The reading journeys of Pat and Mary

Sisters Mary and Pat were happy to be interviewed for Reading Sheffield by Mary’s daughter, Ruth, although neither wanted to be recorded. The short, verbatim notes Ruth took give a strong sense of the sisters’ personalities and of the importance of books in their lives.

Three sisters in Colwyn Bay, 1946. Pat, aged 20 is on the left, Mary, aged 23, is in the middle and Jean, aged 17, is on the right.

Mary’s journey

Mary was born in the Sheffield suburb of Tinsley on 24 May 1923. She left school at the age of 14 and had a job in a sweetshop until she was about 20. She then worked for the Co-Op, in their offices in Tinsley. Mary was a devout Methodist and, through church, met her husband Jack, who worked on the railways. The couple had two children, David and Ruth. Mary always regretted being unable to continue her education, and did become a mature student, studying for a while at the Open University.

Nobody read to me when I was young. I don’t think it was something people did back then. There were so many jobs to do around the house. My mum took in washing.

The books that made me feel like a grown-up were mainly the classics. I was about 16 or 17 and started to read Jane Austen. I loved Pride and Prejudice and Emma. I also read Charlotte Bronte and Anne and Emily too, but my favourite was Charlotte. I loved Jane Eyre. I also read some Thomas Hardy but got bored with his descriptions sometimes. So, yes, Jane Eyre made a great impression on me, as did Anne of Green Gables. But I can’t for the life of me remember where I got them from. Probably the library but I couldn’t swear to it.

Come to think of it, I think I did get my books from the library and it must have been Tinsley Library. I can’t remember there being many books at school, though there must have been some.

My parents didn’t really value reading. My dad, who was a miner, sometimes read a newspaper. I can’t remember my mother reading at all. I think they were suspicious of books and novels, thinking we’d get ideas above our station or that we were filling our heads with fantasy. Work was what they valued and they didn’t really think education and school were worth much. I passed the exam to go to grammar school but my parents wouldn’t let me go. They thought the uniform was too expensive and, as I was the eldest of three sisters, they said that, if they sent me to grammar school, they would have to pay for my sisters to go too. But, as it happened, neither of them passed the exam for grammar school. I really wish I’d had a better education. I love literature and I’m in a book group now. I’m 88 years old.

I used to read in our living room and everyone told me that, when I was reading, I got totally lost in the story and never heard anyone if they spoke to me. I’d read after work in the evening and in bed too.

I don’t think I had any idea about highbrow or lowbrow until I was in my twenties. Then I thought there were good and bad books. Love stories I thought were bad but then Jane Eyre is a love story and so is Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier and some Georgette Heyer, which I don’t think is highbrow. Maybe the middlebrow section.

I’d re-read all the books I read as a young adult, including the Mary Webb collection I had, but I think they’ve been lost. I loved those books.

Without reading I would probably have gone mad! It’s a cheap but really rewarding pastime. I’ve learnt so much from books and I think it makes you understand the world better.

Gertrude and Ernest, the parents of Mary and Pat

Pat’s journey

Pat was born in Tinsley on 7 April 1926. She was christened Gertrude Ada, but disliked the names and called herself Pat when she was around 20. Her niece Ruth describes her as ‘quiet, beautiful and glamorous’. According to family legend, Pat had several proposals of marriage but declined them all. She stayed at home and was, Ruth says, devoted to her parents and younger sister, Jean.  

Nobody read to me when I was young. Like my sister Mary, I enjoyed the classics. I read Little Women and Jo’s Boys which made me feel that I was an adult, though I’m not sure that they are adult books, are they?

Pat, at her sister Mary’s wedding

I think I got my books from the library and from work. I worked as a wages clerk at Shefftex and me and some of the girls would swap books. I used to enjoy the Dimsie books[i] but I think they were aimed at teenagers though I still enjoy them now. I remember all the Dimsie books and they did affect me. I suppose I wanted to live the life Dimsie lived. It was all so exciting and adventurous.

I always liked historical novels and still do. I go to the library at Greenhill every Monday morning but I’m not in the reading group that Mary’s in. I don’t want to talk about what I’ve read. I might say the wrong thing.

Some of my books came back from Sunday School when I was a child but I can’t remember what the books were. I think they might have been Bible stories. Nobody encouraged me to read and I wasn’t very clever at school but I always read – always. Without reading I don’t know how I would have occupied myself. I knitted and did a bit of sewing but reading has always been my favourite occupation.

I never married and I never had children so I’ve been lucky having had free time to read.

I’ve read everywhere. I used to read at work if it was quiet. Nobody encouraged me to read. I just did. Maybe I copied my older sister Mary. I do watch TV but I read more than I watch TV.

In the years you’re talking about, we had poor lighting really and I was always told that I’d ruin my eyes. When I was younger, we had gas lamps which weren’t very good really.

I particularly liked Georgette Heyer, Mary Webb, Daphne du Maurier and Jean Plaidy but I can’t remember individual titles, apart from the classics. When I see the serializations of the classics, I’m nearly always disappointed. I think it spoils your imagination. You have an idea of what the characters look like and when you see famous actors taking those parts it spoils it for you.

Reading has been very important in my life. When I’ve been fed up, a book has always succeeded in making things seem better.

Many thinks to Ruth for taking these notes.

[i] The Dimsie books, written by Dorita Fairlie Bruce between 1921 and 1941, told the story of Dimsie and her friends at boarding school and at home

Christine’s reading journey

By Sue Roe

Christine was born in 1940 and her reading journey was inevitably influenced by World War Two, though her parents and her choice of career in librarianship were clearly also important factors.

Christine, aged 14, playing snowballs at school

Christine has difficulty remembering her first experiences of reading:

You’ve started with a difficult question here. The first thing I can remember was at school. Things like Enid Blyton and Treasure Island particularly. That was the first thing that caught my eye.

The war meant that fewer books were available. Christine read what and where she could:

I can remember a boyfriend [of Christine’s sister] of the time bringing me one of these annuals – Stories for Girls annuals… I think he was trying to curry favour with my sister. It was just a gift, and it was second-hand!

Clearly even schools seemed short of books:

[At] about eight or nine, I won a school prize. The teacher gave me a book, but it was a second-hand book. It was one of her [Christine’s teacher’s] books. The prize was a second-hand book! So you didn’t buy books then, well, not in my experience.

The prize seems to have been Anne of Green Gables, the children’s classic much loved by many of the Reading Sheffield interviewees. Christine was also reading Enid Blyton (whose books were ‘exciting. Different. A different world’) and books about life in girls’ boarding schools.

Left to myself, I went through the entire Chalet School [series] like a dose of salts. That’s the thing that really comes over to me – the Chalet School books.

It was at this stage that buying books became important, although she didn’t have much pocket money: 

We used to go into Andrews [a Sheffield bookseller] and a treat would be for me to save my pocket money, so I did collect all the earlier Chalet School books. I think I used to take my mum in and she used to help me out. So they were always considered a luxury.

Although he was away in the army for the duration of the war, Christine’s father played an important part in her reading. This was in contrast to her mother whom Christine ‘can’t ever remember … having any direct influence’. Christine still recalls her father’s collection of books:

The only books we owned were in the bookcase that was full of my father’s books and they were of the ‘Great Short Stories’ type: Great Short Stories of the World and Dashiell – Dashiell Hammett… As I grew up, I was encouraged to read them …

After the war, he would:

…push me towards these classics that were in the bookcase: the Wilkie Collins and that type of thing, which probably was a little bit old for my age group… I struggled a bit with some of the classics that my father wanted me to read.

He also encouraged her to enter competitions in the Children’s Newspaper which they had at home:

It was a short story competition and I got an ‘honourable mention’.

When she moved to the grammar school, Christine was able to take advantage of the class library – a cupboard of books such as H G Wells’ Kipps. At this point she started reading war stories:

I used to win prizes as well at school (a real swot!) and … we were always taken to the bookshop and the books I chose I’ve still got them and some were non-fiction and I got The Cruel Sea and C S Forester’s The Good Shepherd and then Best Foot Forward, which is a war story about someone who lost his leg[s] and is a bit like Douglas Bader…

 

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These war stories had a profound effect:

I’m a convinced pacifist. I think war is absolutely stupid … I think he[her father] thought I was a bit of a leftie because by the time I was 18, 19, I’d already joined CND.

Libraries were an important stop on Christine’s reading journey from an early age:

I did start going down to Central Children’s Library but I think I was older, I think it was when I wanted to be independent when I was eleven or twelve.

When she was 16, Christine went to stay with a distant relation who was ‘deputy chief librarian for Tottenham libraries’. He gave her a ‘book list’ and brought books for her to read, including The Crowthers of Bankdam and Marjorie Morningstar. Christine herself started working in libraries around then. This influenced her reading in several ways:

I got hooked on light reading. Certainly Georgette Heyer. I got through all of those and I think Lucilla Andrews, who wrote about doctors and nurses and I got through those as well.

Christine took an Open University course and professional librarian exams over the years, with the support of her employers. This led to her reading particular sorts of books, not always to her taste:

The first professional exam was a four-part thing and one part was Literature, so again I had to read things like Charlotte Bronte. … Again I was pushed into reading certain books. Again it was Victorian novelists. You’ve not got time to do anything else.

[With] the Open University I did the novel course so obviously again I had to plough through Dickens and Hardy.

Her love of books continued after retiring from the library service. She worked part-time in a children’s bookshop and had her favourites there too:

One of my favourites is The Elephant and the Bad Baby. It’s an early Raymond Briggs… [Also]  The Mole Who Knew It Was None of His Business. And Peepo! Again, it’s got a war theme in it. When you see the father, he’s wearing a uniform.

Nowadays Christine enjoys crime rather than war stories:

I go more for the detective solving the crime… It’s trying to work out ‘whodunit’ and get there.

It is amazing Christine managed to fit in so much reading:

Well, because over the years I’ve studied [for] so many different exams and had to be tied in to what they wanted to read and had children. A full-time job; two children and I was studying first for a degree in and then for a master’s, so I hadn’t really got much time.

 

You can read Christine’s full interview or listen to the audio here.

 

Sue’s reading journey

Here is another reading journey from one of the Reading Sheffield team, Sue Roe. 

Reading has been important to me from my earliest memories (I only remember from the age of about eight or nine). I was always a bookworm, always with my nose in a book, though these were almost invariably library books. I don’t remember many books in the house but my dad was interested in reading and used to buy second-hand ones from the ‘Rag & Tag’ open-air market in town and keep them in a small bookcase. I have distinct memories of a book on the Phoenicians – I can’t recall much about the content – just the glossy pages and the pictures. Aesop’s Fables is another one I remember: a yellow hardback with thick pages and rough edges.

One of my first memories of reading is sitting on a stool behind the door in a neighbour’s kitchen, reading comics like Beano and Dandy.  The neighbours had a wholesale newsagent’s in West Bar and didn’t mind me taking advantage of their spare copies.

Park Library

I progressed to Park Library on Duke Street: I used to nip over the waste ground beyond the ‘rec’ at the end of Boundary Road, Wybourn. This brought me out just above the library (where I also learned to swim: Park Baths was on the same site).

What did I read then?

One favourite when I was young was Borrobil by William Croft Dickinson, with its memorable cover.

It was a fairy story with clearly identifiable ‘goodies and baddies’. I have read it again as an adult and still enjoyed it.

I read the Nancy Drew mysteries, as well as Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and her lesser-known Five Find-Outers stories with Fatty – Frederick Algernon Trotteville – as the leader. Fatty was a ventriloquist and master of disguise! Detective novels are still one of my favourite genres – a way to relax. I love a good detective story!

I also had an unlikely fondness for boarding school novels such as the Malory Towers series. I was attracted by the fun and excitement of this other world, though those who have actually been to boarding school are quick to disabuse me.

Anne of Green Gables was a favourite of mine, along with another, less well-known book, A Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton Porter, set in the Limberlost Swamp, in Indiana.

I identified with both books, and especially the latter – its heroine, Elnora, was an awkward outsider, poor and finding it hard to fit in. That’s how I felt, especially when I changed schools at the age of ten, when we moved from Wybourn to Abbeydale Road. I was from a family of eight girls and we were not well-off! This feeling was even more pronounced when I passed the 11+ and went to grammar school.

When we moved, I also changed libraries. I now caught the bus to Highfields – a wonderful library with the children’s section upstairs. How I longed to be flicking through the tickets, stamping the books and filling the shelves. What with homework and reading for pleasure, my mum would often have to shout me downstairs to help with housework.

Highfield Branch Library

I read to escape into another world, a different, more exciting world. I read books set in the nineteenth century, in America: What Katy Did, What Katy Did Next, What Katy Did At School and, obviously, Little Women.

Little Women, the story of four sisters, appealed to me, the fifth of eight girls. Jo was always my favourite – she was a tomboy like Katy, but I couldn’t understand why she didn’t accept Laurie’s proposal or why she married the Professor!

I enjoyed stories from nineteenth century Britain too: I read and probably cried over Black Beauty by Anna Sewell.

Books as prizes

When I moved house at the age of ten, my new friend, Janet, was a Methodist. Every Sunday I went for tea at her house and then to church for the evening service. I also went to Sunday School and took the Scripture exam. To me, learning Bible stories for the exam was just like history, one of my favourite subjects at school. I remember getting 92 per cent and a prize: Mary Jones and Her Bible by Mary Carter.

At grammar school, the prizes given to top pupils for end-of-year exams were books chosen by pupils. I managed a prize twice, in Year 2 when I asked for the Bible and in the sixth form when I chose T S Eliot’s Collected Poems. My tastes had clearly evolved.

Set books

At grammar school, books were read as part of the English syllabus. I have clear memories of Dotheboys Hall, an abridgement of Nicholas Nickleby, which introduced the unforgettable character of Squeers. I cheered along with the boys when he got his thrashing.

Another book we read in class was one set in the South Seas. I had to research on the internet to re-discover this one. It was A Pattern of Islands by Arthur Grimble, set in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands. I wanted to be a missionary for a while after reading it!

The Otterbury Incident, by Cecil Day-Lewis, was another set text but I can’t remember much of the plot. I do recall the drawings, by Edward Ardizzone, whom I encountered again when looking for picture books for my children.

Teenage books

As I got older, I did read some of the classics, often choosing to read several titles by authors like Thomas Hardy or Charles Dickens. Far From the Madding Crowd and A Christmas Carol stick in my mind.

I enjoyed different genres, though I would not have used that word. There was science fiction: I particularly remember John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids, set in a post-apocalyptic world where any type of mutant is killed or banished and telepathy is common. The front cover shows a key moment when a child steps in wet sand and leaves an imprint of a six-toed foot – a clear indication of a mutant!

My father was a big fan of Rider Haggard and would often mention King Solomon’s Mines, both as the book and a film. The 1936 version had Paul Robeson as Umbopa, and Robeson was one of my father’s singing heroes. Unsurprisingly, I read that book, as well as others by Haggard, including She and Allan Quatermain.

I didn’t really discuss my reading with my close friends. An exception was the Molesworth books. I still find them funny and can recall the memorable lines we used to quote to one another: ‘As any fule kno’ (a phrase which regularly pops up in some newspapers), ‘Hello clouds, hello sky’ and of course, with reference to the Head Boy, Grabber Ma, ‘head of the skool captane of everything and winer of the mrs joyful prize for rafia work’. Strange that three girls could enjoy tales of Nigel Molesworth, the ‘curse of St Custard’s’, a boys’ boarding school, but some things are universal: the boredom of (some) lessons, the bullying, the fear of teachers!

I was, and am still, a lover of history, so I did enjoy historical novels. Georgette Heyer’s Regency novels with their period detail especially appealed to me. Anya Seton’s novels were also historical fiction and Katharine was my favourite. The intricacies of royal family trees which emerge in this novel were to appear again when I taught A level History, especially the Wars of the Roses.

Looking back, I can see how crucial public libraries were for me: not just somewhere to do school work, to revise for exams but a doorway to explore other worlds, past and present. This passion has never left me and informed my choice of degree and career. Even after 38 years of history teaching, I still love a good historical novel!

 

By Sue Roe

Without libraries what have we?*

Writing up our own reading journeys has long been the plan for the Reading Sheffield team (here is our web designer Lizz’s reading journey). The threat to libraries across the country brought the task into sharp focus for me.  Libraries have been, and are, my regular staging posts along the road.  It saddens me that so many of them are closing and so many of us will thus find the way harder.

Even before libraries, there were my parents.  My father paused his reading about Newcastle Utd in the Evening Chronicle (well, the news was often bad) to help me spell out letters, then words, from the headlines.  ‘Goal’ was probably one of my first words.  My mother, keen to give me the education she missed, taught me the alphabet – in upper case, which later irritated my teachers.  She helped me grasp narrative early on by telling me stories.  One was about how much she enjoyed ‘reading time’ at school, with Anne of Green Gables and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm her favourite books.

There was a scheme allowing very young children – I was about two years old – to borrow picture books from the local library.  For us this was the Redheugh Branch in Gateshead, an Art Deco building with pale yellow doors, now a recording studio.  We went there as often as I could persuade my mother.  I remember a low table-cum-box, divided into four compartments for the picture books and known apparently as a ‘kinderbox’, with three-legged stools around it.  Table and stools were painted yellow and red.

Redheugh Library

Redheugh Library

Inside Redheugh Library

Inside Redheugh Library

A kinderbox

When I was four, we moved.  It was around then that I started school, and found shelves of books in most classrooms.  The Council was keen on school libraries.  There were Ladybird books, Janet and John and two books which, perhaps because they were the first ‘proper’ stories I ever read, stay with me.  First was Neighbours in the Park, about a girl who lived with her parents in a double-decker bus and made friends with a park-keeper’s daughter.  The park, bus and girls were shown on the green, black and white cover.  Then came The Bittern, which had a pale green or brown cover with, I think, a drawing of a rather mournful, long-haired girl.  I have no idea what The Bittern was about, or who wrote either book, but between them they caught me, and I was never free again.  (If anyone knows these books, I would love to hear of them.)

The nearest library was now Gateshead Central, a Carnegie library.  I had no fear of it, or sense that time reading was time wasted.  It was the first place I was allowed to go to by myself.  In holidays I would go at least every other day and, in term time, on Saturdays and a couple of weekday evenings.  Often my father was persuaded to give me a lift.  ‘You won’t be long now, will you?’

Gateshead Central Library

Gateshead Central Library

To join, I had to read a passage aloud to the children’s librarian, stern in brown tweed suit and knitted jumper.  Her hair was corrugated cardboard.  But, frightening as she was, she had the power to make me free of the books on her shelves, so it was a worthwhile ordeal.  The library was a large room, with high shelves and big, oak reading tables and chairs.  It was perhaps not very child-friendly, though this never struck me then.  It was just the library, where the books were, and I wanted to be.

anne_of_green_gables_-_cover

Here I found Anne of Green Gables and loved it as much as my mother had.  How I adored Gilbert Blythe, in common with Anne and many other readers.  Anne herself was important because we both loved stories and hated geometry, and we shared red hair and the name Anne, although mine lacked the important final ‘e’.  There were also Jo, Meg, Amy, Beth (how I cried!), Katy Carr, Rebecca and Pollyanna, who was too glad to be endured for long.  And I found adventurous children like Nancy Drew, the Bobbsey Twins, the Dana Girls and the Hardy Boys.  My Reading Sheffield colleague Mary Grover points out that these are all from across the Atlantic, and wonders if the library had any American connection.  Not that I know of.

School and ballet stories were important too.  My favourites, which were plentiful in the library, were Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s Chalet School series – I can still name all of Joey Maynard’s eleven children – and Lorna Hill’s Sadler’s Wells books.  I begged for ballet lessons, to no avail, and was reduced to copying the ballet-trained glide of a luckier classmate.  I didn’t read about horses, the other staple for young girls.  A teacher had read Black Beauty aloud, and I was haunted by the cruelty.

What other books stay in my mind?

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, with its brilliant opening, where Lucy meets Mr Tumnus under the lamp-post in the snow.  But I found Aslan disturbing and never managed the other Narnia books.

Any book by E Nesbit.  ‘You’re so funny!’ said the psammead. ‘Have your parents tried boiling you?’

The Changeling of Monte Lucio and other old-fashioned, Ruritanian novels by Violet Needham.  Quests, rebellions, secret societies, castles, mountains – what more could anyone want?

A non-fiction series called The Young …, about the early lives of the famous.  My favourite was The Young Mary Queen of Scots, by Jean Plaidy.  Mary, with Marys Beaton, Seton, Fleming and Livingston, escaped from Scotland to France, where she married the Dauphin.  The book ended with her returning to Scotland, aged about 16 and wearing white mourning for her young husband.

‘Career novels’ like Margaret Becomes a Doctor, in which girls trained for a career but always met a nice young man and gave up their hard-won jobs.  Linked with these for me were two series – American, again – about nurses Cherry Ames and Sue Barton, who had both adventures and principles.  Cherry was unique in never settling for domesticity.

Five Children and It

The Psammead: Five Children and It by E Nesbit

violet-needham

When I was around 13, I’d outgrown the children’s library but was too young for the adult.  Ingeniously, I bullied my parents into joining and then used their tickets, always ready if challenged to say I was just collecting their books.  But no-one ever asked.

Today I belong to Sheffield Library, and Newcastle and Leeds have also known me over the years.  Libraries and I have been together for over 50 years, and we see no reason to split up now.

* The answer?  ‘We have no past and no future.’  So said Ray Bradbury.

The Reading Journey of Florence Cowood

Florence was born in Huddersfield in 1923 and moved to Sheffield when her father got an engineering job there.  Later her parents ran a greengrocer’s shop.  The family lived in the Abbey Lane area; initially she attended a private school and then Abbey Lane Primary when it opened.  She passed the eleven plus examination at the age of 10, and went to Abbeydale Girls’ Grammar School.  At sixteen, after passing the School Certificate in English and Botany, she went to the Commercial College on Psalter Lane.  In 1939 she left school aged 16 and got a job with the LNER, the London and North Eastern Railway.  At the end of the war she married and gave up work.

florence-cowood-wedding-

Florence was always passionate about reading:

In fact, if I was ever naughty and I was sent to my room, my mother always made sure I hadn’t got a book because she knew it was no punishment if I had a book.

One of her earliest recollections is reading one of her grandmother’s books, Little Folks:

home-painting-copy

I read all sorts of bits out of it: school stories, adventure stories, little poems, letters from children who were stationed in India, letters to the editor.

Florence’s family encouraged her reading: her grandfather was a headmaster and bought her the books for grammar school.  Her godmother was a teacher and gave her books for Christmas presents: ‘she once gave me a whole lot of Enid Blyton’.

Her mother also loved reading:

mary-anerly-book

I’ve got some of my mother’s books that she had as a young woman … [Mary] Anerley, two volumes of The Count of Monte Cristo. Little Women and Good Wives, yes.  That was my mother’s book.

Gone With the Wind was a present from her mother for her nineteenth birthday.

As a result of family circumstances, Florence spent a lot of time in libraries as she got older, especially in the Central Library :

‘That’s why I used to go to the library and that, because I think I was rather a solitary child, in that your parents are busy working.  And I used, on a Saturday morning, I used to go down to the [Library].  Have a little trot around Woolworths by myself, get myself some sweeties.  And I used to go to Central Library, get my library books, go up to the Art Gallery.  I used to like to go up there to look at the pictures.  And then I used to go down to the Reading Room.  You could read all sorts of magazines down there, and I used to spend the whole day, you know, really, and then come home on the tram you know, and read my library books.

Probably another reason Florence spent so much time in libraries was that she did not see much of her school friends:

I had loads of friends, but in those days, when you went to a grammar school … People came from all over the city …So my best friend lived at  Pitsmoor … another one lived out in Grindleford.

Reading was a private thing – Florence didn’t discuss her choice of books with anyone.

At school she read the familiar titles: Anne of Green Gables (she liked the struggle of the little girl); What Katy Did; Black Beauty (she loved horses); but as she got older, she graduated to more adult books.  Elizabeth Goudge’s Green Dolphin Country was a present for Christmas 1944 and Florence still has her copy, which she bought herself, of  Daphne du Maurier’s The King’s General.  Others she borrowed from the library, like A Tree Grew in Brooklyn and all Nevil Shute’s books (except Requiem for a Wren).

She read Jane Eyre but

some of the older books, you know, like Jane Eyre, they can be a bit fulsome, if you know what I mean.

Florence had what would be considered a modern view of education – not one recognisable to Mr Squeers or Mr Gradgrind!

Knowledge and education isn’t knowing a whole load of facts.  It’s knowing where to find the information you want.  And I think a book is, to open a book and you find things out that you never knew before.

She read for pleasure not for self-improvement or because she thought she ought to read them:

I’ve got a full set of Dickens, but I haven’t read much of him.  My godmother used to send me two or three every birthday, so I’ve got the full set.  I didn’t really appreciate it… quite frankly, a lot of them bore me to death.

After school, as a girl, her opportunities were limited:

Well, you had a choice.  You either went in a shop, or a hairdresser’s, or you went in an office.  No, there wasn’t this business about going to university and this, that and the other.

She wanted to be a reporter and got a job on the local newspaper :

I worked in the publicity department with Gloops* and all that sort, you know.  And then the war broke and … they closed the paper down …  And my father said, ‘You have to get a job’ and I went to work for the North Eastern Railway.

Florence stayed there throughout the war as it was a reserved occupation and then married in 1946.

I worked there until I got married.  And then I left, of course, when I got married.

However she still managed to keep on reading.

I did go on reading, but … I was occupied other ways then, you know, with cooking and all the rest of it you do when you’re married.

In some senses reading changed Florence’s life: she enjoyed reading about foreign places and travel which led to:

a love of wanting to explore, wanting to find out about things.  I’m always interested in people, how people live…

Different books stimulated interest in different parts of the world:

Green Dolphin Country, gave me a yen for Australia -…You know, the other side of the world.  I didn’t go to New Zealand, but I have been to Australia. … I used to like the Sundowners and all stories.

Her visit to South Africa was also stimulated by what she read.

The Valley of the Vines one gave me a yen for South Africa.  I eventually went to South Africa and saw the Valley of the Vines… I always was interested in [South Africa], in particular around the Cape, the Cape district, and of course I went there, but it’s a long time ago now. Well, Nelson Mandela was still on Robbin Island and there was still apartheid.  That was just after Sharpeville, I think

Florence was also a poet and painter – self-taught.

florence-cowood-higger-tor-

I went to the local art class … Well, my husband used to go fishing and I didn’t know what to do.  And I didn’t particularly want to knit, and I decided I’d try and paint a picture and it went from there.

She was interested in books about shipwrecks and painted the wreck of the Royal Charter ‘… and that is mentioned in Dickens, in Uncommercial Traveler’.  She used books for  reference for both her painting and gardening.

florence-cowood-the-golden-wreck-

florence-cowood-Golden-Wreck-at-Anglesea

The following is a fitting tribute to the power of books and to the zest for life which Florence showed so clearly:

This is my own bit of things, and I found it, I saw it in the library van once.

I’ve travelled the world twice over,

And met the famous saints and sinners,

Poets and artists, kings and queens,

All stars and hopeful beginners.

I’ve been where no one’s been before,

Drawn secrets from writers and cooks,

Always with a library ticket

To the wonderful world of books.

 

I would like to say that books have been me life, all me life, and without them, my life would be nothing like as good as it has been.  Because books have been there.

 

  • Gloops was a cartoon cat who appeared from 1928 until the 1980s in the Sheffield Star.  There was a Gloops club for children.  Gloops was hugely popular.

Written by Sue Roe

Access Florence’s audio and transcript here

 

Betty’s Reading Journey

Betty’s reading journey begins with the savour of the words Aesop’s Fables on her tongue and the beauty of its pictures as her mother read to her from the book.  There were singing and nursery rhymes too, and the gorgeous colours of the pictures in an illustrated Stories from the Bible, and the remembered motion of being lifted onto her mother’s knee.

Betty’s experience of her early reading seems a sensory delight which flooded her play and her early education – she took her baby sister from her pram and put her in her garden irises in imitation of Moses, and practised beautiful curls on her letters, helped by her older cousin.

At her first school her teacher read from a lectern to the class at the end of lessons, and in this way Anne of Green Gables, Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and Jim Hawkins of Treasure Island (who frightened her) entered her life.  Her mother supplemented the school stories with Mowgli and more Anne of Green Gables, her childhood favourite.

Born in 1925, Betty says there wasn’t much money for books in her house, although ‘we used to always get a book at Christmas’.

… we didn’t have a lot of choice. We wanted books. ‘There is a new book for you.’  You’d always want it.

As a teenager at school she read Dickens, who she didn’t like, but loved Wuthering Heights, a story so vivid for her that she relived it on a family walk on the moors.

And I can remember … we went on the moors, my Paula and Cecily, mum and dad and myself and … there was a stone where you sat and I said, ‘I’m going to walk up further up, keep turning and when you can’t see me, turn round and come back.’ I went running up, and I crouched behind something, I don’t know what it was, and I was calling to Heathcliff, I was calling ‘Heathcliff, Cathy’, and two people were walking past as I was calling, and ran down past my mother and father and they said, ‘There’s voices up there! We’re so frightened.’ And my father said, ‘No, I think I know who is making the noises,’ and my father came up and I was crouched down and he said, ‘Betty!’ He grabbed me like this.

Betty remembers the 12 volumes of encyclopaedias the family owned, their purchase financed by a friend of the family.

All sorts of information you could find, and I can remember everybody from the village used to be coming up, ‘Can we look in your encyclopaedias?’

With the coming of the Second World War – ‘you couldn’t really buy books in the wartime’ – the Paper Salvage scheme took some of Betty’s store of books for paper recycling.

A lot of these things you had to give to the war effort, and they wanted paper.  Paper was in great demand. I can remember mum and dad … thinking which books should go. They said, ‘That is for Betty, Paula and Cecily to decide. If they want them they won’t go, they should decide, but we’ll tell them it’s needed for the country.’

betty-r-nurse-

And when she started her training at the Royal Hospital the nursing books she bought were ‘very small and on roughish paper’.  These were supplemented by books borrowed from the patients’ library, organised by Toc H, a Christian charitable organisation.  From the Toc H trolley she picked The Snow Goose, now her favourite book which she has read many times.  She also borrowed from wealthier nurses who ‘could afford to buy books and share’.  When her training finished and she finally got a salary, she bought The History of the English Speaking Peoples – ‘you got one book at a time. I got one book as a present … you went to the shop and bought each one.’

During her career Betty came to read books she had ‘never read at home – Wind in the Willows, Peter Pan, Dylan Thomas.  In the hospital where Betty nursed for the greater part of her working life – the Royal Hospital Annexe, a specialist burns and plastic surgery unit – she remembers reading Richard Hillary’s The Last Enemy, which recounts his experiences as a Spitfire pilot who suffered terrible burns in 1940 and endured months of plastic surgery.  ‘The medical staff would discuss things and what they read in the paper that was interesting. They included you and they had their books and they’d let you borrow if you wanted.’  She also read Anna Karenina and War and Peace – ‘That took a lot of time, you read little things‘ – Lady Chatterley’s Lover (in brown paper covers), Daughter of Time, books on Field Marshal Montgomery and Mary Queen of Scots.

Later, in her retirement, Betty has continued with her reading in another lively community of older friends, and latterly, as an avid reader from the city’s mobile library:

I don’t pick, I let them decide and they get me some good books. One about Marco Polo, I couldn’t put it down!

She is still as enthusiastic and engaged a reader as ever.

by Loveday Herridge

Access Betty’s transcript and audio here.

Alma’s Reading Journey

Alma was born in Rotherham, near Sheffield, in 1928, and lived there until she married around 1950 and moved to Sheffield. She trained at an art school and then, fulfilling an ambition, went to teacher training college.  

We always ask our interviewees how reading changed their lives.  A question which some, including Alma, find difficult to answer.  In Alma’s case, it may in part be because reading has been such an important part of her life.  At first Alma says:

It hasn’t … changed? Now that’s a big question and I’m going to need time to think about that … I’ve just loved reading.  I’ve just loved reading and whatever book I read it becomes part of me really, I think.  But I can’t think of anything it has specifically changed.

Alma was born into a working-class family in Rotherham in 1928 and grew up in the town.  She cannot remember learning to read or being read to as a child, but her family set store by reading.  There were books in the house, along with comics, magazines and newspapers.

Well, I had this lovely aunty Alma who bought me a Peter Pan book … and I wanted to read it and I just read it!  So I must have been able to read.  And I can remember loving that book because of the tissue paper pictures.  So that was my very first book … I had another auntie, Rosie, who bought me another present but it was a Dickens book and I didn’t really like that one, I didn’t like that one.  But I loved Peter Pan, I remember that.

We had books in the house!  We had books in the house.  We had a bookcase! … Well there was a set of Wonderland of Knowledge books which we used to get down and look at those.  I can remember looking at those.  There was a bound copy of Shakespeare’s plays which I remember had sort of vellum covers, we looked at that. A book I did love, it was called A Century of Humour and that was full of short stories, short humorous stories.  I remember reading that, I do remember that.

Dad had a lot of political books.  They were all bound with brown paper, they were … we didn’t touch his books … Oh he [read them], yes, he was very politically-minded.

I had a Chips comic every week … which I must have read from cover to cover.  And we [had] a Picture Post every Friday and I used to sit on the settee, I remember looking at pictures – I loved the Picture Post we had on a Friday and there was a daily newspaper but I don’t remember reading that.  It was a News Chronicle.  So that was my reading at home.

When she was older, Alma turned to the local library.

So off I went to Rotherham Library which I loved going to.  It was like a cathedral.  It was all hushed and quiet and wooden floors and everything cleaning [sic] and polished and nobody spoke to you and all the books were still hard-backed books, you know, with the covers, no fancy covers like they are today.  And I loved it …

Lucy Maud Montgomery, author of Anne Of Green Gables (Credit: Library and Archives Canada / C-011299)

Lucy Maud Montgomery, author of Anne Of Green Gables (Credit: Library and Archives Canada / C-011299)

In those days Alma says she dreamed of being a librarian.  She easily recalls books she enjoyed, like Anne of Green Gables (‘I loved Anne of Green Gables’), the Pollyanna books and J B Priestley.  His novel The Good Companions was a particular favourite:

The best book, the best book which I read over and over again … I did love that.  In fact I read it so much that when I travelled to school on the bus I used to look at people on the bus and fit them into the characters.

Years later, Alma did the same with Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood: ‘that one would be that one, and that one would be that one’.

Given this habit of casting characters, it is perhaps not surprising that Alma enjoyed reading plays too – she mentions Priestley and George Bernard Shaw.  Later this led to performing. ‘I loved the plays and I was in a drama society that I acted in some plays. I love plays, yes.’  She even had a go at writing her own play based on Jane Eyre:

I can remember writing a play, the one where she made her stand on a chair because she went out in the rain walking around a yard or something.  I can’t remember it very well but I do remember that.

Education was a mixed experience for Alma.  From the age of nine, she went to Rotherham Central School (a ‘very good school’) and enjoyed it.  Her ‘really wonderful’ English teachers ‘introduced us to lots of poetry: Walter De La Mare, John Masefield’.  But Alma failed her 11+ exam and had to leave at the age of 14.  The usual option was a job but Alma chose – on impulse – to do something else:

There were three things you could do.  You could go and work in an office … Or you could go to be a nurse … and, as my aunties had all been nurses, they all thought I was going to be a nurse.  Or you could go and apply for an art school.  Now I’d got these three choices.  Now, as my best friend was going to an art school, I decided I would go to an art school so I went for the interview and I got accepted to go to art school for two years.  So from 14 to 16 I was at Rotherham Art School.

Alma says that she was not particularly good at drawing but she was learning and loved it, and she was able to continue her reading in the nearby library.  After two ‘lovely’ years, it was time to leave again.  A teacher asked Alma what she wanted to do.

‘Well really I want to be a teacher.’  I’d always wanted to be a teacher and the fact [was] that I had failed my 11+ and I hadn’t got to high school and I hadn’t been able to do my School Certificate or anything.  I thought that had gone.  I said, ‘I really always wanted to be a teacher,’ and to my surprise he said, ‘But you still can.’  And it was just as if a light had gone in my world; I thought it was wonderful! Wow, I could be a teacher!

Alma could transfer to Rotherham High School, but she would have to get her School Certificate in a year.  ‘And I ran home.  I remember running home to my parents and saying, “I can go.  I can be a teacher!  I can go to the high school!”’

The new school was daunting at first, but Alma seems to have relished the challenge.

I was the only girl in the whole school who hadn’t got a uniform.  Of course, it didn’t matter.  I did have to go for an interview and I did have to do an English test and a maths test but, because the art school used to do maths one morning and English one morning, I was ok with that and so I got in.  So I was in with all these very clever girls, feeling very, very much the odd one out but taking in every word and writing everything and learning like goodness-knows-what and, when we did have the exam, I passed with flying colours.  I did.  I got a distinction in everything. I don’t know why but I did.

When Alma wonders why she succeeded, is it fanciful to think that, alongside good teaching and her own determination, her reading habit had helped?  Here surely is proof of the power of libraries.

So Alma went to teacher training college, with the enthusiastic support of her family (‘they backed me a hundred per cent … and I know it was a hardship’).

Despite the demands of college, reading for pleasure continued.  ‘When I was at home, I can remember reading in bed a lot.’  All this seems to have helped Alma set standards without realising it:

What I can remember is going to my Grandma’s and seeing a little magazine called Peg’s Paper and it was a gaudy cover of a girl hiding behind a door or something and I thought, ‘What’s that?’ and I started reading it, little short stories, and I thought, ‘This is rubbish’.  I never looked at it again, I don’t know who got it, who was having this Peg’s Paper.  I thought I’m not wasting my time reading that rubbish.

Authors she enjoyed include: Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Jerome K Jerome, Dylan Thomas, T S Eliot and Francis Brett Young.  Of these, Jerome K Jerome still has a special place in her affections: ‘I still like Three Men in a Boat and, if I’m feeling a bit miserable, I read Three Men in a Boat.’

Jerome Klapka Jerome, published by Ogden's. Cigarette card, published circa 1894-1907. 2 1/4 in. x 1 3/8 in. (56 mm x 36 mm) overall. Given by Terence Pepper, 2012. Photographs Collection NPG x136534

Jerome Klapka Jerome, published by Ogden’s. Cigarette card, published circa 1894-1907. 2 1/4 in. x 1 3/8 in. (56 mm x 36 mm) overall. Given by Terence Pepper, 2012. Photographs Collection NPG x136534

Marriage in 1950 changed Alma’s reading habits.  At first, she read less, as she was living with her in-laws who were not readers, and the move to Sheffield meant starting anew in a new library (‘it was very big and I didn’t like it so I didn’t go’).  But when they got their own house in 1952, Alma and her husband both read.  Alma started reading real-life adventure like Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki because her husband liked them, and she also remembers biographies, books about ballet which interested her, and classic detective fiction by Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and Margery Allingham.

And so to the question about reading changing lives.

It hasn’t … changed? Now that’s a big question and I’m going to need time to think about that … I’ve just loved reading.  I’ve just loved reading and whatever book I read it becomes part of me really, I think.  But I can’t think of anything it has specifically changed.

But perhaps it fed your imagination, suggests the interviewer.  And Alma nails it.

It has fed my imagination, yes.  I know very well that I couldn’t live without books.   That’s a dead cert.  I need books, yes.

by Val Hewson

Access Alma’s transcript and audio here.

The Reading Journey of Doreen Gill

Doreen grew up in Darnall, before the Sheffield Blitz, a hillside of terraced houses which served the workers in the steel works on the eastern side of Sheffield. In December of 1940, when Doreen was six years old, the family was bombed out of their home and they moved down, nearer the great corridor of steelworks in the Don Valley to Brightside. This was the first of many relocations.

When she was nine, Doreen’s mother died. Her father was fighting in Africa and was left with three children and no one to care for them.

 They wouldn’t let him home, even for the funeral.

The three children were separated, Doreen going to live in a Children’s Home in Ripon, Yorkshire and her two brothers to one in Diss, Norfolk. When after three and a half years her father returned, with a Belgian wife, he gathered the family together again.

Doreen aged 17, this is a passport photograph taken for a visit to see her stepbrother in Belgium.

Doreen aged 17, this is a passport photograph taken for a visit to see her stepbrother in Belgium.

Throughout these early years, books were a constant. Doreen’s much younger brothers were twins so her mother did not have time to read to her but she “doesn’t ever remember not reading”. A great aunt lived near and her support for her mother enabled Doreen to find time to read. She thinks she might have read before she went to school because her father was a great reader and they did have books in the house.

But not children’s books of course, so consequently I picked everything up, whether it was suitable or whether it wasn’t!

Before her mother died she used the library at Attercliffe, walking up the hill on her own to Attercliffe Common.

I used to go there and just work me way along the shelves. Anything and everything. ‘Cept I’m not too keen on history.  I read anything else but.  I will read if I’m desperate.  I will read history but I’ve got to be desperate.

Courtesy Picture Sheffield

Courtesy Picture Sheffield

No-one guided her choices.

They just left us to it, you know.  You were only allowed two books at a time then so I used to go to the library two or three times a week and change me books.

Milly, Molly, Mandy, Anne of Green Gables and Edgar Allen Poe come to mind (‘not at five, though’). Her main reading time was a Sunday when she and her brothers weren’t allowed to play out. She can’t remember sharing her reading pleasures but her father approved her habit. Not so her mother.

If I picked a book up to read she’d say, “Put that down and come and help me do so-and-so.  You’re wasting your time and my time”.  You know.  So she’d always find me a job to do.

So her bedroom became her reading space

I used to go to bed and read until it was really dark.  And me dad used to say, “Switch that light off”.  So I used to stand in front of the window and read as long as I could!

Doreen can’t remember reading in the children’s home but while she was there she started at Ripon Grammar School and they were very keen on reading. She loved the school and went on to City Grammar in the centre of Sheffield when she returned home. There she read Shakespeare and poetry, learning lots by heart. Wordsworth’s On Westminster Bridge and Milton’s ‘When I consider how my light is spent’ still echo in her mind.

She got her O levels but had to leave school when she was 15. She would like to have stayed on; instead she went to work at Firth Brown Steels and continued reading during her lunch hour: ‘Very unsociable but I used to do it’: Nevil Shute, Edgar Allen Poe and Terence Rattigan plays.

Sometimes her father would take his family to the Palace in Attercliffe.

I don’t know if you remember it. It was open then as a review place but on Saturdays they had things that were suitable for families, you know.

Courtesy Picture Sheffield

Courtesy Picture Sheffield

Once she won some tickets to go to the Empire, probably from entering a competition from The Gloops Club, run by the local papers, The Telegraph and Star.

The Gloops Club had a badge, a little teddy, fat teddy.  And, I used to belong to it.

Courtesy Picture Sheffield

Courtesy Picture Sheffield

When Doreen got to City Grammar after the war, Sheffield Central Library was round the corner.

Well they used to have the Children’s down the stairs, you know.  I don’t know if you remember that.  There wasn’t quite as much choice as you might think.  But by the time I was twelve I was going upstairs anyway to the adults’ part, so I’d got as much choice as I wanted up there.

But she constantly returned to Anne of Green Gables, never owning a copy but repeatedly taking it out of the library.

I mean, you realise that there’s more than you orphaned; she was orphaned, and how good this lady was to her, you know, and how things work out.

Finding new authors she enjoyed was a matter of chance. Once she made a favourite, Dennis Wheatley, Shute or Allen Poe for example, she would read everything they wrote. Occasionally she would meet an author that seemed too difficult or too rubbishy but her instinct was to finish whatever she had started whether she liked the book or not.

Doreen’s church life has been thoroughly ecumenical. Her father was a Unitarian originally, her stepmother was a Catholic and Doreen was sent with her brothers to Attercliffe Methodist church on a Sunday. We recruited her to Reading Sheffield through an Anglican church on the south side of Sheffield. When I asked her if any of the books of the Bible was a favourite, she immediately replied.

Ruth, it’s homely and it’s like, well, our life really, isn’t it?

Later on in her life Doreen’s reading life was shared, first with her children and now with a group of friends. The friends buy their books in charity shops and pass them round: Rebecca Tope, Danielle Steel, Josephine Cox and Maureen Lee are all current favourites.

Doreen age 19 on a day out at Bridlington with Frank, her future husband.

Doreen age 19. A day out in Bridlington with Frank, her future husband.

Doreen has always been quietly persistent in finding time to read and light to read by. Neither of her two mothers encouraged her but she accepted that and outflanked them. After I had finished recording her memories I mentioned that one of our Sheffield readers had told us that she stopped reading when she started dancing. I asked Doreen whether that had been her experience. “Oh no,” she said, “You can read AND dance.”

by Mary Grover

Access Doreen’s transcript and audio here

The Enduring Appeal of Anne of Green Gables and L M Montgomery

Anne had brought her slate down on Gilbert’s head and cracked it – slate not head – clear across.

Gilbert Blythe was my first literary crush.  I said this recently to a group of women, and got more than one nod of agreement.  I first read Anne of Green Gables (1908) by L M Montgomery (1874-1942) because it was my mother’s favourite childhood book – she described her best times at school as the rare afternoons of ‘quiet reading’.  When at about the age of ten, I found the ‘Anne book’ in my local library, I fell upon it.  Over the next few years I probably borrowed it more than any other book.  (It helped that, like Anne, I had red hair.  I hated geometry too, although my mother suspected, unfairly, that I was just imitating Anne and could learn to love it if I tried.  And then, of course, there was Gilbert.)

Lucy Maud Montgomery, author of Anne Of Green Gables (Credit: Library and Archives Canada / C-011299)

Lucy Maud Montgomery, author of Anne Of Green Gables (Credit: Library and Archives Canada / C-011299)

I am not alone in my fondness for this book.  Some of the Reading Sheffield interviewees remember it well.  Dorothy (b. 1931) recalled:

My absolute passion was Anne of Green Gables…I adored all the series.  If I had had a daughter…she would have been called Anne.

The hold of this remarkable book is as strong as ever.  It is easily Maud Montgomery’s most popular story and remains in print after a century, with millions of copies sold in many languages.  Prince Edward Island has a healthy Anne/L M Montgomery tourism industry.  There have been around 20 film and television adaptations and related productions (the star of the 1934 movie, Dawn O’Day, even changed her name to Anne Shirley) and a new version is due in 2016, with no less than Martin Sheen playing the role of Matthew Cuthbert.  The adventures of an orphan in rural, late 19c Canada apparently remain as enjoyable as ever, and Anne has retained her gift for friendship over the years.

For those who don’t know, Anne of Green Gables is the story of a young girl given a home by a brother and sister living on a farm on Prince Edward Island.  What no-one knows as she arrives on the Island is that the orphanage made a mistake.  The request was for a strong boy to help with farmwork, not an imaginative, sensitive, lonely chatterbox of a girl.  Miss Marilla Cuthbert, who does not like her plans overset, intends to return her but is persuaded not to, and so Anne gets the home she needs and spinster Marilla and bachelor Matthew the child neither expected.  Her adventures last for a further five books, well into adulthood, and include the incident quoted above, in which Gilbert, on first meeting Anne, unwisely pulls her hair and calls her ‘Carrots!’  She is, you see, very sensitive about the colour and longs for it to be a ‘handsome auburn’:

Oh I could endure anything if only I thought my hair would be a handsome auburn when I grew up.  It would be so much easier to be good if one’s hair was a handsome auburn, don’t you think?

L M Montgomery, it is said, based her novel in part on a newspaper story about an orphan girl sent in error to a couple who wanted a boy.  (Does anyone know what happened to the girl?  I long to know.)  But she also clearly drew on her own difficult childhood and later life.  Unlike Anne, she was not orphaned as a baby, but did lose her mother very early and afterwards saw little of her father.  She was brought up in a community like Avonlea by her maternal grandparents in an austere household.  The Cuthberts and their Green Gables farmhouse were probably based on relatives living nearby (you can visit their house still).  Maud had little money and worked as a teacher to fund university, although unlike Anne she did not complete her studies.  Both married and lost children.

The real Green Gables (copyright Pam Gibson)

The real Green Gables (copyright Pam Gibson)

On the strength of this, it is easy to over-estimate the autobiographical element of Anne of Green Gables.  I certainly assumed this as a child.  But Anne Shirley and Maud Montgomery are not the same.  Anne knows sadness but has, through Gilbert and her family, the security to help her overcome tragedy.  Maud’s journals, published long after her death but with her permission, apparently show a troubled woman who had a difficult marriage with a depressive man, who lost a child and did not always get along with her surviving sons, all while living a very public life.  It comes as a huge shock to the reader of the Anne books to learn that their author may have committed suicide in despair and weariness.

Anne is then not so much the real as the might-have-been-Maud, just as her other characters like Emily of New Moon and Jane of Lantern Hill appear to explore aspects of Maud’s life.  Emily develops her writing talents and Jane eventually re-unites her estranged parents in a way Maud never could and is secure in their love.

Maud's bedroom (copyright Pam Gibson)

Maud’s bedroom (copyright Pam Gibson)

For Maud, there was a long period in the critical wilderness (all those happy endings, all that folksiness and whimsy, all those adjectives…) but ordinary readers apparently always appreciated her.  She created a secure, rural world based on the one in which she grew up (and possibly warmer and funnier than the real thing), which is enormously attractive. As are her spirited heroines, who are unusual, as heroines should be, but not so much so that we cannot identify with them.  Thousands of girls probably wanted to be Anne and/or one of the others.  I certainly did.

Maud Montgomery is not alone in this type of literature: Laura Ingalls Wilder, Jo March and her sisters, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, Pollyanna and Katy Carr are all cousins of Anne (some more distant than others).  But I think Anne has the edge over these others, even Jo and Laura.  Through Anne, Maud remains more popular than other writers of her period and type, no matter what the critics thought or think.  If you read them in childhood, there seems a good chance that you will remember them with affection in adulthood.  As Reading Sheffield interviewee Florence Cowood (b. 1923) said: ‘I just liked the story and the struggle in [it].’

Did you read Anne of Green Gables or other books by L M Montgomery?  Why do you think they remain popular?

By Val Hewson

Note: Anyone wanting to know more about L M Montgomery should read Mary H Rubio’s excellent biography, Lucy Maud Montgomery: The Gift of Wings (Anchor Canada, 2008), which made me think about the woman who created Anne Shirley.  And the Lucy Maud Montgomery Research Centre at the University of Guelph is well worth visiting.

Dorothy Latham’s Reading Journey

Dorothy was born in 1931 in Catcliffe, between Rotherham and Sheffield, and grew up there, attending Woodhouse Grammar School.  Dorothy became a civil servant, working in careers guidance and employment.  She married Derek, who ran his own plumbing and heating business and they had two sons.

dorothy-latham-3

Even now I’m always reading, you know…

Always a passionate reader, Dorothy talked of reading in bed from childhood, on the bus to and from work and in the evenings while her husband pursued practical hobbies like joinery and repairing machinery.

I’d often, to be quite honest, read on the buses.  I mean you had a long journey sometimes…I still try half an hour in the evenings before I go to sleep in bed. It relaxes me.

But she was conscious of her reading tastes and interests changing over time. ‘I think you alter as you get older on what you like.’

Dorothy’s reading habit was inherited from her mother.  She recalled being told Rupert the Bear bedtime stories and then reading for herself: ‘…once I could read, you know, I just didn’t put them down’.  This included, you sense, reading to cope with the disruption of the Second World War, when Dorothy remembered standing in her garden and watching Sheffield being bombed in the middle of the night.

The first book Dorothy really loved was the ever-popular Anne of Green Gables by L M Montgomery.

My absolute passion was Anne of Green Gables…I adored all the series. If I’d have had a daughter – which I didn’t. I had two sons – she would have been called Anne…I adored it, and I – I was just absorbed with it.

Within her family, books seemed to be a means of both enjoyment and self-improvement.  ‘You know my mother was always encouraging me…in that kind of life.’  Dorothy was unusual in her village in winning a scholarship to Woodhouse Grammar School.  There she was introduced, as children usually are, to Shakespeare, Dickens, Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters and other classics.  ‘It was always the English that I was good at.’  Meanwhile the war made buying books and much else difficult, and so Dorothy and her mother often borrowed from the private Red Circle library: ‘…I was brought up in an ordinary household but somehow I got the best’.

As she grew older, the reading habit grew stronger.  Dorothy’s father was very protective of her, and she spent many evenings reading at home rather than going out.

It may sound strange but I was encouraged in…erm…I mean I never went out. I suppose I was too young in the war but I’d meet some people and they were out dancing and doing all that. Well my father wouldn’t have, he – he was very protective. You could say I missed it really.

Marriage did not stop Dorothy’s reading: ‘…when I got married I had to limit myself to what I did but I’ve always, always loved the reading’.  Her husband and mother-in-law were not much interested in books (indeed she thinks her husband was dyslexic), but her father-in-law was, to borrow a phrase from Anne of Green Gables, a ‘kindred spirit’.  He told her, for example, about finding a ‘wonderful book’ which she must read: Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca.

And you know, I’d discuss books with him and all sorts and you see my eldest son, his first memory of being taken to a library was being taken by his grandpa.

dorothy-latham-1

Dorothy sometimes made compromises between reading and looking after home and family:

…you know I thought I could just be a bit of a monkey and sit down and read and not get on with what I was doing. I mean my husband never bothered, I could have done what I wanted really. I mean you have to look after the children and things and I tried to look after my parents. So you’ve got to fit things in, haven’t you?’

 

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Warwick Deeping’s Sorrell and Son was an example: ‘Oh, yes! Oh I thought that was fantastic. I found it…it absorbed me, yes it did. I didn’t want to put it down.’

By now L M Montgomery had been replaced in Dorothy’s favour by Emily and Charlotte Bronte.  She liked Jane Eyre but her favourite was Wuthering Heights. ‘Soooo romantic and now I just think: “oh, not so much”.’  The past was always interesting.  Dorothy liked history and so looked for classics like Jane Austen and Anthony Trollope and also lighter, historical novels by writers like Georgette Heyer, Margaret Irwin, Baroness Orczy and Jean Plaidy.  But her reading was very wide.  She happily quoted: Graham Greene, Kingsley Amis, Margaret Mitchell, Catherine Cookson, Rosamund Pilcher, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, P D James, Ellis Peters, Edgar Wallace, Anthony Hope, Nicholas Monsarrat, Dennis Wheatley, Betty Neels, Arnold Bennett, A J Cronin, Nevil Shute, J B Priestley, Somerset Maugham and Howard Spring.

When it came to books vs television and/or film, Dorothy preferred books:

If I’ve read a book and it’s made into a film, I’m disappointed because your mind works with the book and when I read them, they don’t, they’re not the same…I’ve always felt let down… [Filmmakers] don’t go into the detail and I don’t think they realise that when you read your brain is working out and in your brain visually you are imagining the positions and the circumstances…

(Not that Dorothy disliked all adaptations: Great Expectations, Pride and Prejudice and The Forsyte Saga all gave her a lot of enjoyment.)

Dorothy’s sight, hearing and mobility deteriorated as she got older and over time she relied more and more on the home library service and audiobooks.  ‘I’ve been very grateful for that, very grateful.’  She let others choose her books but she would give feedback: ‘…sometimes I say “oh I did like that” and then they send me a lot, you know. Because I’m, I’m very choosey and they know exactly what I like’.  This did get her into trouble once when a friend picked up a book from the library, which turned out to be more explicit than she usually read.  ‘Phft do you like this stuff then?’ he said.  Dorothy had to explain how the book had been chosen without her looking at it.  Sadly she couldn’t recall the title or author, but she remembered it as ‘very, very embarrassing’.

This reliance on libraries throughout her life gave Dorothy strong views about their value.

‘I was so annoyed when I came here that they sold the library… I thought it was disgusting…and they said “Well, you can go into town” and I thought I’d come here because I was disabled and I thought no library! I thought that was a shame. I hope we don’t lose the libraries.’

After years and years of reading, did Dorothy re-read the favourite books of her youth?

I don’t know about Anne of Green Gables. I absolutely was besotted with it…and I mean now I don’t want to read it. Also I though Wuthering Heights was so romantic, I don’t anymore now, I don’t know, I think it’s a bit over the top.  It doesn’t seem quite real.  But as young person I was telling everyone that’s my favourite book. I must have been about 20, I don’t know. Yeah, that was my favourite and I don’t think it is anymore. I think you alter as you get older on what you like.

Asked if reading changed her life, Dorothy agreed.

…as I’ve got disabled, I have to say I’d be quite lost without my books because I have to fight against getting depressed. I’m not but…because of how I am, I’m not one for just needlessly sitting about like this.  I like to be occupied…I’ve switched off from what I can’t do because I’m filling my life with things that I can and that may sound strange but it’s no good…I’ve reached a good age.  I’m 80 in a month and, and I think “well, I’ve done quite well really”.

 

By Val Hewson

Access Dorothy’s transcript and audio here