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.
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.
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.