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.

Mavis’s Reading Journey

Mavis, born 18 January 1937.

Mavis is well travelled. From the age of five she walked, on her own, three quarters of a mile to school, sometimes getting a lift on one of the coal lorries as it left the weigh station where her father was manager. The weigh station was deliberately set apart from Tinsley colliery to guard against pilfering. Mavis could have taken the bus to school but because of her father’s job she was thought of as ‘posh’ and walked to avoid the bullying.

When Mavis got to nursery school at three or four she could already read. Yet, her parents being more on the maths side probably didn’t read to her much and they didn’t have any books in the house.

Well, they had three: the Bible; a book called Vigil which I thought was Virgil till I thought he couldn’t have been that bad and it turned out to be a book of prayers; and a Dorothy L Sayers murder mystery, and those were the only three books, with a dictionary, that they had in the house.

But a friend of the family, Auntie Vera, was a primary school teacher. She borrowed books from the school library for Mavis and left them with her for the week. The girl soon learned to decipher the words with the help of the pictures.

Between the ages of five and eleven Mavis went on regular visits to her father’s brother who was a headmaster two train rides away at Barnby Dunn, a village near Doncaster. With her mother working Mavis would often spend the holiday in the library of her uncle’s school.

And there were picture books, children’s books.  And he used to buy me books, often books which were much older than the age I was, and because I thought he knew what he was doing, if he bought it me and I found it hard, it must be my fault and I better make sure I could read it [laughing] because he would ask me about it when I saw him again ….His was the one book which triggered off lots of others.  He bought me, when I was about seven, he bought me a book of Greek myths.

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Other relatives introduced her to other delights:

If went to my auntie’s I’d pick up her magazines. What was it?  The People’s Friend. And I would be as engrossed in The People’s Friend, I’m ashamed to say.  I was a bit omnivorous and unselective.

Mavis read everything, whatever she could get her hands on. When she got one of the highest 11+ passes in the city she attended Sheffield High School, another two stage journey. Her school friends came from all over the city and sometimes beyond the city boundaries so Mavis had few friends out of school. From 11 onwards her reading was extraordinarily varied.

It would be George Eliot one week [and] The Island of Adventure the next, or The Adventures of Scamp. … I had a horse phase, like all little girls, but I was reading quite a lot of adult fiction at the same time.  Especially as the stuff that I got lead on to was always available. You didn’t get a big queue for the next George Eliot whereas you did for the Enid Blytons.

Later on at the High School, she managed to take Friday afternoons off during the optional games periods and she would make her way, usually alone, to the Central Library. She remembers her first visit.

As I walked in – didn’t know quite know where to start – and started at the Ws. I found Hugh Walpole, Leo Walmsley and … I think accidentally someone had filed Warwick Deeping in the Ws and I read him and I just read others by those authors.

Perhaps the ease with which Mavis approached any kind of book, without fear or favour, made her a natural story-teller.

Funnily enough there was a little girl who used to read a lot who was on my dinner table when I was a third year. … She used to read quite widely for a little girl, I thought, and we used to play making up stories at the table, to while away the time when you’d eaten the first course and had got to wait till everybody finished to go and get the second, and you’d tell a story and stop, and the next one … And it was Margaret Drabble.  I’ve often thought, my goodness, no wonder she was a good storyteller, good at that game!

However, Mavis’s careless and carefree appetite for any kind of literature nearly cost her the chance to become the English teacher to whom so many children owe their delight in reading. When Mavis went up to Leeds University she had to make a train journey that she was anxious about. Would she miss her stop and end up in Scotland? To avoid getting lost in a book that might absorb her too fully, she snatched her mother’s copy of The Reader’s Digest magazine.  When she got to Leeds, the interviewer asked

“What did you read on the train?”  So I said “Readers’ Digest” and I saw this expression and I thought “Ah”.

Mavis quickly explained her the reasons for her reading choice and persuaded her interviewer that she was a serious enough student to do a degree in English Literature but after that I was aware that there were things you didn’t own up to but apart from magazines I don’t think it would have ever occurred to me.

Mavis's copy of Wordsworth

Mavis’s copy of Wordsworth

Listening to Mavis describe the lessons she taught all over the country: Harlow, Bolton, Kersley and Carlisle, I wished she could have been my English teacher. She created groups in which every member read a different book and shared her opinions with her friends. Alongside the necessary detailed analysis of a “set-book” these students absorbed Mavis’s delight in the range of literary journeys available to us all, her readiness to recognise the unknown and explore it.

When, at university, Mavis was temporarily abashed by how little she had learned at school about the Metaphysical poets, her response was characteristically matter of fact and entirely positive: “I realised that I had very large gaps which was a good thing to know”.

by Mary Grover

Access Mavis’s transcript and audio here