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’.

flower-estate-sheffield

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.

 

little-anne-madeline-brandels

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!

 

ethel-m-dell

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 

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