“The feeling that came over me can only be described as Dickensian” (Hutchinson 69)
Eleanor Hutchinson explores her childhood reading habits throughout her memoir ‘The Bells of St Mary’. Although as a theme reading and writing is not explored in the same depth as some of the other themes explored, it still holds a strong significance to Eleanor. Reading for Eleanor was an essential part of her education. From a young age reading allowed Eleanor to realise her aptitude for writing, in particular spelling – “I really took to spelling like a duck to water and later had only to see a word to remember how it was spelt” (Hutchinson 40).
Eleanor’s enjoyment in reading and writing was highly influenced by her mother and father and their persistent reinforcement in the value of education. Like many working class families, “They didn’t dream of their children going to university. Those things were fitting for people of another class.” (Maggie NP). It was simply their hope that their children escape the oppression of a domestic servant or miner. Her mother would bribe Eleanor each week to attend Sunday school – “If I went to Sunday school for so many weeks I would be entitled to go on an outing and have a whole penny as pocket money” (Hutchinson 49). Therefore from a young age, Eleanor linked reading with a reward.
Jonathon Rose suggests in his work ‘Reading the English Common Reader: A Preface to a History of Audiences’ that the working class individual was “often capable of discovering the “great books” on their own” (Rose 49). The suggested independence of working class readers, outside of the classroom (and Sunday School), chimes with Hutchinson’s neglected reference to the works studied within the school room. She does however show her knowledge of Victorian writers such as Charles Dickens – “I had never heard of Dickens but I can assure you that the feeling that came over me can only be described as Dickensian, as though Mr Bumble himself had placed his ghostly, icy hands on me” (Hutchinson 69). This retrospective feeling is suggestive of Eleanor’s “discovering of the “great books” (Rose 49) on her own after leaving school.
Eleanor also explores her opinion of high and low culture in regards to reading habits – “I begrudged buying the local paper, partly because a penny was precious and partly because I did not want to be deflected from my avid reading of Victorian novels” (Hutchinson 9). This comment can be perceived as two fold. Firstly her resentment towards spending a penny is suggestive of her financial status. Even toward the end of the memoir, Eleanor does not attain much financial gain. Secondly this could be interpreted as a comment on the value of particular types of literature. The typically low brow literature of the local paper is an unthinkable degradation from her readings of the Victorian novel.
‘Eleanor Hutchinson’, in John Burnett, David Mayall and David Vincent eds The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography Brighton: Harvester, 1984, vol. 2, no. 429
Hutchinson, Eleanor, ‘The Bells of St Mary’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiography. University of Brunel Library, Special Collection, 2:429
Maggie (Maggs224), ‘Working class life in England in the 1930s. Hubpages, October 2015. http://maggs224.hubpages.com/hub/Working-Class-Life-in-the-1930s
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
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