Kathleen Jones: Reading My Mother's Reading Diary
I sporadically keep a log of what I read. I always start off with good intentions, write them all down for a few weeks and then get caught up in other things, leaving the pages blank. Only a few out of the thousands of books I’ve read since I left school have been recorded.
But, when my mother died a few years ago I discovered among her things a series of little notebooks that were a record of her reading from 1948 until the week before she died, with very few gaps. She was a voracious reader and had a book in her hand when she slipped into her last coma.
In her notebooks she wrote the month, title and author and gave each book a star rating that reflected how much she had enjoyed it. I’ve found it fascinating to go back and discover who were the most fashionable authors of each decade. She also read the classics widely - particularly Dickens and Doestoevsky, but not much Hardy or Jane Austen. Trollope and Walpole were among her favourites. Her notebooks are also a stark reminder of all the best-selling books that have slipped from view. It’s a veritable Cemetery of Forgotten Authors. Norah Lofts, Margaret Trouncer, Susan Howatch, Catherine Gaskin, Anya Seton, Margaret Irwin...... How many of them are read now?
In the 1940s she was reading Margaret Irwin’s ‘Royal Flush’ (3 stars) and Richmal Crompton’s ‘There are Four Seasons’ (2 stars). Hands up anyone who knew that Richmal Crompton wrote adult fiction? Marie Corelli, Hillaire Belloc and Mrs Humphrey Ward feature frequently on the pages of this first notebook. I have to confess that, though the names are vaguely familiar, I haven't read any of these authors apart from Richmal Crompton's Just William, (and I thought she was a bloke!) Mum had a longing to visit far away places - ‘Journey to Samarkand’ by Rosita Forbes and ‘The Bridge of San Luis Rey’ (Thornton Wilder) only two examples of titles that fed her wanderlust and she read every book ever written about the Egyptian pyramids and Tutankhamen's tomb.
During the fifties she gobbled up Mary Webb, Axel Munthe, Arthur Koestler and her taste in titles ranged from ‘The Nun’ to the ‘Sorrows of Satan’. By the end of the decade it was Elizabeth Jane Howard, Neville Shute, Pearl Buck and Howard Spring that caught her attention. In the sixties, when her life was going through some big upheavals, she discovered Elizabeth Bowen and Patrick White and began to read more and more historical fiction. I can remember her reading every Jean Plaidy ever published and then Edith Pargeter and Ellis and Maureen Peters.
As Mum settled into middle age, it was biography that drew her - she loved Elizabeth Longford’s books, but not Antonia Fraser (too much detail not enough story) - and then developed a taste for celebrity memoirs, particularly the film star icons of her youth. She was also reading contemporary authors avidly, sometimes 7 books a month - Paul Gallico, Monica Dickens, Pamela Hansford Johnson, Sally Beauman, Margaret Drabble, Barbara Pym, Maeve Binchy, Paul Scott - she devoured their entire catalogues recording every one in her neat copperplate script. It was a rare book that got five stars, but the Jewel in the Crown got them, underlined.
In the 1990s and into the twenty first century she became fascinated by political memoirs, however weighty the tomes - loving Alan Clark, Michael Heseltine, Alastair Campbell - I can remember her exclaiming over the revelations as she read. She liked foreign correspondents and political commentators too - particularly Katie Adie, John Simpson and George Alagiah. Ill and unable to sleep in her last years she would read for hours in bed at night - often raunchy romances verging on erotica or historical best-sellers like Philippa Gregory - books that didn’t need too much concentration. I was amazed at the breadth of her reading.
|Mum just after the war|
Mum was a compulsive reader, and it was something she passed on to me - I remember as a child going down the track with her to wait for the traveling library to come. We both chose as many books as we were allowed and it was a disaster if they didn’t last the full three weeks until the library came again. For my mother it was an addiction she was slightly ashamed of, a guilty pleasure. I remember her stuffing her book behind the sofa cushions when a neighbouring farmer’s wife came to call. They didn’t read much in the hills - in fact some of our older neighbours were illiterate and used to bring bills and letters from the bank for my mother to decipher.
One question did keep bothering me - as a busy parent and hill farmer’s wife, wherever did she find the time to read all those books between milking cows and feeding hens? But of course, we lived on remote hill farms and small crofts, without electricity, so no television. Oil lamps in the living room and candles in the bedroom. It feels like distant history now, but it was the last few decades of the twentieth century. I suspect that rural pockets of Britain, untouched by modern life, still exist, beyond the reach of the e-book and the i-pad.
Would my mother have used a Kindle? You bet she would - anything that gave her access to books! But what do I do with her notebooks now? Surely someone, somewhere, would like to archive the ordinary reading diary of an ordinary woman for posterity?
Kathleen Jones blogs at http://kathleenjonesdiary.blogspot.com
and you can find her website at www.kathleenjones.co.uk
Some of her books are available as e-books including the following:
|Three and Other Stories|
|A Passionate Sisterhood|
But Norah Lofts is not forgotten! My mother was a great fan, and passed her books on to me. I've read most of them, and loved most of them - and they're available on kindle.
Your mother reminds me of my own mother, though mine lived in the industrial Black Country, not on a remote farm. But my mother grew up during the war, was working-class and uneducated - but she read avidly. (Although, if I'm honest, her writing, spelling and grammar were very poor.) Mom had television, but much preferred to read a book (unless Buzzcocks or Have I Got News For You was on.)
Would my Mom have used a kindle? She avoided using technology as much as possible - wouldn't touch the music-players or computers or video ('Then you can't blame me for breaking them.') But I think she might have used a kindle... Or, more likely, she would have learned how to switch it on and turn the pages, and got us to do everything else.
(And also very impressed Susan, at your mother enjoying BUZZCOCKS!)
I agree with Cally - this is a book just waiting to be published. I'd buy it & it would appeal to the Persephone Books market (cf Nicola Beaumann's A VERY GREAT PROFESSION.)
Susan Howatch isn't completely forgotten. I read her & recommend her whenever I get the opportunity.
And thanks too Julia for your suggestions about Reading Uni. I will investigate. Myself, I would find it very difficult to part with them, but my children probably won't be interested, or - as there are so many of them - quarrel over ownership. So I think I'd like to leave them to an archive where lots of people could have access if it was of interest. I think there should be a proper record of vernacular history - the lives of ordinary people.
Richmal Crompton I knew was a woman but I had no idea that she had strayed beyond the Williiam stories. She wrote so easily and imbued in me a love of reading and mischief from a young age!
Douglas Adamson in deepest North Yorkshire farming country.
And John - BUZZCOCKS was possibly my mother's favourite programme. She never missed it. I could never understand this myself - but there you go. People are more multiple and various than we think.