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 journeys of Pat and Mary

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

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

Mary’s journey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gertrude and Ernest, the parents of Mary and Pat

Pat’s journey

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

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

Pat, at her sister Mary’s wedding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Many thinks to Ruth for taking these notes.

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

Jean W’s Reading Journey

Jean was born in 1933 and grew up in Sheffield. After leaving High Storrs School she married and had a family. Later on she trained as a teacher of English and French.

Jean’s recollection is that when she was small her parents were very busy and therefore didn’t read to her much. However, she still became an enthusiastic reader.

I learnt to read when I was… I think five, almost as soon as I started school, and got very bored because there wasn’t any stimulation in school.

So at the age of seven she joined the Children’s Library in Sheffield and from then on made weekly trips in search of suitable books. In addition her parents bought her Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopaedia, ‘all twelve volumes which I devoured.’Also from that time Jean remembers Grimm’s Fairy Tales and Hans Christian Anderson.

The library trip was very important. Jean and a friend would go into town for music lessons and then go to the library and also to Andrew’s, a shop in Holly Street which had a lot of children’s books. They saved their pocket money and bought books which they shared.

Jean Wolfendale at High Storrs School 1950

Jean Wolfendale at High Storrs School 1950

Once at High Storrs School she began to read classics like Walter Scott and Jane Austen as well as lighter books, such as The Forsyte Saga, Little Women, W.E Johns’ Biggles books and Malcolm Saville. She remembers getting from the library all Mazo de la Roche’s Jalna novels,

I absolutely loved them. I couldn’t wait to find the next one in the series from the library.mazo-de-la-roche-2

 

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She also read Hugh Walpole and some Dickens and began to move towards adult books. She recalls enjoying the novels of Frances Parkinson Keyes, ‘very meaty, very long novels’. Also Dornford Yates whose books she found ‘screamingly funny’.

I shouldn’t find them funny now but I did then…I used to annoy my parents by sitting in the corner and laughing at the books and they couldn’t understand why. They were fascinating.

Jean’s parents always encouraged her reading and as she puts it

The only other thing to do in the evenings,apart from school work,was to listen to the radio, which obviously we did as a family, but, yes reading was very much encouraged.

The Red Circle Library on Snig Hill,which Jean’s mother belonged to was another important source of books. This stocked popular fiction,such as crime fiction and westerns, not found in the public libraries. By contrast Jean described the latter as ‘very much more erudite’. She read widely and was aware of reading both high- and low-brow books. School was a

very, very strong influence and it was very much, ‘Children, girls, you must read uplifting books’..we were very much discouraged from having, for instance, comics or anything like that. I had something called Girl’s Crystal which was quite a decent comic but you couldn’t possibly have mentioned that in school because that wasn’t the done thing as it were.

She remembers Geoffrey Thorne for light reading and John Buchan, who was seen as ‘more approved of,much more literary’.She and her father shared a liking for Nevil Shute’s books. He also liked Denis Wheatley’s novels but didn’t think they were suitable for Jean; however, she read them on the quiet.

She enjoyed historical fiction, for example, Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda, D.K.Broster and Anya Seton.She tried Georgette Heyer and Jean Plaidy but didn’t particularly enjoy them.She has fond memories of A Traveller in Time by Alison Uttley, ‘That was one that absolutely fascinated me as an early teenager.’

But she devoured all kinds of literature. She belongs now to a group of ex-teachers who swap and talk about books. Of the importance of reading to her, she says,

I can’t imagine a life without it and in fact at the moment I’m beginning to have some trouble with my eyes and I can’t read for long and that is a real hurt, you know.