Daisy Cowper (1890 – 1985): Reading & Writing

Writing is something Daisy had considerable competency with, as evidenced by the sheer volume of text in her memoir. She writes with great flair, skill and accuracy – though being a teacher, you would expect nothing less of Daisy with regards to the latter. Reading and education are obviously a large factor in Daisy’s life, and she makes reference to instances where either she herself or her family read. Though it is detailed more in Agnes’s biography, both of the Cowper parents were literate, with Agnes claiming that their father ‘was well read and could have claimed to be an authority on the works of Shakespeare and Scott’ (Agnes, 19). Daisy remembers a ‘well-filled bookshelf’ at Hodges Mount, and that her mother would read aloud at the kitchen table to the family frequently.

With the exception of ‘Our favourite’ The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, few works are mentioned by title, despite Daisy recalling the family often reading together; individually or out loud. Religious works, including The Pilgrim’s Progress – itself a religious allegory – are particularly prevalent in the Cowper’s lives, as is their attendance at church. Here and at home, Daisy is exposed to religious readings, hymns and stories. The hymns in particular seemed to stick with Daisy, as she recalls her first as ‘Jesus Bids Us Shine’, which she learnt at St Silias’s school. She remembers how she interprets the line ‘you in your small corner, and I in mine’, as relating to her and her older friends playing  ‘Pussy Four Corners’, and how she saw ‘Jesus in his white sheet, [who] wouldn’t mind being left out all the time: He was so kind. So I understood why we sang about “you in your small corner and I-in-mine”. This instance depicts how Daisy as a small child has attempted to interpret a religious hymn in a way her young mind would have understood, and although unlikely to be what the writer intended, she nevertheless invents a picture of a kindly Jesus which, despite her age, gets the general gist of the message right. Religious services were dreary to young Daisy, ‘As the entire service was so boring to an eight-year-old, I sought entertainment in reading the hymn book.’ Again, Daisy is too young to fully understand the meanings in the religious text, questioning what a ‘Shekinah light’ is, explaining that she knew what ‘gas light with Bray burners’, ‘incandescent light’, and ‘electric light’ were, ‘but Shekinah – no’.

The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan, one of Daisy's mentioned texts.
The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, one of Daisy’s mentioned texts.

While readings by the siblings are recorded more in Agnes’s autobiography, Daisy remembers how brother Herbert, then aged 18 gave a reading at the family’s Church of Christ. ‘His text was: “If any man is in Christ he is a new creature: old things are passed away: behold all things are become new.”‘. Daisy relates that it was more than the family would usually have sat through, but she ‘appreciated the change’ compared to the usual dirge read out. After Herbert had given his sermon, Mr Carruthers, the church leader, calls at number 20 Hodges Mount to ‘suggest that it was not quite befitting for so young a man to speak when there were so many grey heads present.’ Daisy remembers her mother feeling quite hurt at this, and how it was a pity that such a young man should be discouraged from public speaking. The incident did not dissuade Herbert however, as he ‘turned his attention thereafter to social problems, and shortly afterwards a local paper commented on the enthusiastic young Liberal who addressed the passers-by, each lunch-hour, from a cart at the foot of the Wellington Monument – his theme, always, the Taxation of Land Values.’

Daisy makes references to a range of texts other than books and religious material, such as the local newspapers; the Liverpool Echo and Liverpool Express, the latter being no longer in print. She mentions that her mother would often buy the Journal of Commerce to check the status of brother Will’s ship, but unfortunately as ‘the J. of C. cost a penny, and carried no general news, [it] was a poor buy for a housewife’. Fortunately, a local public house kept a copy which was lent to the family upon a penny deposit being left with the owner.

The Cowpers do not appear to fit into a stereotypical working class image of illiterates, or are even fans of “trashy” novels and works. Barbara Herrnstein Smith, president of the Modern Languages Association made the implication that the likes of Shakespeare, and other noted authors such as Dante and Homer, would have no value or worth to the working classes, and do not ‘gratify their interests’ (Barbara Herrnstein Smith, cited by Rose, 53). This is obviously not the case for the family, as they take great pleasure and relish at the opportunity to not only read, but engage with literature. It is evident by the fact Daisy becomes a teacher and Agnes, later a librarian, that literature in various forms had long, profound and lasting influence in perhaps all of the Cowpers lives.

Cowper, Agnes, (1874 – 1963), ‘A Backward Glance on Merseyside’,  Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 1:181

Cowper, Daisy, (1890 – 1985), ‘De Nobis’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography,University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 1:182

Rose, Jonathan, ‘Rereading the English Common Reader: A Preface to a History of Audiences.’ Journal of the History of Ideas. 53. 1 (1992): 47-70 (48)

Image from: ‘Sacred Art Pilgrim.’ http://sacredartpilgrim.com/cache/2d93b7802966fe711a48e7e8782b1924_w600.jpg Nd. Accessed 2 January 2014

 

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