Dorothy was born in 1931 in Catcliffe, between Rotherham and Sheffield, and grew up there, attending Woodhouse Grammar School. Dorothy became a civil servant, working in careers guidance and employment. She married Derek, who ran his own plumbing and heating business and they had two sons.
Even now I’m always reading, you know…
Always a passionate reader, Dorothy talked of reading in bed from childhood, on the bus to and from work and in the evenings while her husband pursued practical hobbies like joinery and repairing machinery.
I’d often, to be quite honest, read on the buses. I mean you had a long journey sometimes…I still try half an hour in the evenings before I go to sleep in bed. It relaxes me.
But she was conscious of her reading tastes and interests changing over time. ‘I think you alter as you get older on what you like.’
Dorothy’s reading habit was inherited from her mother. She recalled being told Rupert the Bear bedtime stories and then reading for herself: ‘…once I could read, you know, I just didn’t put them down’. This included, you sense, reading to cope with the disruption of the Second World War, when Dorothy remembered standing in her garden and watching Sheffield being bombed in the middle of the night.
The first book Dorothy really loved was the ever-popular Anne of Green Gables by L M Montgomery.
My absolute passion was Anne of Green Gables…I adored all the series. If I’d have had a daughter – which I didn’t. I had two sons – she would have been called Anne…I adored it, and I – I was just absorbed with it.
Within her family, books seemed to be a means of both enjoyment and self-improvement. ‘You know my mother was always encouraging me…in that kind of life.’ Dorothy was unusual in her village in winning a scholarship to Woodhouse Grammar School. There she was introduced, as children usually are, to Shakespeare, Dickens, Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters and other classics. ‘It was always the English that I was good at.’ Meanwhile the war made buying books and much else difficult, and so Dorothy and her mother often borrowed from the private Red Circle library: ‘…I was brought up in an ordinary household but somehow I got the best’.
As she grew older, the reading habit grew stronger. Dorothy’s father was very protective of her, and she spent many evenings reading at home rather than going out.
It may sound strange but I was encouraged in…erm…I mean I never went out. I suppose I was too young in the war but I’d meet some people and they were out dancing and doing all that. Well my father wouldn’t have, he – he was very protective. You could say I missed it really.
Marriage did not stop Dorothy’s reading: ‘…when I got married I had to limit myself to what I did but I’ve always, always loved the reading’. Her husband and mother-in-law were not much interested in books (indeed she thinks her husband was dyslexic), but her father-in-law was, to borrow a phrase from Anne of Green Gables, a ‘kindred spirit’. He told her, for example, about finding a ‘wonderful book’ which she must read: Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca.
And you know, I’d discuss books with him and all sorts and you see my eldest son, his first memory of being taken to a library was being taken by his grandpa.
Dorothy sometimes made compromises between reading and looking after home and family:
…you know I thought I could just be a bit of a monkey and sit down and read and not get on with what I was doing. I mean my husband never bothered, I could have done what I wanted really. I mean you have to look after the children and things and I tried to look after my parents. So you’ve got to fit things in, haven’t you?’
Warwick Deeping’s Sorrell and Son was an example: ‘Oh, yes! Oh I thought that was fantastic. I found it…it absorbed me, yes it did. I didn’t want to put it down.’
By now L M Montgomery had been replaced in Dorothy’s favour by Emily and Charlotte Bronte. She liked Jane Eyre but her favourite was Wuthering Heights. ‘Soooo romantic and now I just think: “oh, not so much”.’ The past was always interesting. Dorothy liked history and so looked for classics like Jane Austen and Anthony Trollope and also lighter, historical novels by writers like Georgette Heyer, Margaret Irwin, Baroness Orczy and Jean Plaidy. But her reading was very wide. She happily quoted: Graham Greene, Kingsley Amis, Margaret Mitchell, Catherine Cookson, Rosamund Pilcher, Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers, P D James, Ellis Peters, Edgar Wallace, Anthony Hope, Nicholas Monsarrat, Dennis Wheatley, Betty Neels, Arnold Bennett, A J Cronin, Nevil Shute, J B Priestley, Somerset Maugham and Howard Spring.
When it came to books vs television and/or film, Dorothy preferred books:
If I’ve read a book and it’s made into a film, I’m disappointed because your mind works with the book and when I read them, they don’t, they’re not the same…I’ve always felt let down… [Filmmakers] don’t go into the detail and I don’t think they realise that when you read your brain is working out and in your brain visually you are imagining the positions and the circumstances…
(Not that Dorothy disliked all adaptations: Great Expectations, Pride and Prejudice and The Forsyte Saga all gave her a lot of enjoyment.)
Dorothy’s sight, hearing and mobility deteriorated as she got older and over time she relied more and more on the home library service and audiobooks. ‘I’ve been very grateful for that, very grateful.’ She let others choose her books but she would give feedback: ‘…sometimes I say “oh I did like that” and then they send me a lot, you know. Because I’m, I’m very choosey and they know exactly what I like’. This did get her into trouble once when a friend picked up a book from the library, which turned out to be more explicit than she usually read. ‘Phft do you like this stuff then?’ he said. Dorothy had to explain how the book had been chosen without her looking at it. Sadly she couldn’t recall the title or author, but she remembered it as ‘very, very embarrassing’.
This reliance on libraries throughout her life gave Dorothy strong views about their value.
‘I was so annoyed when I came here that they sold the library… I thought it was disgusting…and they said “Well, you can go into town” and I thought I’d come here because I was disabled and I thought no library! I thought that was a shame. I hope we don’t lose the libraries.’
After years and years of reading, did Dorothy re-read the favourite books of her youth?
I don’t know about Anne of Green Gables. I absolutely was besotted with it…and I mean now I don’t want to read it. Also I though Wuthering Heights was so romantic, I don’t anymore now, I don’t know, I think it’s a bit over the top. It doesn’t seem quite real. But as young person I was telling everyone that’s my favourite book. I must have been about 20, I don’t know. Yeah, that was my favourite and I don’t think it is anymore. I think you alter as you get older on what you like.
Asked if reading changed her life, Dorothy agreed.
…as I’ve got disabled, I have to say I’d be quite lost without my books because I have to fight against getting depressed. I’m not but…because of how I am, I’m not one for just needlessly sitting about like this. I like to be occupied…I’ve switched off from what I can’t do because I’m filling my life with things that I can and that may sound strange but it’s no good…I’ve reached a good age. I’m 80 in a month and, and I think “well, I’ve done quite well really”.
By Val Hewson
Access Dorothy’s transcript and audio here