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
This record of  60 years of reading fascinates me, and it’s given me a considerable insight into my mother as a person.   She wasn’t born into a particularly literate family - North Shields on the banks of the Tyne, as working class as they come.  But she loved English literature at school and would have become a teacher or librarian if the war hadn’t intervened.  She always said that it stole her childhood and prevented her from going on to college. 

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:

Christina Rossetti
Three and Other Stories
Margaret Cavendish
A Passionate Sisterhood


CallyPhillips said…
Fascinating Kathleen. Absolutely fascinating. And what you should do now is turn them into an ebook! Seriously. I'd read it in a heartbeat. I am so interested in all the 'forgotten' authors and in the changing fashions of reading - and as an 'ordinary' woman reviewing books... give amazon a run for its money eh?
Lee said…
What a wonderful legacy from your mother!
Susan Price said…
Lovely, Kathleen - thank you.
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.
In that list, Dostoyevsky and Arthur Koestler are the two that fascinate me most. It's clear that, even though your mother felt the loss of not going to college, Kathleen, she compensated by reading far more widely and deeply over a lifetime than I suspect the vast majority of people who do go to college ever will. Readers like her are exactly why writers bother producing the books in the first place.

(And also very impressed Susan, at your mother enjoying BUZZCOCKS!)
Jenny Alexander said…
I agree with Cally - I loved reading this article, and I'd definitely buy the book. This kind of nostalgic non-fiction is going to really hit big as the baby-boomers go through their later-life transition into retirement
madwippitt said…
Lovely to see Paul Gallico mentioned in that list too!
Linda Gillard said…
Fabulous post. Thanks, Kathleen. The apple doesn't fall far from the tree. ;-)

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.
Anonymous said…
What a wonderful memento and an insight into reading fashions. My parents were also big fans of Howard Spring and Nevil Shute whom I devoured in my school years. Mum moved on to modern favourites like Margaret Drabble and Margaret Forster - a big favourite in, I guess, the 80s or 90s.Thansk for sharing this record.
Ali B
julia jones said…
I think the answer to your question may be the University of Reading. (And I do mean Redding)I know they had a big reading project there some years ago and I think they were some way into building up an archive. Have you ever read Johnathan Rose's Intellectual Life of the Bristish Working Clases? BRILLIANT book published by Yale some years ago and using just this sort of thing to build up a pic of c19th and ealy c20th reading patterns. It has vg notes so there's probably a clue where these could go. Or my friend Jenny Hartley might know. She's an authority on reading groups. SO when the time comes I'm certain they will find a home. (Though I fear you may find that they are almost impossible to part with)
Kathleen Jones said…
Thank you all for your wonderful suggestions. It hadn't occurred to me that I could make them into a book (and me a writer!). But she also left diaries and letters and now I'm wondering whether I could use the reading diaries as the pivot for an account of her life through the books she read. Mmmmmm Lots of food for thought here.
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.
Douglas Adamson said…
What a lovely memory of your Mum. Her eclectic reading must have been out of place in a remote farming community. Was she covert in her reading with the neigbours or was she 'outed' as a bookworm?

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.
Catherine said…
In New Zealand the Turnbull Library or National Archives are very happy to accept such private documents for archiving. I'm sure there would be somewhere in the UK that would accept them - as you say, the lives of ordinary people are very much of interest to historians these days.
Susan Price said…
The Mass Observation Archive would be another home for them - I think it's based in Bristol University.

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.

Popular posts

A Few Discreet Words About Caesar's Penis--Reb MacRath

A writer's guide to Christmas newsletters - Roz Morris

Margery Allingham and ... knitting? Casting on a summer’s mystery -- by Julia Jones

Irresistably Drawn to the Faustian Pact: Griselda Heppel Channels her Inner Witch for World Book Day 2024.

Got Some Book Tokens? -- by Susan Price