Mary Robertson’s Reading Journey

Off to Brid in 1927

Mary was born in 1923. She has lived all her life in the suburbs to the west of Sheffield, far from the smoke of the factories in the east side of the city where her father worked as an industrial chemist. There were books in the house and it was her sister who read them to her before she could read herself.

Mother seemed to be too busy. Father would read after Sunday lunch until he fell asleep but my sister was the one who read to me. She was two and half years older and she would always read to me when I was little.

And this was despite being taunted by the tiny Mary when she was reading. ‘Reader reader!’ was the insult hurled to drag her sister back into her world to pay her some attention. She left her brother alone with his Beanos. Though reading was encouraged, the chores came first. Then the girls could retreat to their bedroom where Mary’s sister read to her.

Mary and her sister on Bridlington sands in 1927. Mary on the right.

Bedtime was reading-time for ‘the children’s books of the day’. First there were nursery rhyme books followed by Winnie the Pooh, Peter Pan and the stories of Mabel Lucie Attwell. As a school girl she treasured What Katy Did and the Girl’s Own annuals she was given at Christmas. None of these books was borrowed. All came into the house as gifts because the children were not taken to the library and were certainly not allowed to go on their own: ‘we weren’t allowed out of the end of the road you know’. But the family nevertheless encouraged reading. ‘Oh yes that was our main means of entertainment. Going to the cinema and reading’.

On Sunday we always had the roast lunch, Sunday lunch time and the fire would be [lit] … they were biggish houses down on Westwood Road. And we always read after Sunday lunch. We had lots of armchairs and that is where we always read. Mother, my sister and I – I don’t think my brother did.

One Christmas Mary’s father bought his two daughters the complete Encyclopaedia Britannica, about 12 volumes.’That was our greatest source of delight. We learnt everything we knew.’ When Mary took her first independent steps to find books, it was on behalf of her mother. In 1939, having just left school, Mary was living at home and waiting to be called up.

So I used to go to the library for mother and she liked Mary Burchell, Ethel M Dell. And I used to go to the local Red Circle library … and I’d get some books for her when you paid tuppence a time to join and I would read very light romances. I always felt guilty because, you know, you didn’t read those kind of things then.

When an Ethel M Dell got a little ‘spicy’, Mary would read it hidden under the bedclothes by the light of her torch. Later on Forever Amber and Gone with the Wind would also be read by torchlight.

Mary went to a fee-paying convent school. The nuns were interested in poetry, ‘gentle things’. ‘Poetry was the great thing. Poetry, singing, music.’ So like the children at Sheffield’s elementary schools, Mary and her contemporaries learned a lot of poetry off by heart. But not much else. ‘They were the happiest years of my life but I didn’t learn much! But that’s me, a lot of them did’ so The Red Circle Library on the Moor was the institution from which she ‘graduated’ –  to the Central Library which was to become her ‘greatest delight’. Until she couldn’t walk, Mary went there every fortnight: ‘I loved it’.

Mary looks back in amusement at the thrills she and her mother got from the romantic novels of Ethel M Dell and E M Hull. ‘They got as far as the bedroom door, “and then the door closed”, and that was it.’ She also enjoyed the cowboy books of Zane Grey. ‘It was war days, very dull days and you escaped, as you do now. You escape into another world when you read.’

But her choices from the Central Library were more serious and ‘gritty’: Nevil Shute, Alan Sillitoe, A J Cronin, Howard Spring, H E Bates and John Braine. The novel by H E Bates she remembers is The Purple Plain, describing the survival of three men in Japanese-occupied Burma. Though Bates is more usually associated with his rural novels about the rollicking Larkin family, Mary preferred the ‘stronger’ war novel to the more ‘frivoty’ Darling Buds of May. She also became a serious reader of historical novels. She and her sister shared a taste for Anya Seton. ‘I realised that I liked history far more than I ever did when I was at school.’ When Sue, the history teacher who was interviewing Mary, commented that this didn’t say much for the teachers who taught her, Mary acknowledged this but defends them.

Nuns, you know – bless ‘em, they were lovely, it was a lovely school but I don’t think I learnt a lot. As I say, the war was coming up and it was a very bad time. I left in 1939 as the war started and it broke into anything you were going to do.

Mary was called to serve in the NAAFI shop in a detention camp ‘for the fliers who had flipped their tops a bit with their terrible job. And they were sent to us for three weeks and they used to pile into my shop. Quite an exciting time’, so there was not much reading.

When Mary became a mother, she was on her own with her first baby because her husband was away a lot. It was difficult to travel down to the Central Library with the baby so, in the early 1950s, Mary returned to using a twopenny library in a newsagent’s shop at the bottom of her road. Both this and another she used were simply a couple of shelves full of novels but the stock must have changed regularly because she always found something to read in the evenings when she had ‘got the baby down’.

She was quite discriminating about the degrees of seriousness she would go for. She was absorbed by Jack London’s White Fang and The Call of the Wild but was never attracted to adventure books. Though John Braine was depressing ,his books were well written. She never developed a taste for ‘Galsworthy – the heavier ones’. She definitely ruled out ‘these great novels where it starts with, “She’s the kitchen maid, terrible hard life…” You know very well she is going to marry the Lord of the Manor!’

While Mary is enthusiastic about the authors she loves, like P G Wodehouse, she is absolute in her condemnations too.

I did not [with emphasis] like American books. I still don’t. I think it is the language. . . .  It’s not so much the swearing, it’s the style.

Mary shared a love of reading with her husband but when the children were small, it was the cinema that was the greatest treat. It was a pleasure they shared but not in each other’s company.

Well when we lived down Carter Knowle Road, I mustn’t keep you but when Andrew was a baby I would get him washed or whatever and then run all the way to the Abbeydale and watch the first house and run all the way back and then David would have got Andrew to bed and then he would go to the second house.

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Mary is clearly open to any suggestion about what she might read. She described the taste that her husband had for Dickens and asked Sue whether or not we had found that Dickens is more of a man’s book.

Sue: I do like Dickens. He is my favourite.

Mary: Do you really? I should have given him a go, shouldn’t I? Given him a go. I think it is a bit too late now.

The Reading Journey of Edna B

By Mary Grover

Edna was born in 1928. When she was a child her family were moved to a new estate, the Flower Estate, built in 1923 on High Wincobank. Billed as ‘dainty villas for well-paid artisans’, the houses had their own toilets and hot water – ‘it was’quite something’.

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Edna passed the 11 plus and won a place at the City Grammar in the centre of town. She stayed till she was 16. Though her headmaster wanted her to stay on and encouraged her ambition to go into teaching, her parents could not afford it. She could have got a grant from the old pupils’ association, the Holly Guild, but she would have had to pay it back. When female teachers got married they lost their jobs. It was ‘a deterrent’ to taking on such a large debt.

Edna was conscious of how hard both her parents worked to support the children. On Saturday afternoons her father used to walk her down through the allotments to Firth Park Library. The first book she remembers reading, probably when she was about six, was Little Anne of Canada.

It was illustrated, this book, and this girl must’ve lived in Alaska, probably, and I was fascinated by this story and we seemed to get it out several times ‘cos I liked it.

 

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Edna’s father’s mother couldn’t read and write and he was always conscious of what an education would do.

Well, to even read. I mean, he could read and write, but I don’t think he ever sat down and read books.

Edna’s mother’s family had had both money and educational opportunities. Though her mother was unable to pursue her own education she loved reading and came from a family who talked about politics.

They’d got smatterings of culture I’d say. I remember I went to me father’s mother’s and they read these trashy magazines and me mother said, ‘Don’t be reading those’. Now Woman’s Weekly and Woman’s Illustrated were a little bit more posh.

It was from her mother that Edna developed her taste for the novels of Ethel M Dell – ‘They were all tragedies, weren’t they?’

Yes, and I remember standing at Firth Park bus stop waiting for a bus from school and I was reading this Ethel M Dell stood at the bus stop. He said, “Do you like those?” I said, “Oh, I love them”, but I’d only be about 12 or 13 and he was an elderly man. And when I look back I think well there was a tragedy on every page!

 

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Edna thinks her mother would have been lent these books by a friend. The only books Edna’ parents owned were her father’s Sunday School prizes. Though her mother read, she never had time to go to the library. In the depression Edna’s mother went out cleaning and then in the Second World War she got some office work. Indoors she was always knitting and sewing. ‘She was ever so industrious.’

When I was at Junior school I had a very far-seeing teacher and she had a little library and we used to borrow those books from her bookshelf. We were supposed to write a little commentary about what we thought but I can’t remember doing it. But they’d have Swallows and Amazons, William books and those sorts of books … Anne of Green Gables and the Dimsie books.

When she won a place at the Central Grammar School, Edna became conscious of the opportunities she and her family had not had. Her friend’s father was a policeman.

They seemed to live in luxury compared to us. They got their rent paid and things like that. Her mother had got time to go to the library and things like that. But, I mean, we had standards, and me mother was a bit [pause] she liked us to speak properly and we always said Grace, you know, and we went to Sunday school, and er, she was a believer, but she, we weren’t, well, she hadn’t time, but they did go on High Days and Holidays.

Edna’s grammar school was round the corner from the Central Library at the top of which was the Graves Art Gallery. ‘We took our sandwiches in there! Well, you got away from school, you see.’

Then, when Edna was married, in her twenties, she found herself in the Derbyshire countryside, a mile from the nearest bus-stop so her reading became dependent on the mobile library: James Thurber, books on antiques – ‘I hadn’t a hope of having an antique!’ Then her sister joined a book club and passed on the thrillers she had bought. She immersed herself in whatever she read. One day her husband came home and found her in tears.

And he said “Who’s upset you? Who’s upset you?” I said, “That little dog’s died”. You know I really lived it! I lived it!

One of the books that has remained with her all her life is Thomas Armstrong’s Crowthers of Bankdam set in the wool mills of West Yorkshire.

You can’t call it trashy, but a bit earthy. The boys played rugby. I mean, as opposed to football. They were middle class people, you know. The girls would have a reasonable education and perhaps went to boarding school but they were, hierarchy, and it was a series. You could follow them on.

Though she enjoyed J.B. Priestley and Arnold Bennett in the early fifties, it was in the sixties, when the family returned to Sheffield, that Edna went to Richmond College and developed reading tastes for some of the authors on her A level literature course: Graham Greene, Gorky and Steinbeck – ‘The Grapes of Wrath, I adored that’. Less to her taste was James Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist: ‘it was so repressed’. This was the only time in Edna’s life that she regularly bought books for herself. When she was a girl she might buy secondhand books from a stall in Norfolk Market or the Girls’ Crystal from the local newsagent, but apart from her college days Edna relied either on libraries or friends for her books. Her college courses changed more than her book-buying habits. When Edna enrolled for her social science course her mother ‘went mad’.

‘ You’ve had three children and there you are going to college!’ I thought mother, ‘I’m nearly going out of my head here’. It was a life saver going up there.

You can access Edna’s audio and transcript here