Dickens: not the London papers for you, child!

I met Jessie in 1997, still living in the Norfolk Park estate near the vicarage of St John’s Park where she had begun work at the age of 14 in 1920.

St John’s Vicarage, where Jessie worked. (Reproduced by permission of Sheffield Archives)

I visited her to interview her about her reading because I was writing about popular fiction in the 1930s. On every shelf in her tiny flat were pictures of her grandchildren, most of them in their graduation gowns. Yet Jessie herself never had any formal education.

Charles Dickens and Little Nell (Philadelphia, USA. By Smallbones. Reproduced under Creative Commons licence)

Jessie was born in 1906 and in 1920 became a wage-earner. The story of how she came to love Dickens in the 1920s reveals how much the status of Dickens has changed from the interwar period to the present day: from ‘childlike’ popular entertainer to classic author. The Cambridge academic Q D Leavis asserted in 1932, in Fiction and the Reading Public (p 157), that Dickens’

originality is confined to recapturing a child’s outlook on the grown-up world, emotionally he is not only uneducated but also immature.

Mercifully Jessie never encountered this diatribe against her favourite author and the class of people who were seduced by him. But by chance it was a comparably low opinion of Dickens and his association with uneducated readers that enabled her to gain access to his complete works.

I used to read the Times when I was 14 because my first job was in a vicarage as a cleaner. Now the Canon Greenwood he was a Londoner. At 14 I went to the vicarage and it was an old house and it was dreadful, scrubbing . . . I stayed there till I was 19 but he used to take the Sunday papers and of course I had a field day with them because we used to have an hour for lunch and the housekeeper she used to go to sleep and of course she seemed to resent me reading the newspapers. I don’t know why.  . . . He had some fantastic books – he had all Dickens’ books and she had all these in the kitchen in her bookcase.

Jessie’s employer, Canon Henry Francis Greenwood, Vicar of St John’s Park Sheffield

She said to me one day. ‘Now I think you will get more education, child,’ (she never called me my name, always ‘child’) ‘with Dickens’ books’ which when I did start I was a real Dickens fan, and I am now you see. Anything on there of Dickens or Shakespeare I am there, but it was through her – even her resentment gave me a gift. And I love Dickens’ characters – she let me take them home.

Charles Dickens (public domain)

She used to let me take the paper home if it was two or three days old but she used to resent that. Some of these people they resent poor people like we were, very poor, because my dad died when he was 47 and I was 14 and my mum was left to bring up three girls and she used to go out washing and cleaning. 

[The housekeeper] was so possessive with everything he the Vicar had – she was a proper giant to me.  She resented me probably it was because I wanted to know things and I knew things but she lent me the Dickens because she resented me reading the papers, the London papers.

In his book, Welcome to Sheffield: A Migration History, David Price makes the point that churches and chapels broadened the horizons of many who came into contact with them because their leaders had been educated outside Sheffield.[i] Her job at Canon Greenwood’s vicarage introduced Jessie to the London papers and the novels of Charles Dickens. Despite the drudgery she endured, the vicarage in which she spent the first five years of her working life made her aware of a world elsewhere.

St John’s Park Sheffield today

[i] David Price, Welcome to Sheffield: A Migration History (2018), p 4.

The Reading Journey of Bob W

By Mary Grover

Bob was born in Sheffield on 3 February 1940. He was interviewed with his wife Carolyn. They married when Bob was 24 and Carolyn was 20.

As they talk about their reading, it is clear that Bob and Carolyn have read alongside each other throughout their marriage, each prompting the other when the name of a title slips the mind. But this was not the pattern in Bob’s own family.

Bob grew up in the one of the biggest housing estates in Europe, Parson Cross, in the north of Sheffield. The Council began to build in 1938, two years before Bob was born, so the estate grew up with him. There were few books in the house: ‘there’d be a Bible and that would be about it’. Bob’s father read the Daily Herald in the week and the News of the World on Sunday. His mother read Women’s Weekly, but not ‘Mum’s Own – that was trash’. Bob cannot remember being read to but remembers one book from his childhood:

…that was just a little paperback thing, about a dozen pages, and it was nursery rhymes.  About that size.  And I remember reading these and learning every one off by heart.  And that was my precious book, you know.

Bob was early learning to read.

I knew I enjoyed reading and I knew that I wanted to learn to read. But no, my parents weren’t big readers at all.

Nor were Bob’s two older sisters. ‘So, everything I did was on my own bat, I think’. He dismisses the idea he might have found something to read in his primary school:

of course, you didn’t have books in school, so I used to go to the library.

Hillsborough Library, which Bob visited as a child

Although there had been pre-war plans, no permanent municipal library was built in the vast new estate for many years so it was two miles down the hill back towards town to the magnificent Hillsborough Library that Bob made his way by tram to find the books he sought. He didn’t know what he was looking for exactly but would just pick up something he liked the look of: ‘it was probably short stories or something like that’.  He joined a second library to increase choice but Hillsborough’s children’s section was one of the best in the city, established in 1929, so it was there he tended to find the adventure stories he enjoyed. Though Enid Blyton was not a favourite author, he did borrow the Famous Five mysteries and ‘that sort of thing’.

Bob reflects that he ‘never grew into the adventure stories for adults’. He went to the cinema when he grew out of Enid Blyton to watch cowboy and war films but never wanted to read about war and fighting. Throughout his life he seems to have kept his reading and his cinema going separate, actively disliking adaptations.

When he could afford it, Bob would go down to the local newsagents, Hadfields at Wadsley Bridge and buy, not comics or magazines, but books.

I bought a series of Sexton Blake. Thin little books, Sexton Blake, yeah.

The first book Bob remembers that he felt was an adult book was Stevenson’s Treasure Island. When he passed the 11+ exam and went to grammar school, he began reading the classics. ‘You had your own books, which I had to read, you see?’ He remembers reading David Copperfield ‘on my own bat because I wanted to see what it was like.’ It was his favourite book. Though he enjoyed the thrill of adventure in a film, in a book he tended to look for interesting characters.

I had to be interested in people. I mean, you can’t get [a] more interesting character than David Copperfield, you see.

Original illustration from David Copperfield

He tried to find the same pleasure in other novels by Dickens but they never delivered. Once he had seen the film of Oliver Twist he lost interest in reading the book. He made it through Hard Times and Nicholas Nickleby but as for Martin Chuzzlewit: ‘I couldn’t make it through that and [then] I gave up on Dickens’. Bob concludes that he still enjoys the classics but not ‘the difficult classics … I wouldn’t try Ivanhoe or some of the other 19th … 18th century authors, you know’. There was something about the language of Dickens that felt close to his own.

Beyond a certain point … I want to read easy and I found David Copperfield, and Charles Dickens on the whole, easy to read.  They were speaking my language, you know. Some of the older authors, more classical authors, were speaking not my language, you know, and I didn’t want to keep looking in dictionaries to see what the words were or anything like that, … so, I think, that’s it.

Bob is resistant to language that he fails to connect with. He can’t get on with the language of the past that needs a dictionary to unlock it but he ‘cant stand modern literature with modern words.’ Even though the world of work and his work mates introduced him to all these words, he doesn’t want to read them, happy to be called ‘fuddy-duddy’. ‘It’s not my style of talking’.

In fact Bob is very clear about what he likes and why he likes it. He likes description which adds to a story or makes a character real.

People criticise Agatha Christie[‘s], you know, style of writing as not very good and so on, but she’s very, very good at descriptions. You got into a book and immediately it hits you what the story was about, and you got engrossed in it.

He found that Christie’s contemporaries had too much aimless description for his taste and looks to modern thrillers where description has a clear function.

He has other tastes too. He likes whimsical books: the short stories of P G Wodehouse and the humour of Kingsley Amis. But he doesn’t like depressing books. George Orwell and Nevil Shute are not for him. Nor are books that are full of unpleasant people.

I want to go into a different world and enjoy it and I have to like the people I’m reading about. If I don’t like them – not interested in them.

And Bob found lots of books that did interest him and which helped establish the writing skills that were essential to his job in a large Sheffield refractory firm. He met his wife Carolyn there: she was a chemist and he worked in Research and Development. In their interview she gives him an unsolicited testimonial: ‘Can I say he still writes very well?’ Bob had not only to conduct research projects but to communicate the findings of the research team effectively.

We had to interpret the project and put it forward, you see. So, you had to know how to get your points of view over and tell a story in that sense. So that and the work you did at … the essays you had to write at school, you see. They all helped, you know. You got a vocabulary that you could use and if you’d got a vocabulary, it was very good for you. If you hadn’t got a vocabulary, you were struggling, you know. So, that did help.

The feel that Bob developed over the years for a language that was his own clearly helped him develop an appropriate voice for communicating with other professional scientists and engineers. Sheffield’s industries, as so many of our readers show, depend on the communication skills born of a love of reading imaginative literature.

You can read Bob’s interview here.

Betty Newman’s Reading Journey

By Mary Grover

Betty Newman was born in 1935, and grew up in Norton Lees and Darnall. She gained a grammar school place at High Storrs, left school at 16 and spent most of her working life in steel firms. She married and had two children. When she retired in 1995, she did a degree in Historical Studies at Sheffield Hallam University.

Betty cannot remember learning to read but before she went to school she was an expert, at home with the books her grandmother shared with her.

My Grandma had a lot of bound copies of the Strand magazine. I used to read Sherlock Holmes in those. And when I went to school I could read. I was floundering because I could read. I think if it had been now it would be a bean bag, but then it was a cushion. And when the other children were learning to read I sat on this cushion and read my own book. I can’t remember learning to read. It was something I always could.

Her grandmother’s school prize, A Peep behind the Scenes, published in 1877, became the child’s favourite. She still has a copy, not her grandmother’s but one found in a junk shop.

When she re-read it after many years, yes, it had the biblical basis she remembers (it is based on the parable of the Good Shepherd) but she discovered that one of the good acts at the heart of the story is the generosity of a lonely actress in a travelling theatre troupe in teaching an overworked servant to read. In this illustration the servant wakes the heroine early in the morning so that she can get her lesson in before the beginning of a hard working-day.

At primary school, Milly Molly Mandy and Enid Blyton’s Book of the Year were books to return to but when Betty got older, she felt that she read less.

And then we discovered Women’s Own and women’s things and we were reading agony columns and things. And you suddenly go off the reading bits then. And I had comics, I was given comics and we used to swap them.

But she still shared with her parents their rich and varied tastes. Both her parents were singers and Betty would sit on the sofa with her father and listen to classical music on the gramophone records that he collected, one a week, chosen from catalogues.

But my mother used to read poetry. She was in a wheelchair most of the time. And you know now you can buy pockets to go over chair arms to put books in? Well she had things like that over the wheelchair and she always had poetry books in there.

Tennyson was her mother’s great love and Betty can still recite The Charge of the Light Brigade and a favourite extract from Maud:

See what a lovely shell,

Small and pure as a pearl,

Lying close to my foot,

Frail, but a work divine.

Betty’s ease with words meant that, in spite of a disrupted primary education, she still got a scholarship place at High Storrs. Because of her mother’s rheumatic fever Betty was often sent to live with her grandmother or other relatives so she was on the roll at two primary schools, miles apart. When she got to grammar school she found teachers less understanding of her difficulties and she left school after her School Certificate to work at Davy United where she flourished.

Betty’s technical dictionary

Later, when she joined the aeronautical parts manufacturer, Precision Castparts (PC), she relished the uses made of her ability to summarise, explain and even translate. With the help of her school French and German, she learned how to turn the English worksheets which accompanied every part manufactured, into instructions that could be used by aeronautical engineers in mainland Europe. Her two souvenirs of her time with PC are a casting in which she used to keep her pencils and the invaluable technical dictionary with the help of which she guided engineers across the Channel in fitting the parts made by her colleagues.

Apart from an admiration for a novel called Continuity Girl (which inspired a desire in Betty to follow in the heroine’s footsteps), Betty’s reading tastes moved away from fiction; history and biography are now her favourites. The only two novelists she loves are Delderfield and Dickens. But then ‘I don’t really think Dickens is fiction at all’. Another important exception is Thomas Armstrong’s The Crowthers of Bankdam which she bought when she was 22.

It really is fiction, but I bought it to read on a long journey. I’ve used up and spoilt, worn out so many copies. It’s my comfort read.

Betty’s pencil case

An important part of Betty’s year is Sheffield’s literary festival, Off the Shelf. It cost one political canvasser her vote in the last election because he could not tell her why the Council had turned the festival over to the two universities when it had been so superbly run by the library staff. As Betty declared, ‘Well he hadn’t even heard of Off the Shelf, so he certainly wasn’t going to get my vote.’

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

Anne’s Reading Journey

Anne was born in the north of Sheffield on 5 August 1944. Her parents owned a bakery in Hillsborough. Anne has been a keen reader from an early age and has remained so.  She trained as a Religious Education (RE) teacher at college in Leeds and was also involved in the Girl Guide movement for many years, as both a Guide and a Guider.  She has two daughters and grandchildren.

Here Anne remembers how she encountered that most notorious book, Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

Licenced by Twospoonfuls under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International licence

Licenced by Twospoonfuls under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International licence

Anne read well from an early age: ‘I was away ahead,’ she says. At first it was fairy stories and nursery rhymes, and then books familiar to most people growing up in the mid-20th century.

I was well into Enid Blyton at a fairly young age and then as I got older I sort of went more on to the classics. I remember reading The Children of the New Forest when I was about 13 and that became one of my top favourites. … The Chalet books in my early teens were my passion and I owned practically every single one at some point. I’ve still got a lot of them up in the loft.

Of the classics, David Copperfield and Jane Eyre were the ones Anne liked best, but although she tried, Jane Austen wasn’t for her. ‘I just couldn’t stick it,’ she says.

Membership of the public library and her school and college studies kept Anne reading, although she doesn’t sound as if she needed much persuasion (‘I just read anything I could get my hands on’). She belonged to Sheffield Libraries from an early age, walking there alone and choosing her books without any help from the librarians.  When, at the age of 15, she transferred to the City Grammar in the centre of Sheffield, she joined the Central Library, encouraged by a friend, Kath.  Kath ‘was doing literature and so was very much more into proper books, adult books’.  Anne dates her transition to ‘grown-up novels’ from her friendship with Kath.  In those days Anne usually looked for books which had some relevance to her history and RE courses, such as Jean Plaidy’s books on the Tudors and novels like Lloyd C Douglas’ The Robe.

No-one ever made Anne feel that reading was a waste of time. Both parents were busy with their business, but were happy for their daughter to read:

…Oh no, I mean [my mother] was an intelligent person, she knew the value of reading, she just didn’t do it.

Then our interviewer asked if Anne was ever made to feel embarrassed or guilty about reading.  Only when she came across D H Lawrence, Anne replied.  And the story came out.

I found my dad reading surreptitiously, which was totally…I mean it was when it was all in the papers about the …[laughing] I remember he pushed it under the pile of newspapers in the cupboard and I found it one day and I started doing the same thing and reading it surreptitiously. There was always a half hour part of the day, when I got in from school before they came back from work,  that I’d got to myself and I used to read it. I worked my way through it. That was the only time and I knew I shouldn’t be doing it so I never let on. I don’t think my mother knows today that I ever read it.

Perhaps your father didn’t think he ought to be doing it either, suggests our interviewer. Probably not, Anne agrees, saying ‘he probably kept it out of sight from me’.

This happened around 1960, when Anne was a teenager. This was the time of the famous trial under the Obscene Publications Act, when Penguin Books re-published Lawrence’s novel (for the first time since its initial publication in 1928) and challenged the Director of Public Prosecutions to prosecute.  The book was a huge success, with copies selling out as soon as they arrived in bookshops.

The trial, that was why everybody read it! Everybody knew about it. I did some more D H Lawrence as well.

Anne, however, did not particularly like the Lawrence novels she read. ‘ I read them but I wouldn’t say I’d want to read them again.’ She was shocked by Lady Chatterley, she says, because she was ‘totally innocent in those days’.  But she

didn’t know what the fuss was about for most of it.

Here is Anne’s full interview.

Arnold Bennett? Really? Most popular novelist?

Yes, that’s right.  Arnold Bennett was the most popular ‘classical novelist’ with Sheffield Libraries borrowers in 1931.  His competition included the likes of Thomas Hardy, John Galsworthy and Charles Dickens.

Most popular author - Arnold Bennett (Project_Gutenberg_etext_13635.jpg)

Arnold Bennett – Project_ Gutenberg_etext_13635.jpg

Librarians have long been numbered among those who worry about fiction. Are novels worthwhile or a frivolous waste of time?  Do they have anything to teach us or are they doing us harm?

One of the justifications for the free public library movement of the 19th century was self-improvement (of the working class in particular).  Irritatingly, however, many borrowers persisted in preferring books of the imagination over books of information, leading librarians to denounce them.

From the hysterical:

…undoubtedly novels are the most dangerous literature of the age: they dissipate the attention; they appeal to the lazy feelings; sensation and novelty are all that are required from them … better would it be that these lending libraries should cease to exist than that they should disseminate evil influences. (J Taylor Kay, the librarian of Owen’s College Manchester, now the University of Manchester, in 1879).

To the patronising:

It may be that the library authorities of the future will maintain that the business of the library is to supply what the public wants to read irrespective of quality in much the same way that cinema proprietors supply films. (William Berwick Sayers, chief librarian, Croydon, in 1931).

But there were always public libraries which welcomed fiction.  They took the view that good novels spoke to the human condition, and that popular fiction could refresh people.  Sheffield was one of them.  In 1931, the following article appeared in Sheffield’s Books and Readers bulletin:

 

Who is the most popular classical novelist?

Public Libraries are often criticised on the score of the amount of fiction issued by them. It is too readily assumed by these critics that fiction is all of one standard, and that a poor one, and to these Jeremiahs we point out the result of a recent test made of the popularity of twelve English novelists whose works may be definitely classed as literature. The Librarians at each of the Lending Libraries in the City were asked to report the number of books by certain authors available for loan and actually on loan to borrowers, with the following results:-

Author Stock On Loan %
Barrie 127 69 54
Bennett 352 314 89
Conrad 261 176 67
Dickens 395 218 55
Galsworthy 288 203 71
Hardy 270 183 68
Kipling 266 132 50
Meredith 146 45 31
Scott 362 105 29
Stevenson 152 89 58
Tennyson* 135 34 25
Wells 532 337 63

An examination of these details reveals that there is no reason to feel ashamed of the quality of the fiction read in Sheffield.  The high percentage for Bennett is perhaps too flattering.  It may be partially explained by the fact that the test was made soon after his death, but allowing for this factor, his popularity is remarkable.

It is fascinating to review this list 85 years on.

  • They are all men. They are all white men.  They are all British (yes, I’m counting Conrad, born in Poland, but naturalised in 1884).  Eight out of the twelve were dead by 1931, and the four still alive were all well over 60 in 1931.
  • Literary reputations change over time. Not all of the twelve authors be considered ‘classical’ today.  Only half of them appear in Robert McCrum’s 2015 list of the best 100 novels written in English (a list which generated criticism, as all such lists do – this one not least because male authors heavily outnumbered female).
  • The very fact of the test and the language used (‘no need to feel ashamed’) perhaps indicate the scale of the debate about fiction.
  • We don’t know much about the context. Which titles were borrowed? Out of the 532 books by H G Wells, say, were some more popular than others?  The article speculates that Arnold Bennett’s popularity was due to his recent death.  There may have been other contributory factors such as the author’s work appearing on the radio.  Wells, for example, took part in three radio talks between 1929 and 1931.  Then there are the borrowers themselves.  Were there more men than women, older than younger people?  Finally, who were the popular novelists (we can speculate that they included the likes of Edgar Wallace and Ethel M Dell) and how would they compare if included?  We can’t answer any of these questions, although we do know that a survey about five years later showed 40 per cent of the fiction borrowed to be ‘classic and standard’ and the rest ‘semi-standard and popular’.

‘Prose fiction today’, wrote Sheffield’s City Librarian in the 1930s, ‘provides one of the most common means by which social, political, religious and other ideas are given to the people’, while action stories had a ‘definite, if limited, place… They give mental refreshment to highly intelligent and well-read library borrowers, they are “introductory readers” to [new borrowers] and … “escape” literature to [the] mentally and physically jaded.’

The Reading Journey of Alan B

Alan was born in Kimberworth, between Rotherham and Sheffield.

He was born in 1944.

Though never discouraged from reading, Alan says ‘I kept my reading to myself’. His mother was a reader of Mills and Boon romances. She and Alan’s aunt read to him: Rupert Bear annuals and fairy stories with scary drawings. He explored comics on his own, the Beano, Dandy, Roy of the Rovers but was never an Eagle fan. The family also had a complete set of Arthur Mee’s Encyclopedia. Though initially Alan didn’t find reading easy, when he got to junior school he found a teacher ‘who bullied me, in a nice way, to read’.

Then, at secondary school,

I seemed to have this sort of explosion, you know, I’d sort of discovered reading and I’d got a lot of time to make up and everything. I was probably, looking back, I probably didn’t understand them at all.

He thinks it may have been because he developed his reading confidence late that he felt that he had to make up for lost time, turning his back on what he regarded as childish:

Well I started reading classic books like Charles Dickens and I remember trying to read Paradise Lost and finding it absolutely totally beyond me … and I can remember going to Rotherham City Library and saying I’d like to join the library and them trying to direct me to the children’s library. I wouldn’t have that, no I wanted these other books.

Though Alan got huge pleasure from G A Henty’s boys’ adventure stories, he knew that there were other, ‘important’ books that he also wanted to explore. Identifying what were the important books took some doing and there were pitfalls in this voyage of discovery. When he was asked at secondary school to name a famous author, one of his mother’s favourites came to mind and he answered ‘Mazo de la Roche’ (who wrote the hugely popular and romantic Jalna series). ‘I was laughed at and … I perhaps realised that perhaps all our authors aren’t equal!’

Alan still remembers the books he read in class, one of the earliest being John Ruskin’s fable cum fairytale, The King of the Golden River or The Black Brothers: A Legend of Stiria.

Alan Bailey

I went to secondary modern school and there were very few books actually in school in those days. And the ones that were, I think they were trying to make us realise how good books were but they were so sort of reverential about books that, you know, I wouldn’t have dared go to the library and borrow one.

The reverence for the book as object was shaken when the same teachers who instilled this attitude commanded their pupils to strike out the word ‘King’ in the National Anthem and insert the word ‘Queen’ in 1953. ‘I remember being quite shocked that teachers were telling us to deface our hymn books’.

At about this time he was introduced in English lessons to Jack London’s adventures of life in the Canadian forests: Call of the Wild and White Fang; and the great escape story, The Wooden Horse. This taste for adventure stories was satisfied by many different kinds of author: John Buchan, John Masters, C S Forester, John Wyndham, Nevil Shute and Graham Greene. Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin he enjoyed ‘in a sort of … disturbed way’. Alan bought many of these novels from the long-established Rotherham bookshop, Harpers, ‘a rabbit warren of shelves’. The municipal library was his chief source of books. Relatives and friends of the family also regularly gave him books as presents. A particular friend was the chair of the local education committee in Rotherham. ‘If I ever mentioned a book in his presence he would get it for me.’

buchan-and-london2

As a teenager Alan found Bright Day by J B Priestley ‘useful’,

useful in the sense that as an adolescent you had certain uncertainties and that is what he talked about. And knowing that other people had the same uncertainties, it’s not just you.

priestly

So reading allied Alan to these unseen people who might ask the same questions. He never felt he was part of a group that were all readers though his family did have books in the home. He felt that in Rotherham ‘I was slightly unusual in that I was keen on reading and I did collect books.’ He built his own bookshelves to house his collection.

Alan left school to go to technical college and then, like his father, worked in the metal industry. His father had worked in the rolling mills and Alan joined a research laboratory. Alan was soon doing night classes, gaining a Higher National Certificate in physics and an Open University degree, all this balanced with family life.

Alan feels he is ‘fairly open to any genre as long as it is engaging, telling you something. So, I like a fast moving story and if you can get both together that’s wonderful’. He reflects on why books have been so important to him:

I think I am a person who uses reading rather than for its own sake, as it were. I like to see what it can do for me sort of thing.

 

Access Alan’s audio and transcript here.

 

Delia’s Reading Journey

Delia was born on 5 October 1942 in Stannington, near Sheffield, where she grew up.  She was educated at Stannington County Primary School and, after the 11-plus, at Ecclesfield Grammar. She married and moved to Rotherham, where she had her children.  Later she went to night school to study literature. 

I just used to live in the books, you know, I was always reading, well, as I am now.

Early on in her interview, Delia comments on the impact of books – of fiction – on a child’s imagination.   As she talks, book after book, author after author, come back to her, often not thought of in years but now vivid and clear, like set pieces.

‘About the first book [Delia] can remember’ was a Christmas present about a ‘pig called Toby Twirl, and his friend, I think, was a penguin’.  Delia is right.  In these 1940s and ‘50s picture books by Sheila Hodgetts, Toby was a pig who looked rather like Rupert the Bear and had a penguin friend called Pete.

After Toby Delia learned to read.  She particularly enjoyed books set in the countryside, all handed down from her elder sister:

The Twins at Hillside Farm …  It was lovely, that.  It was about two children, twins, living on a farm in some country place and it would tell things about milk separators and things like that.  And there was one called Ranch on the Plain, which was about cowboys.  And The Girl from Golden [sic].  Oh, and another one that I really liked they called it A Pair of Red Polls, and it was about two red-headed children who lived on a farm.  But I couldn’t tell you any of the authors.  But that was between … I’d say I read those between five and seven years old.

Delia says she ‘used to like these books about children who lived on farms for some reason’.  Perhaps this was because the countryside was all she herself knew and so a lasting connection was made:

No, it was really countrified around Stannington in those days. I mean, not like it is now. It was very much … It seemed miles away from Sheffield, miles.  You had to go on one bus to Malin Bridge, and then catch a tram into Sheffield town centre.  So I think I must have been about five before I even went into the town centre.

And the interest in the countryside stayed with her.  In her early 20s, Delia started reading Thomas Hardy, whom she still loves: ‘I read all his books because I liked the Dorset theme to them.’

As a teenager, Delia read a book called The Secret Shore, by Lillie Le Pla.  Why she remembers this so well she doesn’t say, but 60 years later she can describe it in detail.  The images or characters in some books simply take up permanent residence.

Oh, and I remember reading one by a lady called Lillie Le Pla and it was called The Secret Shore and I think it was probably about the Channel Islands, which is somewhere that I love now.  I remember reading that one, it just came to me, it had a blue cloth back.  And it was about some … It was about a girl who would … I’m not sure if her dad had died, but they lived in this house and she found this tunnel through the cliff and there was a gate in it.  And that led up to this man’s house, and she used to go straight on and it led down to the secret shore.  And I remember this man, I think he must’ve been some connection of her mother’s because he bought her a lovely watch for her birthday.  I just remembered.  And then I think in the end there was a happy ending where they got married, where he married her mother.  I can’t remember all the circumstances, but it was about this shore that she used to go down to and be on her own and find shells and things, you know.

LePlaSecretShore

In her later teens, in the early 1960s, Delia was working her way through popular authors like Elizabeth Goudge, Anya Seton and Agatha Christie.

Anya Seton, it was Katherine, she wrote.  Yes.  I remember reading that and The Herb of Grace, Elizabeth Goudge.  And Agatha Christie of course, I used to read all the detective books.  I used to love detective books.

The mention of Anya Seton sparks something:

… Dragonwyck, that was another Anya Seton one.  Have you heard of that one?  It was a film as well, an old film.  Foxfire, that was another one.  And My Theodosia, that was another one.  Yes.

Now that she was older, Delia started getting her books from the Central Library in Sheffield, going there with a friend after work.  It was amazing, she agrees, to have that much choice after small school libraries and the like, and so she started with the familiar.

I made for the authors that I knew. I started with Elizabeth Goudge and Anya Seton in the school library and I sort of went for those books again when I went to the main library.  And then with Agatha Christie as well, they’d always got the latest one.  And I can remember one that I never read but was advertised in Sheffield Library.  It was Frank Yerby – The Old Gods Laugh.  And I used to see it advertised on the counter and, you know, I never borrowed that book and I still don’t know what it was about.

YerbyOldGodsLaugh

Asked about Frank Yerby, Delia admits she knows nothing about him.  But the image of his book  – Sheffield Libraries always did lots of displays – has for some reason stayed with her, buried deep in her memory, and has been retrieved during the interview.  ‘Came back to me when I was talking to you, you know, about Sheffield Library. I just remember that one.’  For the record, Frank Yerby (1916-1991) was the first African-American writer to become a millionaire and the first to have a book, The Foxes of Harrow, made into a movie.  Here is a review of The Old Gods Laugh, which is not encouraging.  Perhaps it is best that Delia never read it.

A little later, reading came to mean respite, with Delia borrowing books from the library in Rotherham where she now lived:

No, I’ve never dropped off reading because in 1963 I got married and immediately became pregnant with my first child and books were a wonderful escape from housework and crying babies.

The urge to read became an urge to study.  When she had had all her children, Delia ‘went to night school for English Literature’ and has now read widely among classics and older novels.  ‘Yes, I’ve read most of those classic ones.’  She readily lists: Charles Dickens (‘I liked David Copperfield’), Mrs Henry Wood (‘Victorian melodrama-type thing’), Tolstoy, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Scott Fitzgerald, Mrs Gaskell, Evelyn Waugh (‘Oh, Evelyn Waugh, I love those’), Iris Murdoch (‘I can’t get on with [her]’), Gustave Flaubert, Anthony Trollope, Arnold Bennett, the Brontës (‘I liked Jane Eyre’) and Jane Austen.

But – another impression – school almost destroyed Jane Austen for Delia (as it has other authors for other people).

Pride and Prejudice we had to do at school … We did it for O level.  And, uh, the way you do it at school, you’re bored to tears by it, absolutely bored to tears by it. … Yes, we had to go back and forth over it and I got fed up with it.  But I’ve read it since and enjoyed it.  I’ve read all the others as well.

Pride and Prejudice: Mr Collins proposes

Pride and Prejudice: Mr Collins proposes

At one point in the interview, Delia is asked:

‘Were you what they describe as a bookworm?  Did you immediately take to it?’

‘Oh yes, yes,’ she replies, ‘I was one of the first in the class to do what they called silent reading.  So once I’d mastered silent reading, I just never stopped.’

Chris F’s reading journey

Chris F was born in 1939, in the Whirlowdale area of Sheffield. He attended boarding school and Cambridge, where he read engineering.  He returned to Sheffield and worked there all his life.

But on the whole I have to say it’s the land of make-believe in most of my reading.

Chris is very clear that he reads, and always has read, for entertainment.  He usually relaxes, for example, with a book for half an hour or so before sleep, and says that most of his books ‘have been bought at airports’.  But if you think that books are not particularly important to him, or that he has not thought about their impact on his life, then you would be wrong.  As our interviewer said:

And clearly books have been so important in your life that you can’t imagine one without.

Chris’ introduction to reading was traditional.  The books he remembers from his childhood were staples: A A Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, Allison Uttley’s Little Grey Rabbit and Beatrix Potter.  At school, he graduated to Enid Blyton and then to school stories like Billy Bunter. Thousands of schoolboys in the middle of the 20th century must have had a similar start.  Chris was one of those in whom the habit of reading was firmly set by authors who told a good tale.

It must also have helped that Chris grew up in a house filled with books.  He doesn’t remember being urged to read by his parents but ‘the means of doing it was there’.

I never recall actually going to a library because we had an enormous number of books at home … Which my parents had. I’m rather like my father, once you get a book you never throw it away.

He remembers lots of crime, with Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh and the less well-remembered Carter Dickson/John Dickson Carr.  There was also some real-life crime:

… It was the life of the pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury which I found very nice and gory at the time, I enjoyed it.

It was around this time that Chris found Nevil Shute, ‘who I think is probably my overall favourite author, which I started reading having seen the film of A Town Like Alice’. Even now, years later, he still enjoys these novels, which he says are gentle and believable:

I got all the books and I, oh about every five or six years I start again at the beginning. I re-read a lot of old favourites.

Requiem for a Wren

In Chris’ teens lots of his books came through his joining the Companion Book Club:

… you didn’t get any choice in those days, you got the book that they sent you. I’ve still got them all. Five bob a month it was and you finished up with a novel you probably would never have read otherwise.

By now, Chris had developed a taste for adventure, so Alistair McLean’s HMS Ulysses, his first book from the Companion Book Club, was very welcome. McLean was followed by C S Forester, Dennis Wheatley and Dornford Yates.  Chris laughs as he recalls Dennis Wheatley:

… the house library at school had one or two Dennis Wheatleys and they all had the salacious bits in them and we all knew where they were, pages 27 and 28, and if you opened the book they were well-thumbed.

The interest in adventure – swashbuckling, espionage, war, arch criminals etc – remained constant from school, through university, into adulthood and working life.  Chris remembers, with pleasure still, the adventures of Simon Templar alias The Saint, James Bond alias 007 and Dr Syn alias the Scarecrow and Captain Clegg.

Chris has tried reading some of the books he enjoyed, like Frank Richards’ Billy Bunter, to his grandsons, but with mixed results.

I’ve tried to get my grandsons involved but I have to say, modern boys are very difficult to get to read because they’ve all got their little widgets that they play with and watch television the whole t-time. It was books like Billy Bunter and like Enid Blyton that got me reading and I think got my generation reading.

He is concerned by what he sees as the declining interest in reading among children.  He accepts that they gain a lot through technology (he is learning to use his own Kindle) but fears the next generation will:

have a terribly limited outlook on life … I do despair a little because with the modern exam system and the way that kids don’t read in our days we shall finish up with children with very narrow horizons.

What about improving books then? Were you led to see [reading] as an improving thing? asks the interviewer.

Well, we had books that we were studying and that we had to read. And funnily enough I can remember well the … the books that at the age of about 13 when I went away to public school that we had to read and thinking ‘Oh God, these are heavy going’. But I’ve read them again since and thoroughly enjoyed them. I think there is a difference when you actually have to read them and be questioned on them…

1st US edition of Darkness at Noon, 1941

1st US edition of Darkness at Noon, 1941

These were books like Darkness at Noon (1940) by Arthur Koestler – the story of a Bolshevik who falls victim to Stalin during the purges of the 1930s.   Chris still occasionally reads books his teachers would have thought of as improving:

I’m half way through Great Expectations, I never really read Dickens. I had to do Dickens at schools but I read Nicholas Nickleby recently and I’m reading Great Expectations now.

But it is the authors like Dornford Yates, C S Forester and Nevil Shute, whom he found for himself, that he goes back to, happy to re-read them:

… to take you away into a land of make believe.

Nevil Shute

Nevil Shute

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.