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?

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

Crisis reading: Sheffield Libraries in 1938-39

In 1938-39, the book most requested in Sheffield Libraries was Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf.  Seventy-five years on, this comes as a surprise.  But in the context of the time and the role of a public library it makes sense: people turned to their local library to learn about, to understand, the awful international situation.

Mein Kampf

Mein Kampf (public domain)

Events in 1938 and 1939

In March 1938 Germany annexed Austria.  Then, prompted by Hitler, the Sudeten Germans in Czechoslovakia began agitating for self-government and in September, Hitler demanded the Sudetenland, a third of Czech territory.  On 30 September the Treaty of Munich was signed by Germany, Italy, France and Great Britain, forcing Czechoslovakia to cede the Sudeten territory to Germany.  British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was hailed as peacemaker by many on his return from Germany, appearing with the King and Queen on the Buckingham Palace balcony.  But he was condemned by others as an appeaser – the reputation he still has.  On 1 October Germany annexed the Sudetenland.  Next, on 9 November, came the violence of Kristallnacht, with hundreds of Jews killed, thousands more imprisoned and their property damaged or destroyed.  Soon Jews in the Third Reich were forced to wear the Star of David and their civil rights were removed.

During 1939, Germany occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia and made territorial demands on Lithuania and Poland.  Hitler’s attacks on the Jews continued.  On 31 March, Britain and France, which had abandoned Czechoslovakia the year before, agreed to defend Poland in the case of invasion.  In September 1939, Germany invaded Poland and World War II began.

Books in Demand

Sheffield Libraries’ 82nd annual report, for 1938-39, discussed people’s response to the international situation.

  • Mein Kampf ‘topped the list of reserves in every library’. Next came Guns or Butter (1938) by  diplomat and journalist Robert Bruce Lockhart, which had as a subtitle ‘War Countries and Peace Countries of Europe Revisited’; and Insanity Fair (1938) by Douglas Reed, who was anti-Semitic but said to be wary of Hitler.  Also in demand were: Inside Europe (1936) by John Gunther, Kurt Ludecke’s I Knew Hitler (1937) and Madeleine Kent’s I Married a German.  Gunther was a US foreign correspondent based in Europe and Ludecke, a Nazi supporter who had fallen out with Hitler.  I cannot discover much about Madeleine Kent, but the title of her book sounds rather sensationalist.
  • Sheffield Libraries routinely recorded non-fiction borrowed by category. The annual report speculated that the sharp increases in the categories of politics, travel and history* were due to the international situation.  Almost 10,000 more books were read on politics, from 47,614 in 1937-38 to 57,094 in 1938-39 – an increase of nearly 20 per cent; and travel and history were each up by about 4,000.  The total issue that year was, by the way, 2.7 million and it was estimated that 18 per cent of the Sheffield population had library tickets.

Apparently it did not prove easy to meet readers’ demands:

The demand for ‘crisis’ books has, in fact, been rather embarrassing. The pace of events makes such books quickly out of date, and the sum available for new books does not allow of their being bought in the quantity necessary to satisfy more than a fraction of the demand for them during their life of immediate appeal.  Moreover, it is a library’s function to select those of merit, and it is not easy to separate these quickly from the hurried ‘pot-boilers’ which have appeared on the market.

There was a particular problem with Mein Kampf, and the resolution shows how responsibly  Sheffield Libraries took the business of meeting readers’ needs.  The German edition was available in the Central Library but there was at first no full English translation.  There was an abridged version and ‘an attempt was made to supplement [this with pamphlets from the Friends of Europe] summarising and commenting on the main points of the full German edition’.  A note was inserted in this short version explaining that it did ‘not give an adequate representation of Hitler’s views … It is, however, useful as a guide to some of his ideas’.  The Sheffield annual report, probably written by the City Librarian, Joseph Lamb, comments drily:

The shorter English edition is still on service, as readers may prefer to read this, in conjunction with the pamphlets, rather than attempt the 560 pages of the full translation, which is a formidable task to a reader with a clear mind – not merely because of its length.

We do not know how great the demand for ‘crisis books’ was, although it must have been significant to be noted for the annual report.  Other than the borrowing figures by non-fiction category, there is no indication of how many people reserved these books and we know nothing about who they were.  It is interesting that the annual report goes on to note:

But the third place in lending library records of reserves was held by Gibbons’ Stamp Catalogue, which last year topped the list.  Next were Evens’s Out with Romany Again, Mackenzie’s Windsor Tapestry, Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and Haldane’s A.R.P.

Out with Romany Again

The Stamp Catalogue was probably a standard in lists of reserves.  Windsor Tapestry (1938) was a study of the new Duke of Windsor by novelist Compton Mackenzie.  In 1938, Edward VIII must still have been of great interest, as perhaps was T E Lawrence, who had been killed in 1935.  Out with Romany Again (1938) was the latest book from GB Evens, aka Romany, a popular broadcaster on the countryside.  Haldane’s ARP [Air Raid Precautions] was an analysis of stress based on his experience of air raids during the Spanish Civil War, and interest in it might perhaps be linked to the developing crisis.

Gone with the Wind

Gone with the Wind (public domain)

Fiction was, of course, also in demand.  Most of the books popular in 1938-39 are solidly middlebrow and they and/or their authors are almost all remembered by our Reading Sheffield interviewees. Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (1936) was still the book to be seen with, not least with all the excitement about the casting of Scarlett O’Hara for the December 1939 movie.  Also sought after were: A J Cronin’s The Citadel; Winifred Holtby’s South Riding; Francis Brett Young’s Dr Bradley Remembers; Kenneth Roberts’s North-West Passage; Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca; Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables; Leonora Thornber’s Portrait in Steel; Howard Spring’s O, Absolom!; Philip Gibbs’s This Nettle, Danger; Pearl S Buck’s The Good Earth; and Cronin’s The Stars Look Down.

The interest in Les Misérables, the annual report speculates, was because of the BBC’s 1939 serialization, while Portrait in Steel was ‘undoubtedly due to the book’s local associations … referred to in the local press’.  It was set in Stelborough, a thinly disguised Sheffield.  South Riding had local associations too.  Sheffield Libraries might also have noted that: films of The Citadel and South Riding were released in 1938 and The Good Earth in 1937#; and that Pearl S Buck won the 1938 Nobel Prize for Literature.  The resulting publicity no doubt influenced these choices too.

Sir Philip Gibbs’ book, This Nettle, Danger, takes us back to international problems.  Perhaps the City Librarian had not read it or he might have included it in his crisis list too, as it is a fictionalized account of Munich.  The title, from Henry V, was famously quoted by Chamberlain on return from Germany.  Gibbs apparently felt that Chamberlain had been right in 1938, but also that the Munich settlement was probably only temporary.

Today’s crises

Do we turn to libraries today, to understand international crises?  Are people asking for books now about Syria and ISIS?  Library memberships are falling, while books are cheaper and more available (including online) than in the ‘30s.  And we have: rolling news, with instant updates and expert analysis; politicians who are (generally) gifted communicators never far from a microphone; and social media and even citizen journalism.  So the answer is: perhaps yes, we still look to libraries – but not to anything like the same extent as in 1938.

* In full, these categories were: politics, economics and social science; travel and description; and history.

# North West Passage, Rebecca and The Stars Look Down were all filmed in 1940.

Jocelyn’s Reading Journey

Jocelyn Wilson was born in Sheffield in 1926.  She was educated, in wartime, at boarding school in Kent and was evacuated to Cornwall.  In 1948 Jocelyn married and in time had children.  In the 1970s and ‘80s she was a social worker.   

‘Did your parents ever say, “Don’t waste your time reading a novel”?’ ‘Oh no, never.  Nobody ever said that.’

How do we choose books?  How do we decide what to read?  And how do we judge our choices?

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Looking at her interview, you feel that Jocelyn W, who read widely and had excellent recall, was confident in her opinions and happy to defend them.  The quality of books, her own and others’ perceptions and the value of reading all lie just beneath the surface of her story.

Jocelyn was born into a comfortable, middle-class family in Sheffield in 1926.  Her first books were typical for that background and period – Alice in Wonderland, The Enchanted Forest, Cecily M Barker’s Flower Fairies and other fairy stories.  Predictably, they were chosen by her mother and a ‘very dear nanny who was into reading herself’.  Later, Jocelyn’s older sister helped her find books too.  Nanny and Jocelyn’s parents all read aloud to the children.  Jocelyn didn’t say so directly, but her first books seemed to have all the impact any parent could have hoped for: Jocelyn described them as stories ‘that made your imagination race’ and remembered them clearly 80 years later.  The Flower Fairies for example, she said, were ‘part of one’s history’.

After this promising start, things went less well.  Books were in short supply in Jocelyn’s life.  At first this was because her family lived ‘on the fringes’ of Sheffield and ‘it was quite a journey to go anywhere where there were books to be lent’.  Then World War II intervened and Jocelyn, by now at boarding school, found herself being evacuated to remote Cornwall.

And I remember after a birthday having a book token and having great difficulty in going to a bookshop in Newquay, Cornwall, to find something to buy.  And in the end The Heir of Redclyffe.  I can’t remember who wrote it but it was a pretty frantic book, I remember.  But there was so little choice.  And I think that’s one of the things we forget now ‘cos there are so many books of every kind, good and bad.  And then there were very, very few.

This early experience seems to have had a lasting effect.  Jocelyn said:

But of course it’s difficult for people nowadays to realise how few books came out and they were rare beasts and you waited for your birthday to get a copy.  Now there’s so much; you go to a bookshop and I’m overwhelmed.  I can hardly ever choose anything ‘cos there’s too much to choose from and it’s difficult to find what you really want.

Another effect of this shortage was that Jocelyn ended up reading what was available – the books on the family bookshelves – just because they were there.  She considered herself lucky.  ‘I think people forget now that it was like that.  You could be in a situation where you hadn’t anything new to read.  It seems incredible now, doesn’t it?’

Jocelyn’s family continued to influence her choices and judgments.  Her mother was ‘interested in books.  And so there was a good wide variety of classics’.  Jocelyn remembered reading, for example, Precious Bane and Mary Webb’s other novels.  ‘My mother was very sensible; she never said, ‘Don’t’.  She was very good; she was highly intelligent and we valued what she thought.’  (Jocelyn’s father tried too, but was rather less successful: suggestions like G A Henty were rejected as ‘boy’s own stuff’.)

School was the next big influence on Jocelyn, and it was there that her own judgment began to emerge.

… I did a project on keeping a notebook of all the things I’d read … I know that it was criticised by the person who taught English at school, saying, ‘I can’t think why you read all this rubbish when you’re capable of reading something so much better.’  You see, it had gone through the whole range.  But that was important in order to learn what was rubbish and what wasn’t.

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What was this ‘whole range’ that formed Jocelyn’s taste?  Over the years, there were:

  • classics like Jane Austen (‘she writes with such a deft touch’)
  • literary fiction, as we might say today, with authors like Marghanita Laski (Little Boy Lost ‘tore everybody’s heart to pieces’) and Rumer Godden (‘very delicate in her writing, sensitive and she touched one’s heart’)
  • popular, middlebrow authors of the day: Nevil Shute (‘wonderfully good stories’); Daphne du Maurier (‘anything she wrote was grist to the mill’); Queens of Crime like Dorothy L Sayers and adventure writers like John Buchan; Mazo de la Roche (whose Jalna books were the ‘original soap opera’)
  • ‘rubbish’ like ‘Oh Baroness Orczy and that sort of thing, The Scarlet Pimpernel. Oh good old rubbish, that’.

Rubbish was not, however, as clear-cut as it might seem.  For one thing, Jocelyn was becoming confident enough to reject other people’s opinions:

Oh yes, but I don’t count [Georgette Heyer] as rubbish … Of course she was a great storyteller, wasn’t she?  And of course historically very accurate.  There were things to praise about her.  Even though the stories were romantic fiction in the very highest level.

And sometimes rubbish could be the thing: ‘And if you’re not feeling very well, rubbish is what you want!’  If it was what you needed, could it be rubbish?

What Jocelyn would not accept was the badly or carelessly written.

I think that now I can only read things that aren’t badly written.  Sloppiness is what really gets me; and I think a lot of writers nowadays are very sloppy; they don’t do their research properly.

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So Jocelyn developed her approach: reading widely; making her own assessments but open to influence; seeking out high quality but understanding the worth and pleasure in lower quality.  This seemed to stand Jocelyn in good stead throughout her life.

… I didn’t read George Eliot until much later on; I came to ‘Middlemarch’ as a grown-up person.  It’s a wonderful book, isn’t it?  They’re very raw, some of those books by George Eliot.

…I still can read Arthur Ransome books.  When I was laid low with a back injury two years ago. the thing I chose to read was Winter Holiday and I loved it and it took me back.  It’s well-written and that’s the key, isn’t it?

I [chose Dracula for book group] and the men sort of withdrew in horror.  A lot of them wouldn’t read it.  It was quite interesting.  The women mostly did.  But I think it’s a marvelous book.  I keep turning the pages to find out what’s next.  I can’t believe it … It’s not even particularly well-written; it’s a most ridiculous story.  So why are we fascinated with Dracula?  I’m jolly glad I read it.  [But the men] weren’t going to waste their time reading ‘rubbish’ … I said, ‘I know it’s rubbish.’

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by Val Hewson

Read or listen to Jocelyn’s interview in full here.