Shirley Ellins’ Reading Journey

One of Shirley’s first memories of books begins at floor level – with the small, wooden bookshelf in the dining room which contained her mother’s library books.  There were just 4 or 5 novels, whose titles she spelled out when she had learned to read (before she was 6 in 1942), but whose contents she ignored.  These library books ‘came and went’, and Shirley didn’t open them.  Much more to her taste was The House at Pooh Corner which she remembers – again from the floor – where she fell, helpless with laughter, from her miniature chair as her mother read to her.

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But there are many bookshelves in Shirley’s reading journey.  The three shelves of the bookcase in the family living room contained books belonging to both her parents, ‘our personal books’, some of which she read – reference works like Arthur Mee’s Thousand Heroes, biography like Robert Southey’s Life of Nelson, Charles Kingsley’s Water-Babies, her mother’s complete Shakespeare, won from Crookesmoor School for ‘Progress’, and her parents’ tune books from the Methodist church.  As she grew older, her own books – given to her by family and friends at birthdays and Christmas – were added to these shelves, for reading was a downstairs activity, not allowed in her bedroom, which was for sleeping – ‘lights off’.

‘Half a recollection of a bookshelf in a classroom’ in Shirley’s junior school reveals The Pigeons of Leyden, a historical novel about the siege of Leiden, a book which inspired her at a very young age to become a history teacher.  Then there were trips every Saturday by the ‘ladies of the household’ – Shirley, her mother and grandmother – to Sheffield’s Central Library, where the children’s and adult libraries provided Shirley with shelves of Biggles, Arthur Ransome and John Buchan, and the historical novels of G. K. Henty, D. K. Broster, and the huge output of Baroness Orczy.

At the same time, a whole room of bookshelves gave her pleasure at her secondary school – High Storrs School – where she would go to the school library and ‘sit and read there, a bit for pleasure, before I had to go down to the classroom’.  There she read the Greek myths, and pursued an interest in poetry, Kipling in particular.   Her taste was shaped by exposure to the school’s set texts, some of which she ‘mercifully seem[s] to have forgotten’, while some, like Paradise Lost, offered her rewards she would have missed had they not been required reading.  But also chance played its part in moulding her preferences – catching chicken pox, for example, meant she had the leisure to read ‘the whole of Jane Austen, one after the other, to take my mind off the itching’.

At Bedford College, where Shirley read History, she managed to keep borrowing novels from the library and buying poetry – Donne, Kipling and Betjeman were favourites.  And as a teacher of history, she filled her bookshelves with history books, and also history and guidebooks related to the holidays abroad she started to take now she could afford it.

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Later, Shirley’s marriage was ‘a marriage of two minds and the marriage of two libraries too when we got together’.  So her bookshelves, like those of her parents,  continued to tell the story of interests pursued, preferences arrived at, and choices made. And there will be many of her students, in Sheffield and elsewhere, whose own bookshelves now bear the imprint and influence of Shirley’s voracious reading and her generous life as a teacher.

by Loveday Herridge

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