While my father’s reading and book acquisition was driven by his cultural aspirations, my mother’s choice of books was more influenced by a search for a combination of pleasure and reassurance. She frequently reminisced about the pleasures of her own early reading, apparently in hopes that we would be drawn to the same books. So the didactic John Ploughman’s Pictures which had been one of her Sunday School prizes, George MacDonald’s The Princess and Curdie, and At the Back of the North Wind as well as Gene Stratton Porter’s Freckles were recurring features in a kind of oral bibliography which she often rehearsed for us. She never read aloud to us from any of these favorites, so, for the most part, only their titles impinged on our consciousness. I did not, I think, read any of them at the time. I remember glancing through John Ploughman’s Pictures and being mystified about what could possibly have been thought to be of interest in its dry didactic narratives. I attempted At the Back of the North Wind, and was charmed at first by the illustrations,
but could get no further than the early chapter in which the North Wind discusses with the boy Diamond her mission to sink a ship, drowning all on board. Holding on to Diamond with one arm, she tells him that she needs, “only . . . one arm to take care of you; the other will be quite enough to sink the ship.” A grim theodicy is incorporated in the subsequent discussion in which the North Wind justifies the “cruelty” of her sinking of the ship by claiming its inevitability and by the argument that the victims are not really being drowned but merely taken to the paradisical “back of the North Wind.” Too appalled by the prospect of the shipwreck to continue, I never followed the story’s inevitable trajectory to the final page and the death of the now-nearly-angelic Diamond.
Like her own mother before her, my mother was also an exponent of “escaped literature,” so that characters and incidents from the printed page were often mingled with anecdotes about real individuals. More frequently, she would fuse elements with separate print origins together in a single narrative. Thus, my first encounter with King Lear was in a version in which Cordelia was merged with an earlier prototype probably derived from the version of the folktale collected by Joseph Jacobs as “Cap O’Rushes.”
Cordelia’s “Nothing” in response to Lear’s question to his daughters, “Which of you . . . doth love us most?” made no appearance in this version. Instead, the young girl is banished by an angry father for having offered the answer, “as much as fresh meat loves salt,” to the question “How much do you love me?” Unlike Shakespeare’s play, this version has a happy ending when an entirely saltless meal precipitates the father’s remorse. Similarly, the local folktale of the Mermaid of Zennor, in which the mermaid tempts a sweet-singing choirboy to her underwater kingdom, was entangled in my mother’s version with Matthew Arnold’s “Forsaken Merman” in which the merman’s lost, formerly human, wife is lured back into a human existence abandoning her mer-family,” . . .There dwells a lov’d one,/But cruel is she./She left lonely for ever/ The kings of the sea.”
Nearly all of the several thousand books that occupied wall space in various rooms in our house were my father’s acquisitions: some left over from his college days, others bought more recently from secondhand bookshops, and still more acquired for him by my mother in her auction-room forays. The handful of books that my mother had bought for herself or had been given to her over the years were sprinkled thinly through the collection. Some of these dated back to her girlhood—a little leather-bound edition of Matthew Arnold’s poems carefully inscribed with her name and full address in a childish hand,
and a similarly inscribed World’s Classics edition of Tennyson’s poems. Most of the novels she read were borrowed from the local public library, but in the late 1920s and early 1930s she had bought her own copies of novels by Mary Webb and Constance Holme and a few others. A surprising life-long favorite, which she must have bought in the 1920s, was A.S. Neill’s semi-autobiographical novel
Carroty Broon. Neill, who later became famous for founding the radically progressive Summerhill school, based his novel on his own early childhood in Scotland. Her enthusiasm for Neill’s novel was surprising, partly because the Scottish setting and dialect-heavy dialogues would have been distant from her own experience. But she was also adamantly opposed to any educational philosophy that offered such radical autonomy to children—what she referred to derisively as “Free discipline,” usually with the mantra, “Free discipline—free Hell.” Neill’s promotion of “free discipline” was legendary and, by the time the school was established at its present site in Suffolk, was being referred to the in popular press under such titles as “The do as you please school.” Neill’s progressive approach to child-rearing was evidently so atypical that, in 1949, Picture Post ran a cover story with photographs of Neill’s daughter Zoe under the title “The Child Who Never Gets Slapped,” –a headline that speaks volumes about the ubiquity of child-slapping at the time. Apparently my mother was able to detach her dislike of Neill’s educational theories and practices from his fictionalized version of a Scottish childhood. She recommended Neill’s book so frequently and with such high praise that, by the time I was nine or ten, I was persuaded to read it for myself. I read and re-read it several times at that age, always with a sense of apprehension because of the section of the book in which the main character’s sister dies, and over which I consistently shed bitter tears. I now remember nothing else about the novel. Both the sister’s name and the circumstances of her death have vanished entirely. But forever memorable is the passage that gave me my first encounter with one of the sharpest realities of grief which I did not directly experience for myself till several decades later. Some weeks after his sister’s death, the young Carroty is walking home from school and reflecting on some incident that has happened in the day. He begins to rehearse how his retelling of the incident will amuse his sister and then suddenly remembers that she is dead and will hear no more such stories. The psychological truth of such odd lapses of awareness, even though it was, at the time, remote from my own experience, combined with compulsive re-readings to embed that fragment of Neill’s book firmly in my mind long after the rest of his novel had evaporated from my memory.
My mother’s liking for the regional novels of such writers as Mary Webb and Constance Holme arose partly from their nostalgic evocation of rural or village life. She frequently referred to her childhood in a nearby village as an example of a community in which people showed real concern for the well-being of their neighbours. Her experience as the indulged only child of parents who held fairly privileged positions in the village– her mother the former school headmistress, and her cobbler father a local councilor and owner of several rental properties—must have helped to cast her memories in a warmer light.
She owned copies of all but one of Holme’s now nearly-forgotten novels. Holme’s work had enjoyed a surprising prestige during my mother’s youth, extending even to their selection (almost unknown for a still-living writer) for publication in Oxford’s World’s Classics series. Holme’s novels celebrate the stability of hierarchical social relationships in rural societies and mourn the disappearance of the “centralizing power [of] the mansion of a big estate” which provided a “background against which you could see yourself,” as she writes in her 1925 novel The Things Which Belong. Certainly the influence of such a centralizing power was a dominant feature of my mother’s early years. The Pendarves family not only owned a large estate surrounding their mansion, but had also owned a controlling interest in the tin and copper mines in which her grandfather and uncles had toiled until the decline of Cornish mines scattered such miners to distant corners of the globe. Both my parents were highly ambivalent about the power and influence exerted by the Pendarves family. My father recalled the flood of resentment aroused in his early childhood when sitting with his mother in a Truro tea-room in his early boyhood and overhearing “Squire” Pendarves talking loudly and proprietarily to a friend about “my village.” When the Pendarves mansion, already severely damaged by the American soldiers who had been billeted there, was demolished soon after the end of World War II my mother went to chat with the demolition crew in hopes of scavenging something of use. She also recalled rather gleefully the sight of the Pendarves’ eldest son taking a horse and cart through the village, selling wood from the estate, after the family had fallen on hard times. At the same time there was always a contradictory element of forelock-tugging in the tone used whenever the Pendarves name was spoken.
Many of the novels of village life that my mother liked evoked villages with a cast of characters entirely unlike the village of her own girlhood. D.E. Stevenson’s Miss Buncle books, which she borrowed repeatedly from the public library, were set in a village whose dramatis personae consisted entirely of a vicar, squire, retired military officers and various other similarly genteel figures. Farm labourers, artisans and even tradespeople, were completely off the narrative and social map. Part of the charm of these cozy and mildly amusing narratives for her was, I suspect, the frequency with which the main character was an unmarried woman leading a satisfying single life. In some of these favorites, like Winifred Holtby’s South Riding, the central character was also a schoolteacher as my mother herself had been prior to her marriage. No wonder then that when the “Miss Read” novels—mild comedies of manners centering on the observations of a village schoolmistress– began to appear in the mid 1950s she regularly sought them out at the public library. Part of the appeal of such books for her was their village setting as well as the evocation of nostalgia about teaching for one whose own teaching career had been suspended by her marriage. The books had a reassuring predictability, not only in their unadventurous content, but in the sheer regularity of their appearance. Their publisher, Michael Joseph, could be relied upon to release a new “Miss Read” book on the first Thursday in September for over a decade, with each new volume appearing on public library shelves not long after publication.
Narratives of village or rural life were especially appealing to her if connected with a familiar local landscape. Derek Tangye’s series of books about his life in a cottage near Porthcurno, focused on various resident animals and minor incidents of domestic life. Titles like A Gull on the Roof, A Cat in the Window, A Donkey in the Meadow, consistently noted as “heartwarming” in blurbs and reviews, were regularly brought home from the library. She was particularly proud of having a personal connection with another Cornish writer, Anne Treneer, author of the childhood memoir, Schoolhouse in the Wind, and Cornish Years, a reminiscence of her college education and early years as a schoolteacher. Treneer had been my mother’s English teacher at the local grammar school and, as well, had rented a cottage from my grandparents. They, along with other villagers, appear in one of the chapters of Cornish Years, and both my grandmother and mother often proudly mentioned these references. They were flattered to find their names in a book, even as faintly amusing village “characters.”
My mother’s pride in the Treneer connection may have originated in the prestige of a personal aquaintanceship with a published author, but it was sustained by her fascination with Anne Treneer’s apparent independence from conventional restrictions. During the time the author taught at the grammar school she used a motorcycle to explore the area, a detail which always figured in my mother’s recollections of that time as well as in Treneer’s happy reminiscences about her Velocette in Cornish Years. Similarly, my mother recalled visiting her former teacher years later and finding her fuelling the fireplace in her rented seaside cottage with an enormous driftwood spar that she had just scavenged from the beach. In all these reminiscences Anne Treneer seemed to embody an insouciant air of independence, a relishing of her own solitary company and an unconcern about conventional behavior. In the letters and postcards from her that arrived from time to time throughout my childhood, she always seemed free to travel at will. We imagined, I think, that this apparently carefree independence, came with the role of being “an author.” It was, of course, mainly made possible by Treneer’s generally frugal tastes and habits. Also, it’s likely that travel funds came from the author’s older brother, Maurice, who had emigrated to the US and become senior chemist at Miles Laboratories in Elkhart, Indiana. He is credited with creating the original formula for Alka-Seltzer, a product whose launch was fortuitously timed to coincide with a flu epidemic as well as the end of Prohibition. While he does not seem to have personally owned the patent to that lucrative cure for hangovers and other malaises,a number of other patents in his name, as well as his salary as head chemist at Miles Laboratories, would have enabled him to be generous in funding holidays for his sister.
While other women’s “light reading” consisted of romantic novels offering fantasies of happy-ever-after marriages as the only desirable conclusion to the narrative, the dominant fantasy in my mother’s reading seems to have been the life of contented singlehood. Even novels structured seemingly around some version of the standard romantic template often contained a subtext implying that the central female character might well have been better off staying single. The dull ex-pat existence that the un-named heroine of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca shares with her husband Maxim De Winter once they are exiled from Manderley is a far cry from the eventual harmony of the Jane/Rochester marriage with which Jane Eyre ends—“To be together is for us to be at once as free as in solitude, as gay as in company” offers Bronte’s narrator. By contrast, the persistent ennui of the De Winter couple’s expatriate existence is relieved only by English newspapers with Test Match results and “even the billiard scores.” Although Rebecca consciously parallels Jane Eyre in many respects, the picture of married life Du Maurier evokes seems to be one of grim mutual accommodation enhanced only by elite social status.
Like many women readers of her generation, my mother admired Du Maurier’s novels and extended her admiration to curiosity about the writer’s life, reading as much biographical and autobiographical material as she could find. She was delighted by Du Maurier’s sister, Angela’s memoir, It’s Only the Sister when it appeared in 1951. Since both Du Maurier and her sister lived in Cornwall they had the added appeal as far as my mother was concerned of being “local” so that anecdotes from such memoirs became a species of gossip. She could also claim an indirect connection to Du Maurier because one of her first postings as a supply teacher had been to the remote moorland village of Warleggan whose famously eccentric vicar Frederick William Densham was believed to have served as model for the sinister Francis Davey in Du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn. Densham supervised the tiny church school where my mother had taken over from the ailing resident teacher, but she remembered him as a nervous recluse quite unlike the menacing Davey created in Du Maurier’s fiction. Like many women readers of her generation, my mother was more attracted to Rebecca than to the more obviously Gothic Jamaica Inn. The extent to which Rebecca penetrated popular culture is hard to underestimate. It’s had an extraordinarily resilient afterlife, insinuating itself into other books, frequently being tagged as the favorite escapist reading of female characters in bestselling fiction by Stephen King and others. Edna O’Brien, recalling the scarcity of reading material in the “fervid” and “enclosed” village where she grew up in County Clare remembers that the only work of fiction available was Du Maurier’s Rebecca which a woman in the village “loaned out by the page, but not consecutively.”
Du Maurier’s novels are full of status-anxiety qualms of a kind with which my mother would have been familiar. The main character in Rebecca is relieved that her brushes and combs laid out on the dressing table, “were new, they had cost money, I need not be ashamed of them.” The novel’s intended audience in 1938 would have been alert to such social signifiers as well as to many more of greater subtlety. My mother would have been particularly conscious of the social insecurities of a young woman catapulted into the customary social protocols of the upper middle class mansion. In her own youth she had taken a governess-like position for the two little daughters of a wealthy Devon family. She remembered being present at numerous family dinner parties attended by guests whose names and reputations she had only previously known from the newspapers. In later life she also reminisced about the excitement of the task of taking her two little charges to stay in London hotels for trips to the theatre. It was evidently a heady experience for a young woman from a tiny village who had yet to go to college. The novelty of the formal dinner parties and the theatre trips, was well as her affection for the two little girls in her charge seems to have blunted any serious discomfort at the ambiguity of the nursery governess position in the household, stranded awkwardly between servants (a cook, three housemaids and a gardener) and employers.
The reference letter written by the girls’ mother when Alice left her employment praises her ability as a teacher, but, before noting her skill at telling stories and playing games with the children, remarks, “I have found Miss Bastion quite trustworthy,” rather as if one in such a position should be suspected of stealing the spoons. But quite aside from the inevitable pressure of an unfamiliar social environment, the ambiguous status of her role as governess came at a significant cost. At some point during the two years she stayed with the family she became seriously ill with scarlet fever. In the pre-penicillin days of the 1920s scarlet fever was frequently very serious, often morphing into rheumatic fever, and always requiring elaborate quarantine measures. Unwilling to have their household quarantined because of the effect on their social engagements, her employers never called in a medical doctor. In later life she attributed her chronic heart complaint to damage to the heart muscle consequent to the untreated scarlet fever. No wonder that one of her favorite anecdotes, perhaps deriving from something she’d read, was one featuring a servant and the mistress of the house. The new housemaid responds to the mistress’ request for a glass of milk by handing the glass to her directly. “No Mary, you must bring it on a tray. “Mary” then reappears, carrying a tray on which the contents of a glass of milk is sloshing around. “Will you have a spoon, or will you lap it up?” she asks. For Alice, the besting of the mistress by the housemaid’s feigned ignorance, spiced with the mistress’s implied reduction to the level of a cat gave the tiny anecdote a lasting charm .
After leaving her post as a nursery governess and training as a teacher, she became a rural supply teacher, filling in at remote village schools for staff who were absent through illness. To judge from her later reminiscences about this period, these postings in tiny village schools were the happiest times of her youth.
She relished being given full charge of such widely varying and unpredictable schools and in many cases saw herself as imposing a kind of benign inter-regnum in schools where thrashing with a cane was a daily occurrence. She was enthusiastic about the practical skills that formed a large part of the school curriculum of the time. Letters of reference that she preserved all her life speak approvingly of her encouraging children’s interest in nature study. Many schools had their own gardens and her copy of A Teacher’s Handbook of School Gardening (1927) which had been a textbook when she was a college student has her careful underlinings throughout. That the little textbook would remain throughout her entire life among the handful of books she owned suggests something of the nostalgia she felt for that period of her life. Her copy of the 1927 guide to wildflower identification, Waltham’s Common British Wildflowers was passed to me as soon as I could read well enough to match its descriptions with the plants we identified in the hedgerows on local walks.
It must have been around this time too that she formed a never-to-be-realized scheme that she spoke of with regret to the end of her life. Like my father, she must have been impressed by the popularity of poetry anthologies in the period between the wars. She began devising her own anthology for school-age children. How far she pursued this is not clear, but at some point she discovered something about the costs associated with permissions for selections still under copyright and abandoned the project as impracticable. That copyright and permissions had become an issue suggests the possibility that she may have reached the point of approaching a publisher, although this was never mentioned in her accounts of suspending the venture. The planned anthology and her lifelong regret at its non-fruition seem rather at odds with her reading preferences.
She owned a 1940 edition of Alice Meynell’s
Collected Poems, which she might have bought in the early years of her marriage and spoke of Meynell in reverential tones, but I don’t remember her ever quoting from or referring to any particular poem. As far as I can tell, poetry reading for her own pleasure, doesn’t seem to have figured in her reading habits. It may be that she thought of “children’s poetry” as a special separate category. Certainly she read to us from Stevenson’s Child’s Garden of Verses with an air of conferring a special treat, although I don’t recall regarding it as a particular favorite of my own.
Aside from light novels which offered the escapist fantasy of a contented single life in a congenial village, much of her preferred reading was of a practical nature focusing on domestic improvement. In the first year of their marriage either she or my father had invested in a series of books published by Odhams offering advice on family life. The eleven volumes in the series ranged from Practical Home Secrets, and The Practical Home Doctor to the promised comprehensiveness of Real Life Problems and their Solutions. Presumably these titles failed to deliver the all-encompassing answers they promised. By the time I was old enough to be browsing the bookshelves these volumes were languishing unread next to Prestcott’s Conquest of Mexico in a rarely-visited bookcase in the front room. I recall that one of the series featured a line drawing of a small boy crouched on the floor with an open paper bag was ominously captioned, “Sweets, like alcohol, create a craving,” a warning that seemed cruelly superfluous during the sugar-rationing that prevailed during the time I pored over its pages. At least as grim in the same series was The Complete Home Entertainer purporting to provide “Games and Amusements for the Entire Family.” These consisted of card tricks, party games and “brain teasers.” One of the amusements suggested was a family “picnic” to be held indoors with helpful tips on how a real outdoor picnic could be mimicked. Happily the grim fraud of such advice about family amusements was largely ignored. When amusement for the “entire family” was called for, at Christmas-time for example, the laboured contrivances suggested by the Odhams books were never involved. Instead year after year we played an absurdly simple but entirely absorbing game called, “Tip” which my father and his oldest brother remembered from their childhood. It consisted of a sixpence being passed covertly between players of one team while the opposing team across the table had to guess the coin’s holder by interpreting the facial expressions of the other side.
It’s no wonder, however, that my parents seemed to have felt the need of acquiring primers in the conduct of family life quite soon after their wedding, which had been held early in a December morning of 1938 with only a couple of witnesses in attendance. Both within sight of middle age, sexually inexperienced, and neither of them possessing a familiarity with any domestic situation other than living at home or in a boarding house, they were equally ill-equipped to launch into married life. For my mother, the culinary challenge was probably only one of many. As an indulged only daughter she had barely learned the most basic of cooking skills from her mother. The two cookery books given to her at the time of her marriage probably offered more intimidation than help. One of these was the 1902 edition of Mrs Beeton
that had been acquired by her mother at the time of her own marriage four decades earlier. The advertisements on its endpapers for patented infant foods—“NO FOOD for Infants equals Robinson’s Patent Barley with Milk upon which it acts as a digestive—BABIES CANNOT DIGEST FOOD ALONE” and “Steedman’s Soothing Powders For Children Cutting Teeth—In Use Over Fifty Years” offer a grim insight into the child-rearing practices of the time. An older publication, Warne’s Model Cookery and Housekeeping, was, if possible, even less help. With elaborate illustrations of pheasant-trussing, and detailed instructions on how to fold table napkins in the shape of water lilies, the intended audience was a mistress of a large household with numerous servants. The napkin-folding, for example, is described in the section headed “Duties of the footman” which notes that the footman’s main role is “to make himself generally useful, though, of course, the number of men kept will diminish or increase his work.” My mother’s edition, though undated, seems to date from the 1890s and may even have belonged to her grandmother before being passed on to her mother. Hard to imagine that the mother of eleven children in a tiny servantless farmhouse could possibly have derived much use from Warne’s “Complete Instructions in Household Management” or have attempted any of the elaborate recipes it describes.
My mother’s account of her early efforts at cooking included the regular refrain, “I ate my failures for lunch,” hinting at the depressing task of embarking on a second attempt at evening meal preparation with a digestion labouring with the previous “failure.” Her culinary efforts must have been further hampered by wartime and post-war rationing and by my father’s reluctance to eat anything outside of the narrow range of familiar foods. Despite receiving minimal encouragement or appreciation, she evidently yearned to become a more enterprising cook. This enthusiasm, undimmed by my father’s indifference or by the years of food rationing, led her to buy Patience Gray and Primrose Boyd’s Plats du Jour when it was published by Penguin in 1957, with the subtitle “or Foreign Food.” There would have been little chance of her making such dishes as paella or ratatouille, then considered exotic if not outlandish, even if my father had been willing to eat them. Decades would pass before many of the necessary ingredients could be found in local shops, a reality to which Boyd and Gray seem to have been cheerfully oblivious. Their introductory section on basic supplies advocates not only olive oil, but specifies that the oil should be Italian, and preferably from Lucca. In 1957, even in larger towns and despite the influence of Elizabeth David’s books, olive oil was obtainable only in chemist’s shops in tiny bottles of unknown provenance and used as a remedy for earache.
The cultural aspirations that shaped my father’s book-buying and reading seem to have played no particular role in my mother’s relationship to books. She possessed few books of her own, and relied heavily on the local public library—a building my father never entered. But both her reading for practical information and her tastes in fiction show a comparable vague yearning for a world of wider possibilities. Unlike him, she never yearned for the cultural weight of literary “greats” or the approval of the “bookmen” arbiters of taste. Her resolutely middlebrow reading choices offered fantasies of the imagined freedom of the independent single women who figured so prominently in her choice of novels. Even the “practical” guides to domestic life inhabited the realm of fantasy, offering the alluring mirage of a daily life transformed so that meals might, as Boyd and Gray promised, evoke “ a little railway inn . . . in Normandy . . .a courtyard in Sienna surrounded by oleander pots, or . . . some colonnaded inn in Calabria.”