I might then go on but I wouldn’t readily pick up. I would read plays and I had a long period … Penguin used to publish modern plays and I read quite a lot of plays. I read masses. If you look there, I just ticked where I know I read. I think I knew I ought to read famous names so I worked my way through Dickens. I got into … the same uncle gave me his, or his son’s copy of Lamb’s Tales of Shakespeare [sic] so I read some of the plays, the ones that I liked the story of in the Lamb’s Tale, I would read the play.  You may not understand all the language but if you read fast you can get an awful lot of the story and I just read them for the stories.

MKG: You must have been a very fast reader, Mavis.

MaG: I think I did read fast.  I think they discovered … they call it speed reading but I did read quite fast.  Probably faster than I do now because I don’t spend as long reading as I did, I mean, a child is awake from 7 o’clock until perhaps 9 o’clock and school only fills a certain number of hours and all the things kids have now … there was no television and the radio was … for much of my childhood it was war, it seemed to  be war and comedy shows which were over my head and the odd play and that was it.  I didn’t like most of the music which was on the television or on the radio.  I don’t know if there was a Third Programme but certainly my parents wouldn’t have listened to it.  So what else was there?  I knitted, I sewed and I read.  And I played out.  In the summer, my reading would drop to one or two books a week. In the winter it would be ten.  I would go to the library three times a week when it was three books, and when it was five I would still manage two days: that was it.  I don’t have as good a memory of what I read. I got badly caught out in my finals with a throw-away comment about Arnold Bennett based on something I’d read when I was about eleven or twelve and I thought afterwards “That was based on the judgement of a young child” and I wondered how stupid that comment was, so I thought I’d better read this wretched book again –  I’d probably never read it, I can’t remember now which book – and I thought, just in case I get viva-ed  I think I’d better make sure I can argue this point.  So I read the book and, yes, I had made a … oh, it was so general, it wasn’t awful but it was the sort of thing, giving no examples, no detail, the sort of throw-away remark I know I’ll be picked up on.  I thought, all these clever people, they’re sure to pick up on that, I won’t get viva-ed but never mind, I’ll read it.  And I did, and I was so relieved, I did get asked about it and I thought, Arnold Bennett, you could have tripped me up. It was my own fault.

MKG: But Mavis when you went to Leeds University didn’t you find you’d read a lot more than the people who’d gone up to read English?

MaG: No, there were some people who were much better read than me in areas I hadn’t explored at all, particularly in poetry.  I got completely floored with the first exam I ever took, just an internal exam the first Christmas. It was a good job it was Christmas because it alerted me to my deficiencies. It was about pastoral poetry, and I had never even heard of the metaphysicals. You think, how can you possibly have gone through eleven years –or however many, twelve or thirteen – of your education and never, ever, have come across metaphysical poetry. It was only when two were in front of me and I struggled to express what I thought of that kind of poetry. And there were people for whom it was second nature. They had read so much in that period and I realised that I had very large gaps which was a good thing to know.

MKG: Going back to your schooldays, you got a scholarship, you were one of the top 25 in the 11-plus cohort, which meant you got a scholarship to the Girls’ High School.  When you got to the Girls’ High School did you find other young people that you discussed books with, or shared books with?

MaG: Not until I was older. I was too busy playing with them to talk about books.  Books were what you did when you hadn’t got anybody to play with or anything else to do, I’m ashamed to admit.  It was an enjoyable pastime.  So no … we would recommend things to each other but nobody used to go to the library in town.  I think that a lot of the girls would have books at home.  They didn’t seem to read what I read.  There was one girl who did and we would talk about books.  She wasn’t a particular friend – she wasn’t in the same crowd of friends that I was – but we did talk about books and sometimes she would recommend things that I hadn’t read.  She was much more….she was a poet herself.  Funnily enough there was a little girl who used to read a lot who was on my dinner table when I was a third year – (mutters) I’m trying to translate – and she was a first year.  She used to read quite widely for a little girl, I thought, and we used to play making up stories at the table, to while away the time when you’d eaten the first course and had got to wait till everybody finished to go and get the second, and you’d tell a story and stop, and the next one…..And it was Margaret Drabble [laughs]. I’ve often thought, my goodness, no wonder she was a good storyteller, good at that game!  But she left the High School, probably at second year. She and her sister went……I knew her sister only through games. Her older sister was quite good at sport and beat me in tennis once. Didn’t like her, because she beat me. However, that’s nothing to do with the topic.  On the whole not, until we got quite old – about fourteen, fifteen, I suppose, or more – and then we started writing things, a school newspaper every so often and I was involved with that and I got some new girls from other firms, slightly older, and younger, and we would talk about things.  But then I sort of chummed up in the sixth form. I had briefly a boy friend who used to, he worked for the local newspaper.  One of his jobs – he was only about eighteen – he got sent out to review all these amateur dramatics and we discovered that if instead of going to three in one night I did one of them for him it gave us an extra few hours until I got caught whereupon they said “Well, you might as well do this” and they paid me a pittance to go and review the amateur dramatics.  I kept very quiet about that because my mother, working at John Lewis, had asked if I could have a Saturday job and I got one, and my school had to give its permission and they declined to give permission, on the grounds that I wasn’t a very hard-working person.  So they thought it would be bad for me.  I thought , if they knew I was going off reviewing amateur dramatics at night, and writing the … All you really had to do was to make sure you got the right spelling of who was playing what.  It was simply to get the names in the paper and you had to say something that would make it sound interesting, even if it wasn’t.  I saw bits of most plays, never saw the lot [laughing].  So I used to read quite a lot of plays and went to the plays, to the Playhouse – had Patrick McGuigan – is that how you pronounce it? – McGoohan, The Prisoner. As a very young man he was the juvenile, so we went to the Playhouse a lot.  I’m not sure it was so much to see the play but to see Patrick  McGoohan. You know The Prisoner series, the one that’s set in Portmeirion, he went on to higher things from the Playhouse, and that was one of them. So my literary … I was going to be a journalist, that was definitely … It was only when I worked on the union news at Leeds that I realised I could walk through a street of confetti and not realise there was a wedding on! I lacked a certain basic quality that journalists rather need [laughs].  I’d have made a good sub-editor but you have to do other things first.  So I went into teaching instead.

MKG: And where did you start teaching?

MaG: I started at a school which was then a very small private school in Harewood, just outside Leeds, near Harewood Hall, but I decided I didn’t really want to stay in the private sector. I saw the plusses – the classes were small classes, that was brilliant – but I was some minuses as well, and I was just about to take up a job in Bradford when Richard got a job in Carlisle so I moved up and taught for two to three years in the High School here.

MKG: When you were teaching, did you find that your colleagues influenced your reading at all?

MaG: Yes.  I think you find that you get set a little in the past, even if the past, if you’re 21 or 22, is only the last five years.  They would say what they had read, that had just been published.  Someone then lead me on to Iris Murdoch, someone else read Lucky Jim but I hadn’t followed through what Kingsley Amis had written.  That’s just what comes to mind. The head of English, she was an older lady and she had teenage children; she was also an avid reader and she would sometimes pick up on her children’s choice of reading which was modern fiction.  She would lend me what she thought I would like, that she’d enjoyed that she’d picked up from what her children had chosen.

MKG: As an English teacher, how did you foster your pupils’ reading?

MaG: Even in the days when … I tried not to do too much reading aloud in class on the grounds that if it’s an interesting book you don’t want to sit and read it for the next three months, you want to finish it that night.  So I used to teach quite differently.  We would do a little reading aloud but only after they’d had a chance to take the book home, read it at home and prepare a section of it, and we’d act bits out but using the text. I’d let them split into groups, take a section and sell it to the rest of the class. Or choose a group, when we were going to do a different book, and let them take it away and read it and choose the big taster and let the rest of the class watch them put it across in whatever way they chose, acting it, doing dramatised reading, whatever.  I was in FE for about 12 years, and when I came back to school I was quite horrified that people, instead of being given books –“that is your textbook” – they were handed out at the beginning and then were collected in.  But I thought we were always losing them anyway.  Why not issue them to the kids, with a number, and if they don’t produce the book with that number in at the end, send the bill home and hope.  We didn’t lose any more so I used to make sure the kids always had their own copy and carried on.  It seemed to work well quite low down the ability range.  I was quite surprised by how children, if you made what was for them the right choice – it may not have been very literary – if you got them going, they’d take it home and read it.  Then you could get them some more.  I used to run book clubs at school where I got remaindered books and sold them.  We kept a bookshop as well as the library so that they could come and buy them very cheaply. We weren’t intending to make a profit at all.  It was just so they could keep … The school I taught at in the Manchester area, in Kersley, was very much a working class area.  I was afraid quite a lot of them might leave school moderately literate, but only moderately, and after ten years away from school might well not be able to read at all.  So anything that got them reading … I must have done that for years.

MKG:     So there was nothing you would dissuade your students from reading?

MaG: I wasn’t so keen on the books that were … How can I describe them?  They’ve died now. You read a book and you made a decision and then you turned to a different section.  I wasn’t too keen on those books because I thought they didn’t get a terribly coherent story out of it.  And you got zilch characterisation. But if that was all they’d read, I’d rather they read that than nothing. I did hope with the coming of texting, that that would maintain the semi-literate’s ability to stay in the land of the literate, but I’m not sure.  People say it doesn’t but who knows?

MKG: Going back to your early adulthood, was there anything that you would be ashamed to be seen reading, was there any sense that occasionally you read things that you might have been embarrassed to own that you’d read?

MaG: Probably the odd magazine.  I wouldn’t have read the Woman’s Own on the bus while wearing my High School uniform [laughs] but I would on the train going to my auntie’s in the school holidays.  I don’t think it occurred to me really, though, that there were things that you shouldn’t be seen reading until I went for an interview at Leeds.  It’s only an hour’s journey even then and my mother, that’s the one thing she would read was Readers’ Digest.  So I bought a Readers’ Digest. Interviewer “what did you read on the train?”  So I said “Readers’ Digest” and I saw this expression and I thought “Ah” and I explained about my mother who wasn’t a reader but she did enjoy the Readers’ Digest  and I explained to be honest I had never been on a train before and I was on a stopping train as the most suitable one and I didn’t want to get into a book because the train didn’t stop until it reached the Scottish border and if I got into a book I might not have got off until I reached the Scottish border, and I thought “I hope I’ve got out of that one all right”.  After that I was aware that there were things you didn’t own up to but apart from magazines I don’t think it would have ever occurred to me.  I wasn’t the most perceptive young person, I’m afraid.

MKG: You read whatever you could.

MaG: Mm, mm.  But I was aware … I did find if I read certain things I would get sick of it.  I’d need some decent meat so when a teacher said “Have you read any Thackeray?” we’d read The Rose and the Ring.  She said “Have you read anything else?”  I said “No”.  “Well you should try it.”  I found that satisfying.  Another teacher said she thought I would enjoy Trollope and so I did, and probably at the same time I was reading goodness knows.  If went to my auntie’s I’d pick up her magazines.  What was it?  The People’s Friend.  [laughs] And I would be as engrossed in The People’s Friend, I’m ashamed to say.  I was a bit omnivorous and unselective.

MKG: You didn’t by any chance keep a reading diary, a list of …, did you?

MaG: I did have a period when I did.  It was never required of us at school and I kept one, it would probably be in my later teens – 14, 15, 16, 17, but I read a bit fast and I got fed up with keeping it.  I’m the sort of person whose annual diary tends to stop about March and I was a bit like that with the reading diary.  My husband kept one up for some years and I would add to it but only because he was doing it and I would only write up the ones I thought were really good.   I might have a fallow period when I didn’t think much of anything I was reading.  I wouldn’t write it up if I didn’t think it was … I don’t know why.

MKG: Talking about fallow periods, was there any period in your life when there just wasn’t time for reading?

MaG: When my children were small and we moved to Harlow in Essex where there was a reasonable library but it was only reasonable.  It had started with the new town so there weren’t books from decades before still in decent condition on the shelves and I did find that I’d go and think “Oh gosh! What can I read, and there’s nothing here?”  You need time to go and two small children, as I had down there, you’re just browsing and you have to break off to go and deal with one or the other.  So, yes, I didn’t read as much in Harlow.

MKG: And when do you think you stopped relying chiefly on the library and started to buy books?

MaG: When I got married Richard had … his mother thought the library was for the “ordinary” people and she used the Boots Subscription because she didn’t like dirty books which had me in stitches the first time I heard it.  We had different meanings for “dirty books”. [laughs]  So he’d always been used to buying books and he continued to buy books more and meeting other people who also read widely, there were an awful lot of people to pass books to.  We’d pass books around each other so I did buy more.  I am trying to think, when did I stop going to the library as a matter of course.  I don’t think I did it when we were in Bradford.  The children had a library next to the school – it just happened the buildings were… – and the children were allowed to go in school time.  If they’d read through their class library they were just told to go next door and they went.  Those were the days when children didn’t have to have four pairs of eyes on them just to open the gate and go onto the pavement and then another gate and go off the pavement. So the children took themselves to the library.  They were then – what? – I suppose five, and seven or eight, and they went to school on their own so they did their own library-ing.  They changed their own library books as and when, as I had done when I was a child, so it seemed quite normal to me.  There wasn’t much in the adult section.  Because it had a school next door it was very heavily weighted on children’s books.  Going into town, the main library in town, it was a bit of an expedition.  I think I didn’t read so much then, and when we moved to Bolton I went back to the libraries because it was further away and a different direction from home and school.  The youngest child, our daughter, although she could  to school on her own I did think that crossing a main A-class road just to go to the library was a bit much and I used to go with her.  Obviously the boys took themselves anyway – they were about seven and ten when we moved there and moderately safe – so they took themselves to the library just as before.  But I took her and started using books there.   [A coal lorry, is it a coal lorry?  No, a skip lorry.]

MKG: Just one thing, Mavis, when you swapped your books with your friends what period in your life was that?

MaG: I would say probably when I was an adult and probably in the upper forms at school, fourth and fifth year.  Fourth, fifth and lower sixth, when we were working doing things with the school newspaper – it wasn’t a magazine,  a formal magazine – the newspaper.  I would say that would be 15 to 17.  It wasn’t with people in my class.   There was one girl – she read English at Oxford afterwards – she used to swap books with me, probably from about 14 onwards.  But as a general thing it was done, and probably I swap books now as much as anything but that’s because I read my own swappees.  As I said, there were five of us on one Kindle ownership and you can get five copies of a book, people can use the same book.  So my son bought his three children, two of who are adults, and his father a Kindle.  Mine’s not on that because I had mine first but those five have back copies of probably a hundred odd books now because every time any one of the five adds a book it’s available to all the others.   That’s not a thing that they advertise.  Some authors limit it and say you can only have three so it’s the first three to get to it.  I pinch my husband’s and let him have mine on occasions because I don’t have access to these.  I swap with my daughter who doesn’t have a Kindle as well: she lives nearby.  My eldest granddaughter, the one that’s a doctor, she’s a reader too from her days when she wasn’t a doctor and science-based but history and English-based.   We tend to have, if not similar tastes, sufficiently similar for it to be things you wouldn’t have chosen yourself but when you pick it up and read it you think “Ah”.  What have I got up there?  Titanic Lives.  My daughter bought it for me for Christmas and she confessed “I only bought it for you because I want to read it” but I was particularly interested in it.  She knew I’d been interested in Titanic long…ooh, thirty, forty years ago I got interested for various reasons, and my granddaughter came and said “Ooh, can I have that after you?” and I said “No, but you can have it after your aunt”.  So there’s quite a … five or six of us.

MKG: I’m interested you mention the Kindle because I’ve just got one and it’s great fun.  Do you find that it’s changed your reading habits in any way?

MaG: No.  I look for what I want.  Sometimes I don’t find it. It does mean that occasionally I’ll buy books…. I still tend, if something looks as if it will be of real interest I still tend to buy a book, specially if I can get it when it’s just published.  I don’t go for first editions but between us we have acquired quite a lot.  One of these bookcases here, two shelves; not that many.  But over fifty, sixty years you do acquire some first editions and if I think this looks like an author I might go and get it on the Kindle.  If it’s something that meets my criteria for longevity I will perhaps buy the book.  I might lend it out but I make sure I keep the dustcover and then I keep I … We have a grandson who’s very interested in…he’s quite a bibliophile and he has bought second-hand first editions.  When he had a bit of money he’d spend it on books.  He only buys books where he’s interested in the topic but he’ll also look when it was published:  might make something someday, might not.  Some you win, some you lose.

MKG: Just one last question, Mavis, unless there’s anything else you want to say.  Do you think there’s one book where you remember thinking “This is important to me, this has changed the way I think about something”?

MaG: Sons and Lovers.  It both led me on to a different level of adult fiction even if I didn’t always pick up on the nuances but as I did pick up the nuances I think it made me see how people adapt, grow up, fall in and out of love – I think it went along with my development at the right age.

MKG: Which was …?

MaG: When I reread it, I would say fourteen, something like that.

MKG: Did its appeal to you rely at all on the fact that it was about a world that your father worked in?

MaG: Not at all, because it isn’t. In a way, the miners in the family had moved up from the miners of Lawrence, from his father’s.  My uncles that were in the mine, the deputies, were mining engineers.  One of them, my mother’s elder brother, he started off as a miner but he went to the Tech, as you say in Sheffield, he took an AMIMechE, he went to South Africa and worked as a mining engineer there. Then he went to lecturing at Witwatersrand, the university there, so I never really registered in a way – they may have been miners but they weren’t the sort of miners who went to the pit baths; didn’t come home and go in the tin bath, so to speak.  So I don’t think the background … it was not unfamiliar, I knew the area, but not like the Sitwells.  I read that all the time, knowing Renishaw thinking “I bet they didn’t pull him in for going over thirty miles an hour round that corner: he got off!” [laughs] Last time I went round that corner, I never did get caught, but it catches you out.  If you’re ever driving to Clumber on the road between Handsworth, watch out: there’s a hill, and it’s round a corner and they wait round the corner to catch you.

MKG:  But not for the Sitwells.

MaG: It’s just round the corner form the Sitwell’s house: I bet they never got them.

MKG: Somebody told me that the dialect in Lady Chatterley’s Lover is very much based on that around Renishaw.

MaG: Yes, I can quite believe it.  I don’t suppose it would seem odd to me because it would just be normal which is why it didn’t register … I mean, I thought his father was very weird.  No wonder she turned out like that.  I would if I had a father like that. But there was sufficient similarities to me for it to be … Yorkshire bloody-mindedness writ large.  But I don’t think I identified at all with his … the aspirations which happened in our family, in a way, and I didn’t see him as being of the same generation as my uncle, which he would have been, and I thought it seemed very contemporary.  I was aware it was pre-World War I but it didn’t seem unduly different from contemporary life.  People read it now and hear about pit baths and baths in front of the fire, the lifestyle and, of course, it’s totally alien, but it wasn’t then.  So it was sufficiently familiar for me not to be brought up short by anything.  Not in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, apparently [laughs].  How I could have read it, I could not understand why it was banned, and it was very strange, I did get asked by the chap who was the Reader at Leeds if I would like to work as his researcher, and I’d get a higher degree out of it if I wanted, because I did Italian at university and he was working on a book on Henry James and wanted somebody to go and do some ferreting.  But I was getting married, so I regretfully had to turn it down.  But he was one of the persons who gave evidence in the Lady Chatterley trial and I thought “I bet I’d have been working on that” if I’d done the stint in Rome.  Who passes up on a stint in Rome?  The things you do for love! [laughs]

MKG: Well, Mavis, thank you so much, it’s been absolutely fascinating and If you want to write to me and add anything I can put it into the transcript as an addendum. So thanks very much.

MaG: You’ve asked such a lot and I’ve probably said such a lot. Erica said you’re very much linked with libraries. They were so important as I was growing up.  There’s no way … Books were so expensive.  Knowing you were coming, my grandson acquired quite a few of my books and I went to have a look at the price of one which had been one of my favourite childhood books and it became his.  I looked at the price on the dust jacket – 7s 6d.   I thought I’d done well to earn £5 a week when I was a teenager, doing the job that other people did.  My stints at reviewing, I got a pound for doing it. 7s 6d for a book – there’s no way without libraries that I’d have been able to have a fraction … I was getting books a week …

MKG: So your life was changed by those libraries.

MaG: Oh, completely. If the school hadn’t taken us, and they didn’t just trek us down to the baths every week for four years.  They took us all to the library: they got us all to get library tickets, they sent us all home with a form for our parents to sign and they carried on taking us for maybe the best part of half a term.  We seemed to do the walk quite often.  And those were the days when they could say “Right, you can go home when you’ve finished”.  And some kids would pick a book, rush to the desk, get it stamped, and they’d got an extra quarter of an hour.  Others would – sometimes I’d stay there for an hour.  You just went home from the library.  But to keep it up long enough for it to become familiar to us.  And our parents thought nothing of it.  I wasn’t the only one: occasionally I’d bump into other people who just used to use it as spare time.  You could walk there from school – it was two sides of a triangle to go home – it was for many of the children.

MKG: Did you actually do your reading in the library quite often?

MaG: Oh yes.  When I was at the High School they didn’t have lessons for the first two years on Friday afternoon – it was games afternoon for the older pupils but the first years got to go home.  Well, there wasn’t anybody at home because my mother was working and I would often mooch around town.  I would sometimes go and play with friends but I would say probably two weeks out of five I would spend the whole afternoon in the library.  From probably the fourth year onwards I would work in the library about three nights a week and take some tea with me.  The school dinners were pretty good by then so you could eat your proper meal at lunchtime and I would take some tea with me and I would go straight from school and work there, have my sandwiches as and when.  There were a group of people who did it: we bumped into people, students, people from other schools, and we might go if we were feeling flush for coffee to one of those cafes, mooch round the Art Gallery if you were still conversational and then go back again.  It didn’t shut till 9, every night.  I’d often go home before 9 or I’d go straight out, bundle the skirt in the satchel, get out the skirt that you hoped you’d not creased and go out for the evening.  I was finished by 8 o’clock whereas if I had to go home, have my tea, get my homework done, get back into town; impossible.

MKG: You sounded as though you had a lot of freedom.

MaG: Yes I did. I hate it when I see my grandchildren having so little freedom.  I just can’t believe that … My granddaughter swore that there is no bus.  But I said “But there’s bus-stops”.  They’ve lived there all her life.  I said, “Well, they don’t leave bus-stops there for 16 years if there aren’t buses. So, go on, you’re always telling me how easy, Google it.”  “Oh yes,” she said, “there’s a bus at 10 past 10 and 10 past 11 and 10 past 12 but there isn’t another one until 10 past 4.”  So off I went on the bus.  That lack of freedom.  Everywhere she has to go she has to be taken by her mother, I think.  Not my idea of a way of life.  But I think all children … Were shades of the prison house beginning to etc?

MKG: Well, I won’t talk about it on this tape because I grew up in Burma….

MaG: Oh, I’m sorry, I hadn’t realised it was still on.

MKG: I’ll end up now.  Thank you very much, that’s wonderful.

Mavis's copy of Wordsworth

Mavis’s copy of Wordsworth




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Romer Wilson: Remembering Sheffield’s Forgotten Novelist

Part One

By Val Hewson

The writer Romer Wilson, born in Sheffield in 1891, is now almost forgotten. Her name appears in a few databases and blogs, and she has brief Dictionary of National Biography and Wikipedia entries. A novelist who also wrote short stories, verse and a play, and an anthologist of tales for children, she was generally well regarded in her lifetime. She seems, however, to have received almost no critical attention since her early death in 1930. We found her, by chance, through her father, Arnold Muir Wilson (1857-1909), whose name came up in our research into Sheffield Libraries.

Our sister project, Reading 1900-1950, has posted an article about Romer Wilson’s novel, Latterday Symphony (Nonesuch Press, London, 1927), here. We are researching her life, and while there is much to discover, we know enough to offer a good introduction to Sheffield’s forgotten novelist.    

The first thing to know is that ‘Romer Wilson’ is not her name. On official records, Romer Wilson is Florence Roma Muir Wilson, eldest child of Arnold and Amy Letitia Muir Wilson. On her marriage, she became Florence Roma Muir O’Brien. According to correspondence archived at Girton College, Cambridge, her friends called her, not Florence, a popular name of the time, but Roma. Why Roma we cannot know, but it is interesting that her parents visited Rome on their honeymoon. Romer and Roma, invented and real, pen-name and given name. Perhaps Roma felt that Romer, which could so easily be a man’s name, would be an advantage in her career. (Indeed, critics did occasionally assume that they were reviewing the work of a man.)

Parkholme, 30 Collegiate Crescent, Sheffield, where Romer Wilson was born

‘A dark old manor house on the edge of the moors just outside Sheffield’ was Romer Wilson’s home for most of her childhood, until it was sold on the death of her father in 1909.[i] This was Whiteley Wood Hall, a 17th century house with Victorian additions, stables and extensive grounds, in Fulwood, a suburb in south-west Sheffield. Romer was born on Saturday 26 December 1891 in Parkholme, a much smaller suburban villa in Collegiate Crescent, in the desirable Broomhall area just outside the town centre.[ii] Her father, on the way up in the world, bought the Hall in 1893, when she was about two years old, for somewhere between £7,000 and £9,000 (a sum beyond the imaginings of most Sheffield residents at the time). The Hall had important historical associations: Thomas Boulsover (1705 – 1788), the inventor of Sheffield Plate, and Samuel Plimsoll MP (1824 – 1898), famous for the Plimsoll line on ships, had both lived there. The house was demolished in 1959, with the grounds and outbuildings becoming a Girlguiding outdoor activity centre. Today all around is park and common land, well-used and easily accessible. Its relative remoteness in Romer’s day perhaps contributed to her depictions of wild, even hostile moorland in her books, Greenlow (Collins, London, 1927) and All Alone: The Life and Private History of Emily Jane Bronte (Chatto & Windus, London, 1928), from where this quotation comes:

West and north and south the moors hang above the West Riding of Yorkshire. They rise up bleak and black and brooding, a thousand feet, two thousand feet above the valleys. Empty and silent, without trees or lakes, without wide rivers, without grand impressive mountains, they roll away from this world.

All Alone (Introduction to Haworth – A Journey from To-Day)

Whiteley Wood Hall, Common Lane, built 1662 by Alexandra Ashton, demolished 1959. Stood in its own woods, commanding a view over the Porter Valley. Home of Thomas Boulsover, inventor of Sheffield Plate, who died here in 1788, and Samuel Plimsoll
Whiteley Wood Hall, Common Lane, Fulwood, Sheffield. Image courtesy of Picture Sheffield ( Ref no: y01697

Dark, remote and ancient Whiteley Wood Hall may have been, but Romer and her younger sister Natalie (born in 1893) and brother Leslie (born in 1899) had a privileged childhood. There were servants, parties and fetes, holidays abroad, chauffeur-driven motor cars, outings to the theatre, music lessons and private education.    

This comfortable life was due to the efforts of her father, Arnold Muir Wilson. A remarkably frank obituary said of him:

… at all times a theatrical personality. … Self-made, frank almost to the point of brutal bluntness to friend and foe, assertive and dauntless, relentless as a sleuthhound in business, with a boundless capacity for work and an astonishing capacity for turning unlikely circumstances to his own advantage. … a want of self-control, an almost reckless impulsiveness of action and a disregard … for the feelings of others. … one could never definitely conclude that Mr Muir Wilson had any clear creed or abstract principle, or that he was seriously in earnest … gossipy … in private he was a good fellow and an entertaining companion …

Sheffield Daily Telegraph, Monday 4 October 1909
Councillor Arnold Muir Wilson (1857-1909)
Arnold Muir Wilson. Image courtesy of Picture Sheffield ( Ref. no. y08151.

Wilson was in many ways the classic Victorian success story. He was a prominent solicitor and a Conservative councillor for over 20 years, with Parliamentary ambitions. He had started in trade, helping out as a child in his father’s barber shop on Snig Hill in the town centre. The Wilsons evidently prospered, opening various new businesses, and in time Wilson switched from trade to profession, thus rising up a social class or two. We know little of his education (other than a period in Germany), but his professional training was through Clifford’s Inn, where he won prizes.[iii] He opened his own law firm and was much in demand. He had business interests too, owning property, land and a share in Sheffield’s newest theatre, the Lyceum. He even contrived an appointment as honorary consul for Serbia in 1898, which presumably appealed to both his vanity and his eye for an opportunity.

Around 1906, however, Wilson fell ill, consulting a ‘brain specialist’. His illness seemed to exacerbate an already volatile character. He attacked a magistrate in court, for which he had to issue a public apology. When a by-election was called in Attercliffe in 1909, dismayed not to be chosen as the Conservative candidate, he stood as an independent but lost and promptly took the official Conservative candidate to court, alleging assault and damage. The case was dismissed. After this, Wilson’s health declined further, and he went abroad, saying he would never return alive. He was right: he had a complete breakdown in Vancouver and died soon after in hospital. His body was brought back to Sheffield and quietly buried in the General Cemetery. ‘Never, probably, was a man who had played so prominent a part in public life buried in so private a manner,’ said the Sheffield Daily Telegraph (Monday 25 October 1909). He left almost £50,000, mostly in trust for his family, and instructed that his property, including Whiteley Wood Hall, be sold. His wife and children evidently moved to a smaller property nearby.   

Around this time, Romer was coming to the end of her schooldays. She had been privately educated until she was 15, when she was sent to West Heath, a boarding school in Richmond on Thames, for four years.[iv] After that, in 1911 she went up to Girton College, Cambridge to read law.[v] Socially this was apparently a happy time, with Romer making many friends including the economic historian, Eileen Power (1889 – 1940), social reformer Margery Spring Rice (1887 – 1970) and the novelist Emily (‘Topsy’) Coursolles Jones (1883 – 1966), who seems as forgotten as Romer herself. Academically, she was less happy: she spoke of ‘considerable boredom’ and passed her exams ‘with mediocre honours’ in 1914. A tutor suggested she do some writing, and she started by producing ‘rubbish for a typewritten private magazine’.

This then was the beginning of Romer Wilson’s literary career. There’s a suggestion of the accidental about it: a young woman doing a little writing to occupy her time in between social activities. She did not need to work after all. Or did the tutor’s suggestion accord with a wish of her own? At all events, she was soon working feverishly on a novel, against the background of war.

Part Two of Romer Wilson’s story will follow shortly.

[i] Quoted, but not attributed, in the entry on Romer Wilson in the Dictionary of National Biography.  

[ii] Parkholme, 30 Collegiate Crescent, is now owned by Sheffield Hallam University.

[iii] Clifford’s Inn was one of the Inns of Chancery to which all solicitors belonged before the 20th century.

[iv] A more famous pupil, many years later, was Lady Diana Spencer.

[v] Law was an interesting choice. Was it a tribute to her father? No woman was allowed to practise law in the UK until the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act 1919, five years after Romer finished her university course.

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