‘I don’t remember a time when I couldn’t read’ (31).
Amy Gomm’s memoir ‘Water Under the Bridge’ is embedded with her love of reading. Throughout the pages of her memoir, she scatters her life experiences that are filled with hardships, love, happiness and loss. Throughout all her experiences of these emotions and feelings, reading seemed to offer Amy a form of companionship that may have been lost in her life.
In the beginning of her memoir, Amy does not really mention reading until she begins to depict her school memories. Amy proudly tells her reader, ‘I don’t remember a time when I couldn’t read (to my own satisfaction) and write after a fashion’ (Gomm, 31). Despite Amy’s avid reluctance to conform to an educational system, she is extremely well read and certainly knew how to write to a high standard. Amy is keen to let her reader know that school was not the place were she picked up her reading and writing skills, ‘I certainly didn’t learn at school…It was Mother, I suppose, or some of the bigger boys and girls, who taught me. Dad wouldn’t have time’ (Gomm, 32). From her final statement of that sentence, Amy perhaps suggests that she is able to find companionship in reading which is lacking in her relationship with her father.
Whilst Amy is extremely proud of her abilities to read and write, she only begins to properly share her reading and writing experiences when she turns fourteen. A reason for this could simply be her age: at that time, she was maturing into a young woman and could escape into the world of literature. Another reason could be to mark her family’s departure from their hometown of Charlbury to Oxford. From her memoir, it seems that Charlbury was a somewhat quiet, serene town compared to Oxford – Amy was moving right into the midst of city life. Therefore, maybe her experiences of reading helped her find serenity that she lost after her departure from Charlbury. In 2011, a general census recording the population of Charlbury as having only 2,830 people living there. Whereas, the population of Oxford has a population of 682,400. The vast difference in numbers in population of these two places in the 21st century, indicates just how different experiences of living in the two would be.
Amy mentions how herself and her siblings were not allowed to read newspapers for most of their lives. However, Amy at fourteen was allowed to read newspapers whilst Laurie at sixteen was still not allowed to read a newspaper, ‘Nobody bothered to “supervise” my reading. Had Mother thought about that? I read anything I could lay hands on, if I had the time’ (Gomm, 106). This clearly shows how important reading was to Amy as she would read anything she could find.
However, Amy tells her reader how Laurie was not granted the same freedom to read, ‘Not so Laurie. For her newspapers were banned. So were most books. Mrs. Henry Wood entered our Hurst Street home, but she remained hidden when Dorothy wasn’t actually reading her’ (Gomm, 106). Perhaps Amy’s parents did not think she was as impressionable as her siblings so she had the freedom to red gory tales that Laurie did not. Dorothy’s action of hiding the novel by Mrs. Henry Wood is what entices Laurie into reading the book.
Amy tells her reader that, ‘From the comments and glances, Laurie knew that Lord Oakburn’s daughter was high on the secret list’ (Gomm, 106). Lord Oakburn’s Daughter (1864) seems to recount crimes and fears that Amy’s parents did not deem acceptable for teenage girls to read. There is no mention of her brothers or father enjoying any type of reading experience throughout the memoir. Martyn Lyons suggests that from the nineteenth century, ‘Women formed a large and increasing part of the new novel-reading . public. The traditional discrepancy between male and female literacy rates was narrowed, and finally eliminated by the end of the nineteenth century’ (Lyons, 315).
My next blog post will further explore Amy’s experiences of reading and writing. I will also discuss how her passion for this eventually shapes her career.
324 GOMM, Amy Frances, ‘Water Under the Bridge’, TS, pp.163 (c.55,000 words). Brunel University Library.
Lyons, Martyn, “New Readers in the 19th century: Women, Children, Workers”, in A History of Reading in the West, eds. G.Cavallo and Roger Chartier. Oxford: Polity, 1999, 313-44.
Sketch of books – www.pinterest.com/pin/489836896945530223/
Oxford City –
Cover of Lord Oakburn’s Daughters –